The head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division wrote in a strongly-worded letter Friday to Los Angeles officials that he was concerned that the mayor and county health director were taking “an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach to continuing stay-at-home requirements.”
The letter from Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, came in response to comments from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who asserted in a “Good Morning America” interview last week that the city will “never be completely open until we have a cure” for the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 3,600 lives in California.
“I think we have to all recognize that we’re not moving beyond Covid-19, we’re learning to live with it,” Garcetti said.
Dreiband also noted recent remarks by Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who said last week that “with all certainty” a form of stay-home restrictions will remain in place for the county’s 10 million residents “for the next three months.” Ferrer later clarified her remarks, saying “while the Safer at Home orders will remain in place over the next few months, restrictions will be gradually relaxed.”
Earlier this month, California began reopening the state’s economy, allowing some retail shops, manufacturers, and logistics businesses to return on May 8. At least 43 of the state’s 58 counties have been allowed to open even further, allowing additional retail shopping and dining in restaurants. Los Angeles, however, where more than 2,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus have been recorded, has moved more slowly.
The DOJ’s warning: Dreiband warned in his letter to Garcetti and Ferrer that the continued restrictions may be “arbitrary and unlawful.”
“Reports of your recent public statements indicate that you suggested the possibility of long-term lockdown of the residents in the City and County of Los Angeles, regardless of the legal justification for such restrictions. Any such approach may be both arbitrary and unlawful,” he said.
While local officials can impose restrictions on citizens to protect their safety during emergencies, Dreiband warned that “the Constitution and federal statutory law prohibit arbitrary, unreasonable actions.”
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” he said.