In mid-March, as the coronavirus raged across New York, Washington State, California and New Jersey, and the crisis in personal protection equipment shortages grew, Dov Charney of Los Angeles Apparel was one of the first clothing retailers to step into the void.
In reopening his Los Angeles factory to produce face masks, Mr. Charney, the former chief executive of American Apparel who was ousted amid allegations of misuse of funds and knowingly allowing sexual harassment, was transformed from industry pariah to champion.
Los Angeles Apparel, his new company, was deemed an essential business. The federal government became a client, Mr. Charney said. The long road to redemption seemed, suddenly, much shorter.
But on July 10, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health ordered Mr. Charney’s manufacturing facility to close: An investigation found over 300 confirmed infections among the garment workers, and four deaths. Three of the deaths were in June, and one in July.
In a news release detailing the closure, the health department cited “flagrant violations of mandatory public health infection control orders” and failure “to cooperate with DPH’s investigation of a reported COVID-19 outbreak.”
This is one of the first forced closures of a factory in Los Angeles because of coronavirus-related outbreaks, according to Jan King, the regional health officer for South and West Los Angeles. Though the health department conducts numerous investigations, they are usually resolved through action with the companies involved.
“Business owners and operators have a corporate, moral and social responsibility to their employees and their families to provide a safe work environment that adheres to all of the health officer directives — this responsibility is important, now more than ever, as we continue to fight this deadly virus,” said Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, in a statement about the closure, which contained a timeline of the investigation.
In a phone call, Mr. Charney called the announcement “media theatrics,” and said: “I don’t think that press release represents the point of view of the people I am working with at the department of health. Some of them have apologized to me. It’s not truthful.”
He also issued a lengthy statement of his own in response, which stated, in part: “In all fairness, it’s morally irresponsible for the Health Department to speak on the infection rates at our factory without also addressing its connection to the issue at large: that the Latino community in Los Angeles is left vulnerable to Covid-19 in a healthcare system that provides no support with testing and no support or assistance for those that test positive.”
Now both Mr. Charney and the health department say they are working together to resolve the issues so the facility can reopen and business (and employment) can continue; both say their only concern is for the safety of the workers.
However, the drama is playing out under a spotlight, because of Mr. Charney’s complicated professional history, and because of recent revelations about the Los Angeles garment sector.
The phrase “Made in the U.S.A.” is often considered as a shorthand for products that are ethically made. But reports over the last years of sweatshop conditions and salary levels — including an investigation by The New York Times into factories in Los Angeles that supply the fast-fashion brand Fashion Nova — have upended that myth.
Los Angeles Apparel opened in 2016, and employs just under 2,000 workers in three buildings according to Mr. Charney. Since the coronavirus began, they have produced, Mr. Charney said, more than 10 million masks, about 80 percent of which have gone to government agencies.
Mr. Charney said all employees had been wearing face coverings, and that machines were spaced six feet apart. He said the equipment and the space were regularly disinfected, and that the company had been regularly testing employees for the last five weeks.
On June 19, a nurse contacted the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health about a potential outbreak at Los Angeles Apparel, according to officials.
The health department opened an investigation, which included a request that the company send over a list of all employees — a request the health department said was not met even after multiple appeals. On June 26, the health department conducted a site visit, and the next day the factory was closed.
According to Ms. King, the violations discovered included cardboard barriers between worker stations, and coronavirus guidance materials that had not been translated into Spanish (the first language of most of the employees). An official also found a lack of training on health protocols such that, when asked by a physician, the employee who was supposed to be screening fellow employees for symptoms could not list what they were — even though they were posted on the wall behind the employee.
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 7, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
What’s the best material for a mask?
Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
While some of the infractions were minor, Ms. King said, there was a sense the company was not taking seriously the documents the health department had sent that listed the changes that need to be made. As a result, the investigation team went from one person to around 10.
The factory reopened briefly on July 9 before being forced to close again.
Mr. Charney disputed almost all of these facts. He said that it was the company itself that first alerted the health department to the situation; that the company had been making best efforts to provide the employee list requested but that there were privacy issues involved; that the cardboard was in addition to social distancing regulations (and had been recommended by a consultant because the virus does not live long on cardboard).
He also said that it was the responsibility of the health department to translate their documents into Spanish — not the responsibility of the company.
The legal department of the health department, he said, had told him the factory could reopen on July 9, though Ms. King said a written document permitting reopening was required first. Mr. Charney attributed the confusion to “miscommunication” in an overburdened department.
“Three hundred is a very concerning outbreak,” Ms. King said of the individuals who had fallen ill.
The factory remains closed, according to the Department of Health statement, until “they can show that the facility is in full compliance with Public Health mandates,” but the hope for both the health department and Mr. Charney is to reopen later this week.
Both sides are, Ms. King said, “in constant touch.” Mr. Charney said he was “learning a lot.”