LOS ANGELES -- When the coronavirus began rapidly spreading in the spring, Los Angeles Apparel was one of many fashion brands that altered operations to make reusable masks.
The company's flamboyant founder, Dov Charney, said in March that his 400 employees were trying to keep up with the desperate need for protection and that he hoped to eventually make 100,000 masks a week.
But authorities now say a coronavirus outbreak has struck Los Angeles Apparel, with more than 300 infections and four virus-related deaths among the manufacturer's workers.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that it first shut down operations at the South L.A. garment manufacturer June 27 after inspectors found "flagrant violations" of public health infection control orders and the company's failure to cooperate with an investigation of a reported coronavirus outbreak. On Thursday, the department ordered the continued suspension of Los Angeles Apparel's operations, officials said Friday.
"The death of four dedicated garment workers is heartbreaking and tragic," county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. "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."
In an interview, Charney said his company's communications with the department have been "a maze of conflicting directions" and called its characterization of Los Angeles Apparel's alleged negligence "outrageous." He said that the company has worked to help all its workers get tested several times over the last few months and that higher infection rates in communities such as South L.A. would naturally be reflected in a factory there.
"We believe that at all times -- since the launch of the epidemic -- we've been doing our best in doing social distancing and following every directive we're aware of," he said. "We're dealing with a massive epidemic that has risen astronomically in our community, in South L.A., and it's manifested itself in our factory."
The outbreak is among the largest at a workplace reported so far in the county. In May, health officials announced outbreaks of COVID-19 had struck nine industrial facilities in Vernon, including five meatpacking plants. The largest outbreak occurred at the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant -- producer of the Dodger Dog -- where 153 of 1,837 employees tested positive for COVID-19 from March to May, the department said then.
Three of the coronavirus-related deaths among Los Angeles Apparel workers occurred in early June, and one occurred in early July, according to health officials.
In its statement, the Public Health Department said a healthcare provider notified it June 19 of a potential outbreak. As part of the department's investigation, health officials asked the company for a list of all employees that they could then compare to testing results that the department had received. The company, they said, failed to provide the list after multiple requests.