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Understanding 'Stay-At-Home' When It's Not in Your Language

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The following article was originally published March 27, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Caitlin Hernandez

Signs outside the Los Feliz Branch Library explain that the library is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | Matt Tinoco/LAist
Signs outside the Los Feliz Branch Library explain that the library is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | Matt Tinoco/LAist

Many people scrambled last week to figure out if they could even leave their homes after getting "stay at home" orders from state and local officials.

But for those who don't speak English, making sure you have the correct information has been even harder.

One problem with the multiple orders that came out of L.A. CountyOrange County and the State of California? The actual documents are still only available in English.

While many state and county websites offer Google Translate, there's an information roadblock once a person has to navigate to an English-only document.

This has some immigrant advocates worried that non-English speakers may be at risk for citations under the new orders if they don't have the right information.


Some counties, including Los Angeles, say they're working on it. In the meantime, some community groups are translating what they can themselves.

Last week, during Orange County's order confusion, a multicultural press conference was held on Facebook Live by VietRISEChíspa and other local activists to address the language issue.

Hairo Cortes, executive director of Chíspa, a Santa Ana-based advocacy group, is one of the many organizers in the area working to get information out to their communities. With a lack of resources from local and state governments, Cortes said people are having to rely on each other for information.

"For Latino communities, at least here in Orange County, broadcast media is a pretty important source of information more than anything else," said Cortes. "And people are sharing information with each other through social media and one-on-one conversations."

With people having to stay home now under the new orders, Cortes has seen a drop in the flow of information between communities and local governments.

"With a lot of different things going on, I think at this moment, there's a big need for just better communication from local government, especially the county and the public health agency," said Cortes. "That needs to happen."

Chíspa joined VietRISE, a group for Vietnamese and immigrant communities, at their press conference last Tuesday where they discussed the xenophobic repercussions of COVID-19, and translated health information into Spanish and Vietnamese. (VietRISE also manages this resource guide.)

VietRISE has called on local governments to make better use of social media to reach out to immigrant communities.

"The county and state governments should be taking more proactive and aggressive measures to make sure that immigrant community members and businesses are getting all updates and orders related to COVID-19," said VietRISE on their Facebook page. "That means providing it in multiple languages and using more strategies to ensure we receive this information."

Going forward, the O.C. community groups plan to focus on issues affecting people's quality of life by working with city governments to address the pandemic through housing moratoriums and outreach, according to Cortes.


Neighboring areas, such as the San Bernardino and Riverside counties, have made more strides with direct translation and have a few documents available in Spanish or Mandarin.

"We send everything to the translators as soon as they're complete, and the turnaround seems pretty quick," said David Wert, San Bernardino County's public information officer in an email. "Oftentimes the translators are present in the County's coronavirus Joint Information Center. There might be a lag in getting the documents uploaded because everyone is so busy."

While San Bernardino County's latest information on COVID-19 isn't translated yet, Wert said they are working to get more staff to post the materials online when it's available.

Currently, Orange County Public Health has an outdated health order and FAQ section with an inconsistent Google Translate ability. The department recommends visitors to refresh their cache to see it. When asked if they would have this site updated, the department provided email saying that they would refer people to the governor's order. However, there's no option for this on the website.

Similar to other counties, L.A. County does offer Google Translate on all of its site, except for the orders which officials say are pending translation. A translated FAQ section can be found under the Health Officer Order menu.

"The LA County Public Health Officer Orders are being translated into other languages," said Steven Frasher, an L.A. County public information officer in an email. "Some are still in approvals processes. There is increasing outreach to Spanish and other ethnic media outlets to increase the reach of official messaging."

At the state level, the California Department of Public Health said they are, "working continually to translate materials to ensure at-risk populations are receiving information." Their website offers a dedicated Spanish version of COVID-19 information and translated guides, but as of March 27, the California "stay-at-home" order is not directly available in other languages.

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