Just a few weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom was boasting about California’s apparent success in suppressing COVID-19 infections in implicit contrast to other states, such as New York, that were being clobbered by the pandemic.
He called it “bending the curve” of the infection rate and decided to reopen vast sections of the economy that he had shuttered in March.
“We have to recognize you can’t be in a permanent state where people are locked away — for months and months and months and months on end — to see lives and livelihoods completely destroyed, without considering the health impact of those decisions as well,” Newsom rationalized.
In recent days, however, Newsom has reversed course, citing alarming increases in infection rates and deaths.
The governor closed bars, made wearing protective facemasks mandatory, reinstituted bans on indoor activities in 19 counties with high infection rates, formed “multi-agency strike teams” to crack down on “people who are thumbing their noses” at restrictions, and threatened counties with a loss of state funds if they balk.
“We have conditioned $2.5 billion in our state budget on applying the spirit and the letter of the law as it relates to health directives at the county level,” Newsom said. “If local officials are unwilling to enforce and are being dismissive, we will condition the distribution of those dollars.”
Newsom’s Governorship Will Be Defined by How He Manages This Crisis
With these and other actions, Newsom dropped the pretense that fighting the pandemic was fundamentally in the hands of local officials and made it clear that he’s calling the shots. Newsom now owns the pandemic in California every bit as much as President Donald Trump owns it on a national level.
Newsom’s governorship will be defined by how he manages this crisis — especially since he’s fond of terming California a “nation-state” that goes its own way regardless of federal policy.
California could not have reopened had Newsom not declared that it was ready to do so because of relatively low infection rates and the reopening clearly sparked the surge. He said it himself last week: “We reopened our economy and more people mixed…”
However, he did not take any personal responsibility for the cause-and-effect relationship of those two events and seemed to be blaming Californians because they resumed the human interaction that he implied would be safe to resume.
There’s another aspect to the situation that’s also on Newsom — a fierce outbreak of infection in the state’s prisons.
Veteran journalist Dan Morain, in an article for California Healthline, reported in detail, “From Corcoran and Avenal state prisons in the arid Central Valley to historical San Quentin on the San Francisco Bay, California prisons have emerged as raging COVID-19 hot spots, even as the state annually spends more on inmate health care than other big states spend on their entire prison systems.”
It’s His Pandemic Now
San Quentin had no confirmed COVID-19 infections until, for some reason, it received a transfer of infected inmates. Its outbreak was so severe that the state Senate convened a special hearing during which legislators roasted prison officials — all Newsom appointees.
“That was nothing more than the worst prison health screwup in state history,” Assemblyman Marc Levine, whose district includes San Quentin, told the hearing. “We did not meet this moment.” It was an obvious dig at Newsom, who’s fond of the phrase, “meet the moment.”
Despite the infection surge, Newsom remains outwardly hopeful, saying, “We bent the curve in the state of California once, we will bend the curve again.”
However, if it doesn’t bend, Newsom — fairly or not — will bear the onus. It’s his pandemic now.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.