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When the coronavirus first hit California, it became the first U.S. state to implement a lockdown. Personal protective gear for medical staff was in short supply and hospitals were scrambling to understand the best practices to treat an illness they had never encountered before, but at least, “people understood this was serious,” said an emergency room nurse. They stayed inside, if they could – and California avoided the fate of New York and Louisiana.

In that first phase of the pandemic, hospitals in the nation’s most populous state were strained, but they weren’t overwhelmed the way New York hospitals were. They didn’t have to acquire massive refrigerator trucks to serve as mobile morgues for the virus’s victims.

Until now. Less than a fortnight before the Christmas holiday, California distributed 5,000 body bags to the hard-hit regions including Los Angeles, and readied 60 refrigerated trailers. As of Monday, the state has tallied more than 2.1m cases and counted more than 24,000 dead. The ICU capacity in southern California hit 0% by mid-December. Two people were dying of COVID-19 every hour in hard-hit Los Angeles county, where the public health director, Barbara Ferrer, fought back tears as she reported that thousands of “people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back”.

Facing an increasingly dire situation, the state enacted a second lockdown, asking Californians to remain at home throughout the holidays to slow the spread of the virus. But nine months after the first shelter-in-place order, a pandemic-fatigued, frustrated public pushed back.

“At the beginning, I think our leaders did a good job,” Monica Gandhi said, looking back at California’s coronavirus approach. The trouble, the UC San Francisco infectious disease specialist said, came as the state began to reopen in early summer. California had a plan in place to do so slowly, but the famously progressive state wasn’t immune to a growing conservative movement that rejected face masks and vilified public health officials. Under mounting public pressure, Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well as local leaders, moved to reopen businesses and public spaces before case rates were low enough to warrant doing so. By May, the virus was so prevalent in California, and in the states that surrounded it, “that we weren’t ever going to really be able to conquer,” Gandhi said.

In this latest, winter stretch of the pandemic, “it’s the inconsistencies that have really agitated residents,” said Fernando Guerra, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University.

“It made sense in the very beginning,” said Vasquez. “But Newsom didn’t give the shutdown enough time. And since we began to reopen, none of it has really made sense to me.”

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