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Walters: How Did California Lose Control of COVID-19?



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With the COVID-19 pandemic surging to critical levels in California, we naturally wonder how it happened.

How did California go from exemplifying success in taming the coronavirus last spring to an epicenter of disease, with 2.5 million COVID-19 cases, nearly 28,000 deaths and the second highest infection rate of any state?

Dan Walters


Gov. Gavin Newsom describes it as a “surge on top of a surge” and “more deadly today than any time in this pandemic’s history.”

As infection rates soared, state and national media outlets almost immediately began exploring underlying causes and a consensus of sorts emerged.

Californians, we were told, let down their guard and began ignoring pleas from Newsom and health officials to wear masks, stay home as much as possible and avoid gatherings.

“If there’s no sort of enforcement, people are going to do what they want to do,” Dr. Lee Riley, a professor and head of the division of infectious disease and vaccinology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, told the San Francisco Chronicle in one of his many media interviews. “That was clearly demonstrated just looking at the airports during the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, we had more travelers. People are definitely not following the recommendations and so that’s going to have an impact, two weeks from now, for sure.”

Los Angeles County Has a Quarter of the State’s Population but Has a Third of the State’s COVID-19 Cases

Riley and others also cited the disproportionate impact in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles, where poverty, overcrowded housing and work outside the home are infection catalysts.

Los Angeles County has a quarter of the state’s population but has a third of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 40% of the state’s pandemic deaths.

The county’s socioeconomic situation is “like the kindling,” Paula Cannon, a microbiologist at the University of Southern California, told the Associated Press. “And now we got to the stage where there was enough COVID out in the community that it lit the fire.”

These factors no doubt contributed heavily to the surge, but erratic decrees from Newsom and other officials that left Californians bewildered at what they could and could not do also played a role.

Newsom assumed one-man management of the pandemic in the spring and over the ensuing 10 months has repeatedly imposed and relaxed restrictions on personal and business activity, always asserting that he was following scientific advice.

However, some of his orders defied logic, creating widespread cynicism about underlying motives.

Why, for instance, were restaurants forbidden to serve customers outside while film production continued unabated, complete with catering tables for casts and crews?

Ultimately, Industry Leaders Voluntarily Suspended Production as Infection Rates Reached Crisis Levels

One restaurant owner cited that exact anomaly in a lawsuit challenging Newsom’s directive. And in fact, film production had gained an exemption from restrictions on business activities by being designated “critical infrastructure” — another example of how the industry gets special treatment from California politicians.

Ultimately, industry leaders voluntarily suspended production as infection rates reached crisis levels.

Popular cynicism peaked when it was revealed that Newsom and his wife had attended a maskless birthday party in a posh Napa restaurant for his long time friend and advisor, Jason Kinney, who counts a major Hollywood studio as one lobbying client.

Initially, Californians responded positively to Newsom’s pleas to “bend the curve” by altering their behavior. But eventually, the more he beseeched them, the less they listened.

California has gone from nearly first to nearly worst in controlling COVID-19 and now is trying to recoup with a massive vaccination program.

However, so far that’s not proceeding very well either, with Newsom conceding that the pace of immunizations has “gone too slowly for many of us.”

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

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.