My first thought when Governor Gavin Newsom announced that California would fully reopen for business and pleasure on June 15 was: why not on May 15? Or April 15?
Newsom has been too slow in allowing Californians to resume normal lives, I have long thought. Too hesitant to resume indoor meals, authorize wedding receptions and demand that schools welcome students with learning disabilities into classrooms.
It was a worrying sign about a year ago when the governor attempted to shut down all beaches in the state. As I wrote then, every Californian has an inalienable right to a day at the beach. In the face of the revolt of sand and surf worshipers, Newsom backed down and negotiated with local communities.
He allowed determined health experts to do anything but run the show. Their only goal was to defeat COVID-19. But in a democracy, no sector should have a free hand to dictate its policy. People collectively have many programs.
When we rely too much on the unofficial pandemic slogan, “science” – which is constantly evolving anyway – other factors are reduced to low priority. Factors such as the economic and personal costs of the demise of small businesses, especially restaurants. Or the negative consequences for mental health.
Closing, partial reopening, closing again, and careful restart were herky-choppy, expensive, and unreliable.
OK, a lot of this may have been justified to control the coronavirus. Newsom was trying. Give him that.
Our health could have been worse without the restrictions, which were among the strictest in the country. As it stands, California has recorded about 3.6 million cases of COVID-19, including about 59,550 deaths.
One of Newsom’s problems is that he did not sufficiently explain his actions to the public, despite an ongoing series of briefings that were broadcast live last year. They were generally painful to watch – too long and saturated with numbing statistics.
But, hey, the governor’s polls are pretty much the same today as they were before the pandemic disrupted our lives.
In a March poll by California’s Public Policy Institute, 53% of likely voters approved of Newsom’s way of handling its work and 42% disapproved of it. This is virtually identical to a PPIC investigation taken just before Newsom issued its stay-at-home orders in March of last year.
It’s a reflection of our political polarization: Democrats overwhelmingly support Newsom, and Republicans are even more wrongly opposed to him. But there are almost twice as many Democrats in California. And the independents lean towards the governor.
The reopening of the state can only benefit Newsom politically and help him push back the Republican-backed recall attempt. In other words, unless by some cruel fate there is a new wave of viruses and the governor feels compelled to shut everything down again. But it is highly improbable.
I called Dr Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the State Agency for Health and Human Services – Newsom’s senior COVID-19 adviser.
Why not reopen on May 15th? Or April 15?
Ghaly had a logical answer: there won’t be enough people vaccinated before then. So far, about 34% of Californians have received at least one vaccine and 18% are fully vaccinated.
Not all people over 16 will be eligible to receive vaccines until April 15, he noted. It may take two weeks to get an appointment. After the first vaccination, it will take four to six weeks – depending on the vaccine – to receive a second dose and be completely inoculated. This brings you to mid-June.
“We’re going to assume that there are enough vaccines available,” Ghaly said.
Otherwise, forget about reopening. But even forget to think of such a horrible possibility.
Ghaly said Newsom is allowing time to analyze how the virus is playing out in other parts of the country.
“We will have a better understanding of the trajectory of the disease,” he said.
If all goes as planned, restaurants can resume indoor service at full capacity. But Ghaly is hoping that “eventually we’ll see a restaurant restructuring” and that there will be a new emphasis on al fresco dining in good weather.
And why not? We have a Mediterranean climate. Let’s adopt the culinary customs of Mediterranean countries.
Weddings? Funeral? Gyms?
“Absolutely,” Ghaly says.
“This is great news for the economy and for all of us, but it’s an unnecessary risk for Newsom,” says Dan Schnur, a former Republican agent who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley .
“The only thing that could bring the encore to life is if it has to reverse its course and close things up.”
But Mark Baldassare, president and pollster of PPIC, sees the exact opposite. By far, Newsom’s biggest risk is not reopening the state, he said.
Baldassare notes that in the latest PPIC poll, 79% of likely voters thought “the worst is behind us”.
“The public expects us to improve. People have hope, ”says Baldassare. “And the governor runs the risk of not moving in a timely manner. If things don’t go well in the next few months, they will be very disappointed. There are a lot of political risks. “
Darry Sragow, a former Democratic strategist who publishes the California Target Book, which cripples political races, agrees with Baldassare.
“Collectively in California, we’re on our lastest lines,” Sragow says. “Almost every person is exhausted and tired of all the [virus] protocol and desperately wants things to return to a reasonable semblance of normalcy.
“If Newsom did not reopen our company significantly enough, he would run the risk of exhausting the patience of millions of people who trusted his judgment.”
June 15th is not early enough. But at least we’ll get our summer back: ball games, holiday barbecues, lakeside bars, boating with friends.
And life is easier.