California’s COVID-19 strategy failed. Here’s how Gov. Gavin Newsom can get it right

Sac Bee Op Ed

By Steven Glazer

July 03, 2020 06:00 AM

Gov. Gavin Newsom showed strong leadership on March 19 when he ordered Californians to shelter in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. When many of his fellow governors were hesitating, Newsom invested political capital in a decision that promised to anger many voters even as it saved thousands of lives.

But Newsom put those gains at risk less than two months later when he gave California’s 58 counties too much leeway to decide when to reopen businesses and allow more of the social interaction that spreads the disease.

Newsom said his delegation of authority to the counties was necessary to save the state’s economy. But in doing so he accepted the false premise that we must choose between public health and commerce. In fact, there is no choice. Without public health, without people feeling safe to engage in normal commerce, the economy will never recover.

That health and economic harm is now falling, as it so often does, on the powerless. In this case it is mostly low-wage workers, disproportionately Latino and Black, and older people, many of whom live in substandard, overcrowded conditions where it is difficult to avoid spreading the infection. These are the people who are dying, and more of them will die unless we change course now.

This virus does not respect city or county boundaries. Defeating it calls for strong leadership that also transcends local and regional lines. Just as you would never fight a war by letting each general decide when and how to go into battle, we cannot beat this virus by leaving crucial decisions to dozens of independent jurisdictions.

This does not mean we need one-size-fits-all rules. But we do need a command and control structure that is looking after the best interests of all Californians, not only those who make the most noise.

Newsom took a step in the right direction last Wednesday when he ordered bars and indoor restaurants as well as other indoor businesses to close in counties that have been on a state watch list for at least three days. But even that move failed to recognize the problems caused by residents crossing county lines in urban and suburban areas when restaurants or bars are closed in one jurisdiction and open in another.

The heart of this problem was Newsom’s decision on May 8 to allow counties to accelerate the reopening by meeting certain benchmarks. That decision came when the state’s infection rate was not declining and we had little information about how people were getting infected, despite being sheltered in place for 60 days.

This led to a patchwork of conflicting rules from one town to the next. It also failed to acknowledge that some counties might meet the benchmarks to relax restrictions one week, only to backslide a few weeks later to the point that they no longer cleared those hurdles -- but with no guarantee that they would then reverse their reopenings.

That means that there is now no assurance that a county where the infection is resurging out of control will act soon enough, and vigorously enough, to stop the virus from spreading to other parts of the state. That’s unacceptable.

For California to safely reopen and avoid following the path taken by Arizona, Texas, Florida and other states, Newsom needs to do the following:

▪ Gather and report sufficient testing data to accurately assess the level of infection and how and where people are catching the virus, so that we can effectively target those vectors and extinguish them. The testing must be community-wide so that people who are carrying the virus without symptoms and would otherwise never be tested are counted in the tallies.

▪ Reassert more state control over rules governing which businesses and gathering places can safely remain open, and make the data behind these decisions transparent. Newsom needs to be consistent and transparent so the public will understand and trust his decisions. He’s never explained, for example, why he is closing indoor dining while leaving indoor gyms open.

▪ Make clear to all Californians that seniors and people who are medically vulnerable remain ordered to shelter in place, and then provide these people with all the support they need to do so. Many individuals and businesses do not realize that this order remains in effect. The same signage that warns people to wear masks and maintain physical distance should tell the vulnerable that it is dangerous for them to work in or patronize non-essential businesses.

It’s not too late to prevent this virus from killing thousands more Californians. Other states, and most other countries, have figured this out. We can too. And we must.

State Sen. Steven Glazer represents the 7th Senate District, which covers most of Contra Costa County and part of Alameda County.