California needs to return to a shelter-in-place policy to crush coronavirus

Senator Glazer Op-Ed in San Francisco Chronicle

As we struggle through the sixth frustrating month of fighting the coronavirus pandemic, one thing should be absolutely clear: We cannot successfully reopen until we crush this virus.

The economy, the schools, the churches — everything we think of as normal in our lives — will not return until people are safe to begin interacting with one another again.

The good news is that we know how to achieve this, because most other countries in the world and several states have already done it. And if we start now, by late September we could have our lives back again.

The virus spreads through human interaction. The only way to stop its spread is to curtail as much of that interaction as possible. We need to return to a strictly enforced shelter-in-place policy until the number of cases is so low that each new one can be identified and the people who test positive can be isolated to prevent them from spreading it further.

Given the life cycle of the virus, a four-week shutdown should reduce the number of infections to a level that can be contained. Within six weeks — by late September — we should be able to return, with precautions, to a mostly normal life that includes dining out, shopping, attending church and perhaps even allowing kids and teachers back in the classroom.

To get through this difficult period, we will need to extend unemployment benefits for the jobless and boost assistance to small business. We also need to ensure that seniors and other vulnerable people have the aid they need to stay at home.

Perhaps most importantly, once the number of cases declines, we need to provide alternative housing to people who test positive and cannot isolate from other family members or roommates. This is crucial because so many essential workers live in crowded, multi-generational households where stopping the spread from one person to another is almost impossible.

And finally, at long last, the government must begin collecting and sharing the kind of data that will let people see how the virus is spreading and how we can stop it once we emerge from this lockdown. That means doing widespread testing in the community — not just of those who think they might have the virus — and using our contact tracing program to gather and aggregate information about the kind of interaction that is putting us most at risk.

Some people might think this is what we did after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to shelter in place in mid-March. But that order did not go far enough — too many activities were exempted as “essential” — and it was not accompanied by the statewide mask order and other precautions that could reduce the number of essential workers becoming infected and spreading it to their close contacts. Then Newsom lifted the order too soon, before the virus was fully under control.

The governor has been reluctant to order another, even stricter, stay-at-home policy. With all the best intentions, he is trying to find a balance between protecting public health and restarting the economy.

But Newsom’s policies have left us with neither a healthy public nor a healthy economy. We are stuck in an endless netherworld where it is not safe to open further but it seems, to some, difficult to justify closing down again. It has been seven weeks since Newsom issued his order on face coverings and nearly a month since he ordered bars, indoor dining and gyms to close again in most counties. And still the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths are fluctuating near record highs.

A new stay-home order would anger many Californians, who would be outspoken in their opposition. But I am convinced that most Californians would support it if they understood the rationale and were given clear goals and benchmarks that their sacrifices could help the state achieve.

For evidence of how this strategy can work, simply look at the experience of countries like Switzerland, Germany and Italy, which locked down until the spread was contained and now are able to fight isolated outbreaks with testing, tracing contacts and quarantines. Even New York City, once the epicenter of infection in the United States, seems to have it under control after maintaining shelter-in-place directives long enough to quell the virus.

California can do the same. If we don’t, the number of COVID victims will continue to grow and the economy will continue to shrink. We need to break this pattern with strong, unified action to end the infection’s grip on our state once and for all.