OAKLAND — California Gov. Gavin Newsom says California is “turning a corner” on the pandemic weeks after locking down various sectors in a desperate bid to thwart a summer surge.
But that puts the Democratic leader at a crossroads. Should California reopen gyms, churches and malls again?
Newsom will face his toughest test as soon as Tuesday when San Diego County is expected to get off the state’s list of coronavirus trouble spots. Not only would the county of 3.3 million become the most populous to shed its watch list status, it features a Republican big city mayor who has been driving hard to reopen businesses in a more politically moderate region — and who may be the GOP’s best hope to challenge Newsom in two years.
“We’re off the watch list, but there’s not a process that currently exists for businesses to get back to work,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer told POLITICO in an interview Monday. “We’ve asked before and we’ll ask once again, where does our county go next?”
Business groups and local leaders say they are frustrated by what they call a “black box” of communication from the Newsom administration about what happens when their counties come off the state watch list. For now, the state’s only guiding principle is that current watch list closures will remain in place until the state public health officer lifts them.
All of California’s 58 counties must keep bars, cardrooms and indoor dining closed. But the 42 on the watch list, including San Diego, must also keep gyms, houses of worship, indoor salons and malls shuttered.
Newsom on Monday announced changes to the monitoring list for the first time in two weeks — removing Santa Cruz County along the Northern California coast, but adding five rural counties. That comes after the state reconciled a data glitch that led to a backlog of about 295,000 test records. He also disclosed that San Diego County is expected to come off the list as soon as Tuesday.
It is a pivotal moment in the pandemic.
California continues to experience a level of new infections higher than in the spring, but the governor stressed the numbers are “trending in the right direction.” Newsom on Monday reported a 21 percent drop in hospitalizations and a 6.5 percent average positivity rate over the past two weeks. The watch list takes into account local infection metrics, as well as hospital capacity.
The good news puts increasing heat on Newsom to grapple with how and when to allow businesses and in-person learning to resume. He can’t have a repeat performance of early summer, when a surge prompted him on July 13 to halt new reopenings and shutter certain indoor operations including bars, restaurants, gyms, places of worship, non-essential offices, nail and hair salons and shopping malls.
Newsom and state Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly have acknowledged some missteps, including their confidence that residents and business owners would adhere to social distancing and mask requirements. If the state reopens again, the leaders bear the risk of another surge and closure of school campuses deeper into the academic year.
While the state has seen better trends lately, Newsom has repeatedly advised caution in reopening and said we’re “not out of the woods.”
Health experts say California still has a ways to go — especially when it comes to reopening indoor spaces where people can’t wear masks such as bars and restaurants. While they commended the state for having a statewide mask mandate, they noted that not everyone is on board and that residents aren’t observing public health guidance on gatherings and social distancing uniformly.
“California is not even close to being at a safe level to reopen a lot of things,” said Cyrus Shahpar, a director at Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit that combats global epidemics, describing the state as “not that far away from the worst we’ve been.”
Naomi Bardach, an associate professor of pediatrics and policy at the University of California, San Francisco, said the metrics the state is using appear sound. But one thing is clear: if the state’s case count is higher than yesterday, “we shouldn’t be trying to reopen anything.”
But San Diego’s Faulconer says business owners are confused by the “whiplash of reopening and reclosing.” Many have been waiting for the day their county gets off the watch list. Now that it’s upon San Diego, he said they have no idea where they stand.
“We need a consistent process for our small businesses with logical, data-driven triggers,” said Faulconer, who on Friday joined county leaders in demanding clearer guidelines from the governor.
Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said his group has called for a centralized process with “real accountability and real transparency.” He said the business community worked well with state officials on sector-specific reopening guidance, but lately he described the state as a “black box” and said his organization has gotten nowhere with the administration’s economic task force.
“Obviously the numbers starting to go back down is the good news. Nobody wants to see the number go back up,” Lapsley said. “But if everyone is trying to survive from a business standpoint, then the question is how?”
Lapsley took a dig at Newsom’s dimmer switch, his concept of slowly changing restriction levels up or down in response to the pandemic numbers. Businesses can only survive if they can stay open: “If you keep going up and down on a dimmer switch, you’re basically going to be at a complete blackout economically,” he said.
For now, counties must wait and see what happens.
Santa Cruz County’s Corinne Hyland, a spokesperson for the public health department, described removal from the watch list as the “first baby step” toward reopening. The county said in a statement that no changes or restrictions will be lifted during the next two weeks.
Hyland said the state would first have to lift the statewide orders before any new sectors could open. Future school openings are also subject to decisions by local school boards and administrators, as well as the county health officer.
Just north, San Mateo County Manager Mike Callagy said he doesn’t think his jurisdiction should remain on the list because its numbers don’t justify the “type of extreme action” taken by the state.
“The question is, how do you get off, and the answer is, no one knows,” he said during a press briefing last week. “That’s disconcerting to say the least. We don’t know a clear path off of this list and we hope that the state is working on different metrics [that are] really based in science that would allow us the opportunity to get off this list.”
Perhaps the clearest guideline at the moment is that escaping the watch list allows more leeway for schools to reopen campuses. Newsom’s rules have a lower bar for elementary school waivers, while his broader school guidance says that counties off the watch list can allow all campuses to open if districts choose.
Bardach, the UCSF professor, said the state is right to give flexibility to schools. She’s more bullish about the potential of campus reopenings, specifically elementary schools, which she said should take priority over reopening indoor businesses where people can’t consistently wear masks.
Still, she said, adherence to public health policies is likely more important than meeting any specific metric.
“If everyone is on board with how we reopen and the policy in place, then we can do it.” she said. “If we open at a very low number everyone goes back to wandering without masks on going to indoor parties … it’s just going to explode again.”