Commentary: More will die from COVID because of timid Newsom response

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In this file photo, Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks after being sworn in as the 40th governor of California in front of the Capitol in Sacramento. - Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom ceded moral authority to guide California out of the depths of the pandemic. More people likely will die because of his timid leadership.

The week began with news that Newsom had earlier this month attended a 12-person dinner for a lobbyist friend at a tony Napa Valley restaurant, violating his own guideline — now mandate — against gatherings of more than three households.

The week ended with the usually loquacious governor who rarely shies from television cameras announcing via press release a head-scratching curfew — and then sending his health secretary out to try to explain the elusive rationale for a policy that lacked supporting data.

As California cases are surging, the cooler weather is driving more people indoors where the virus spreads more easily, and the holiday season begins that will bring too many unsafe family gatherings, tough measures are needed to slow COVID-19.

But Newsom effectively sidelined himself with the dinner debacle at French Laundry in Yountville. After months of urging caution, the governor undermined his credibility, reinforcing criticism that he’s just another “do as I say, not as I do” elite politician more interested in hobnobbing with lobbyists than leading by example.

It couldn’t come at a worse time.

More than ever during the pandemic, the state needs a governor positioned to take decisive action to slow the virus spread. But rather than mandating quarantines as other states have done to prevent interstate travelers from spreading the disease in California, he issued a travel advisory merely urging that people self-quarantine.

Then, on Nov. 16, he “pulled an emergency brake” on the state’s reopening plan. It was weeks overdue, but merely a dialing back for much of the state in the governor’s color-coded rating system. Newsom continues to adjust his rheostat rather than making the politically tough, but necessary, decision to flip the switch.

Like back in March, we need to quickly flatten the curve to keep the virus from overwhelming our hospitals and leaving mounting carnage in its wake.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge. We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom said in the press release.

He’s right. But his actions don’t reflect the urgency.

Unlike leaders in Europe, U.S. officials are unwilling to return to tough restrictions we lived with in the spring. “Pandemic fatigue” has set in, we’re told. Yes, there is fatigue — and exasperation that some, starting with President Donald Trump, still refuse to acknowledge the deadliness of the disease, the need for basic precautions like masks and the reality that the economy will not recover until coronavirus is controlled.

This is the time when governors such as Newsom need to spend political capital — to take necessary but perhaps unpopular steps — to protect the health of state residents. Unfortunately, Newsom wasted much of his political capital dining out with his buddies.

So rather than imposing tough restrictions, the governor’s office announced a “limited stay-at-home order” requiring that nonessential work, movement and gatherings stop in counties in the purple tier, affecting about 90% of Californians.

But the order only applies from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. It should be around the clock.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the secretary of health and human services, was left to explain the rationale. He suggested to me that those are the hours when risky behavior is most likely to occur. But when pressed, he acknowledged that he has no data to back that up.

Here we are nine months into this crisis, and the governor and his advisers, who claim to be making decisions based on science and data, are instead driven by politics and hunches.

As Ghaly acknowledged, the spread is greatest in places where people congregate indoors. We’re talking about restaurants, bars, gyms, churches, political rallies and family gatherings. Some of that activity occurs between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. But the coronavirus is not necessarily nocturnal. It can spread at any hour.

Ghaly said he’ll be watching California’s virus transmission data, and tougher steps might be coming. Unfortunately, he and the governor continue to be reactive rather than proactive.

“Thanksgiving is going to be an important and challenging time on a number of fronts,” Ghaly said. It’s too bad more steps haven’t been taken to prepare for it.



Dan Borenstein is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group and editorial page editor of the East Bay Times.


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