In summary

A funny thing happened on California’s path to re-opening during the pandemic. We had about 100 miles ahead of us, and then Gov. Newsom told us it was safe to take a short-cut.

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By Jessica Levinson, Special to CalMatters

Jessica Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School and the director of the Public Service Institute at Loyola Law School, She is the host of the “Passing Judgment” podcast. @LevinsonJessica

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Hi again. I am writing to inform Gov. Gavin Newsom that I am changing our relationship status to “shaky at best.” 

Remember me? Three months ago I wrote that Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States should pass the baton to Newsom. I was, among other things, impressed by his strong-handling of the COVID-19-induced crisis. 

Newsom did what leaders should do. He listened to experts. He respected the views of epidemiologists. He shut us down and created a plan for re-opening. He told us we must have standards for testing and tracing prior to re-opening. Simply put, he saved many of our lives. 

But then a funny thing happened on our path to re-opening. We had about 100 miles ahead of us, and then Newsom told us it was safe to take a short-cut. Even though the longer path was paved, and the short-cut was rickety and had no marked signs, we were told a short-cut was going to be OK. The short-cut appears to have led to a spike in cases, and we are now slowly shutting down again. 

California is buckling under the weight of an uncontrolled pandemic. Our Golden State is racing to play catchup to testing and tracing metrics that were never met. In the meantime, cases surge, hospitals are stretched to capacity and our number of daily deaths cast a pall over our past optimism. 

The full weight of California’s failure to contain COVID-19 does not rest solely, or even mainly, on Newsom’s shoulders. California is huge in every sense – landmass, population and percentage of the global economy. But we are not our own nation. We are but one of 50 states. And the staggering dereliction of duty, and failure of leadership on the federal level has crippled our nation.

Imagine your kitchen is on fire because your stove is malfunctioning. Governors are left trying to bring the dishes outside while they wait for the federal government to fix the stove. Put another way, governors are left placing proverbial Band-Aids on gushing wounds.

And then, of course, there is the mirror. We should look in it. Many of us should feel deeply ashamed. We partied when we should have distanced. We went to bars when we should have gone to parks. We screamed misdirected complaints about masks when we should have worn them. 

Speaking of masks, the irony that those complaining about loss of liberty and then refusing, in the face of agreement by the scientific community, to wear a mask is beyond confounding. 

If you want the state to open, if you want more freedom of movement and activities, wear a mask. If you prefer more restrictions and more spikes and more danger to those around you, refuse to wear a mask. By all means, take your principled stand in favor of freedom while you trample on all of ours. 

Our elected officials can only bring us so far. At a certain point, we must also take some responsibility. Unless of course, all of us bemoaning government intrusions would prefer, well, much more drastic government intrusions. That is, after all, one way to force more of us to comply with health and safety measures. Too many of us are like a child who complains that his parents don’t trust him and shouldn’t impose a curfew, but then stays out all night.  

But still, Newsom ripped the Band-Aid off too soon. One can understand why; Newsom was under a political pressure offensive from every side. Frustrated residents, lawmakers, elected officials complained bitterly about the restrictions Newsom put in place. Elected officials flooded the airwaves and begged for the easing of restrictions. Restless business owners pushed to open their doors. Some used lawsuits as pressure tactics to force Newsom to lessen restrictions. 

With the benefit of hindsight, Newsom should have stayed the course. He had the legal authority, the moral authority and the opportunity to look like a leader who did not fold, even in the face of extreme political pressure. 

Unlike many other elected officials, Newsom has been fairly clear that the buck stops with him. He may have erred, he may not have fully embraced those errors, but he has embraced accountability. 

Newsom’s political brand appears to be largely built on being one step ahead of public sentiment. Remember, he was the mayor performing same-sex marriage before it was legal. Now is the time to think about what many of us know now, and even more of us will realize years from now. The governors who listened to the scientists, who put health and safety over public perception and political pressure are those who will be celebrated.


Jessica Levinson has also written about the Supreme Court ruling on the Electoral College, and Republicans versus the right to vote.

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