Gov. Gavin Newsom’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been erratic and not for the first time he’s once again easing up on restrictions.
At some point in the future, if we have one, historians will ponder when and why COVID-19 morphed from a public health crisis into an ideological confrontation, with vaccinations and masks as symbols of political leaning and with school children as innocent pawns.
However it happened, the politicization of the pandemic continues to flavor its response. Officials insist that they are “following the science” when they impose or lift personal behavior decrees, but it’s obvious that they also are sensitive to the political effects.
After all, orders about vaccinations, masks, public gatherings and other pandemic-fighting tools only work if the public is willing to obey them, or at least enough to have a dampening effect on contagion. If the howls of protest are loud and widespread enough, officialdom has no choice but to back off.
This fact of life was demonstrated in 2020 when Gov. Gavin Newsom repeatedly issued restrictive orders, only to lift them.
When his initial shutdown orders appeared to slow infections, he boasted how California was succeeding while other states, such as New York, were being devastated. Newsom dubbed it “bending the curve” and reopened vast sections of the economy that he had shuttered only weeks before.
“We have to recognize you can’t be in a permanent state where people are locked away —for months and months and months and months on end — to see lives and livelihoods completely destroyed, without considering the health impact of those decisions as well,” Newsom rationalized.
However, when infection rates and deaths increased again in mid-year, Newsom reimposed restrictions, closing bars, making masks mandatory and banning indoor activities in counties with particularly high infection rates. He also formed “multi-agency strike teams” to crack down on “people who are thumbing their noses” at restrictions.
Later in the year, Newsom once again eased up, only to crack down again during a strong surge of infections during the winter of 2020-21.
The dizzying on and off sequence confused and eventually angered Californians — enough that a recall campaign aimed at ousting Newsom qualified for the ballot and looked, for a time, to have a chance of success.
Newsom is once again easing up on restrictions that had been ordered in response to the omicron strain of the disease last year. He’s adopted what he calls “SMARTER,” an acronym for policies aimed, he says, at weakening or dropping unneeded restrictions while guarding against future outbreaks.
“California’s early and decisive measures to combat COVID-19 have saved countless lives throughout the pandemic, and as the recent omicron surge made clear, we must remain prepared to quickly and effectively respond to changing conditions in real time,” Newsom said. “As we move the state’s recovery forward, we’ll continue to focus on scaling back provisions while maintaining essential testing, vaccination and health care system supports that ensure California has the needed tools and flexibility to strategically adapt our response for what lies ahead.”
The state has lifted mandatory wearing of masks inside businesses and other public venues and will soon drop the mask requirement for school children — a move that has drawn protests from teachers and may not sit well with parents.
A recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that about two-thirds of voters, and of parents, support COVID-19 vaccinations of school kids and being masked during classes.
Newsom’s performance as manager of the pandemic has been, to say the least, erratic, even as he claims to have been decisive and effective. COVID-19 is still with us and still killing people, so the final verdict on his management has yet to emerge.