A sign requiring customers to wear a mask is posted outside of Modern China Cafe in Walnut Creek on August 16, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A sign requiring customers to wear a mask is posted outside Modern China Cafe in Walnut Creek on Aug. 16, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

When former Yolo County Sheriff’s Sgt. Orrin Heatlie started gathering signatures in February 2020 to put the recall on the ballot, COVID-19 wasn’t on his list of grievances. But without the pandemic — and Newsom’s handling of it — it’s hard to imagine Heatlie’s long-shot campaign succeeding.

It wasn’t always obvious things would end this way. In the early months of the pandemic, when Newsom acted more quickly and aggressively than most governors to quell the new contagion, his popularity grew. But as months of restrictions on daily life and often confusing messaging from the governor’s office went on, the public’s patience started to fray and pandemic policy became an increasingly partisan issue. The governor did himself no favors when he accepted the invitation of a friend-lobbyist to wine and dine maskless at the French Laundry restaurant with a $350 prix fixe menu.

Even so, most Californians seem to give Newsom passing marks for his handling of the worst public health emergency in living memory. 

What he’s done:

What he hasn’t:

  • Solve the unemployment catastrophe: Since the beginning of the pandemic, California’s Employment Development Department has struggled to keep up with the historic surge in unemployment claims. Hundreds of thousands have spent weeks or longer waiting for desperately needed assistance while the department and its contractors fight against fraud. Newsom has deployed a “strike team” to streamline the process and the state has spent hundreds of millions on consultants. But the governor has also conceded that the current system was “not designed for the challenge.”
  • Shutter churches to prevent COVID: The earliest pockets of pushback against Newsom’s handling of the pandemic came from houses of worship. As early as Easter 2020 — less than a month after the first public health orders — churches represented by conservative legal action groups began suing the state over the right of congregations to pray, chant and sing in-person and indoors. Initially, the churches lost, but as their challenges landed at the nation’s highest court with its newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, California restrictions began to fall — a loss for Newsom and a sea change in constitutional law.