On March 19, 2020 Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide shelter-in-place order. In response to an unprecedented public health threat, it was an equally unprecedented shuttering of day-to-day life. “This is not a permanent state,” Newsom assured us at the time. “This is a moment in time. And we will meet this moment together.”
On Friday, that moment will have stretched — and stretched and stretched — into a year.
The changes that have racked Californians are big and small, obvious and subtle. We can mark them by the daily toll of this terrible virus, the days spent out of work or out of school. But also in the pictures of empty beaches and baseball fields, the collection of face masks hanging on front-door knobs, the time we didn’t spend sitting in traffic, the odd hobbies we took up and the friends we miss.
All of these changes have left a data trail. In highway crash statistics, unemployment claims, anti-Newsom lawsuits and florist sales, the numbers present a “before” and “after” picture of these last surreal, lonely, heartrending, life-ending and life-altering 365 days.
The booms and (mostly) busts of the COVID economy
No beers to buy after work. No decor to buy for weddings cancelled. No need for new shoes when you spend 18 hours a day shuffling around the house in your slippers.
The last year has seen a radical change in consumer behavior — your behavior. California’s tax collectors break down the state’s sales tax haul by business type, revealing who has lost out and the few lucky winners.
For white collar Californians who have kept their jobs — and who, for lack of anything else to do, have actually been able to save money — 2020 has been the year of home improvement. This is the year they rushed to outfit their living rooms-turned-offices with standing desks, surged to Home Depot and took up gardening.
Among the losers: Cancelled and pared down weddings, birthdays, quinceaneras and bar mitzvahs have all summoned fewer floral arrangements. The work-from-home year has also been a dismal one for shoe sales. There’s the obvious lower bar tab because the bars all closed.
But lest you think that means we’re all living healthier lives, the tax revenue may suggest otherwise: Beer, wine and liquor stores have been raking it in. We’re all just drinking from home now.
The jobless rate alone can’t capture the scale of economic crisis
At the same time that businesses shuttered and hospitals filled, millions of California workers lost their jobs. Many have spent much of their time ever since trying to get jobless benefits from the state Employment Development Department and its vendor Bank of America, sometimes making calls that went unanswered, only to finally exhaust all of their allotted benefits and left to hunker down through a brutal winter.
Now both claims and fraud reports are sky high and the situation is dire, even compared to the Great Recession. There are more people unemployed today, the state’s insurance fund is tens of billions of dollars in the red, and at least 2.5 million people were denied further financial assistance since March of 2020. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment department has made millions from fees on debit cards it issued as jobless benefits. Help is on the way for some as the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act provides more money for unemployment insurance, though the exact amount will depend on the specifics of their case.
One of these recessions is not like the others
In the winter of 2001, the Silicon Valley dot-com bubble burst, eviscerating a raft of promising online ventures like Pets.com, but also dragging California’s tax revenues down with it.
Seven years later came another crash — a big one. The credit-fueled housing bubble popped and Wall Street, which had spent years raking in paper profits off of the IOUs, went to pieces. Once again California’s state finances, dependent as they are on the good fortunes of the investor class, went to pieces along it.
But this economic catastrophe is different. The collapse of the service sector has devastated low-wage workers and many small businesses. But record-low interest rates, a raft of stimulus checks and a surging do-everything-from-home tech economy has been great news for the stock market on the whole. And that’s meant a surprisingly good tax haul for the state of California.
The chart above tells the story. The two prior recessions are easy enough to see: vertiginous drops in state revenue off the sale of stocks and other investments. But in 2020, the good times just never let up on Wall Street. Nor at the state tax collector’s office, which derives the lion’s share of its takings from the One Percent.
For what it’s worth, the state Department of Finance expects the party to stop eventually. The governor’s preliminary budget proposal from January projects declines in the state’s share of investor profits from 2022 through 2025. But the state’s forecasters have been unrealistically pessimistic about the state’s fiscal prospects so far.
An entire generation of California students will remember 2020 not just as a year of grief and boredom, but as a gap in their education. As no parent needs reminding, Zoom is generally not a good substitute for in-class learning.
A study conducted by education researchers at Stanford, the University of Southern California and UC campuses in Los Angeles, Berkeley and Davis tried to quantify this “learning loss” by comparing the test scores of students in six districts that administer the Measure of Academic Progress test last fall to the year before. They found a significant decline in test scores, especially in English Language Arts among students in earlier grades. The impact was even more pronounced for students from disadvantaged backgrounds such as in poverty or experiencing homelessness.
With some districts now reopening, the race is on to make up for lost time. Still, as a CalMatters analysis found, it’s a strikingly consistent trend: The wealthier a school district, the more likely it is to have students physically in the classroom. In late February, more than half of private elementary schools were offering some form of in-person instruction, compared to just a quarter of public elementary schools.
Fewer folks on the roads, but deadlier accidents
With nowhere to go and no one to see, Californians left their cars in park for the last year. Traffic collapsed like a mudslide-prone section of Highway 1 after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the state last March. By last April the number of cars on the road last was about 40% fewer than the previous April — and the lowest since at least 2013. As many Californians continue to stay home, the traffic has stayed depressed. Just like us.
That there were fewer cars on the road doesn’t mean it was safer for California drivers. When crashes did happen, they were more likely to be fatal or result in a severe injury. More space on the road means drivers were able to go faster, and crashes happened at higher speeds.
“It reminds us that the most important aspect of traffic safety is kinetic energy”, said Offer Grembek, co-director of the Transportation Injury Mapping System at UC Berkeley.
Plan a big party, probably indoors. Invite your far-flung relatives, many of them old and feeble, who will drive or fly in. Make sure there’s plenty of sweaty dancing, pathogen-spewing singing, hugging and kissing. If public health officials were to mock up the perfect COVID-19 superspreader event, they might settle on a wedding.
Hence the not-at-all-surprising drop off in California nuptials in 2020. We can see the torrent of cancelled and postponed weddings in the data — a 33% decline from the previous year.
And the numbers alone don’t fully capture the devastation that COVID has wrought on the wedding-industrial complex. Many of the weddings that did take place looked very different from the perfect day the two main participants had expected: fewer attendants, more masks and perhaps a gubernatorial-sanctioned Zoom connection or two.
Gavin Newsom’s wild ride
Governor of California, the nation’s largest state, was never exactly an obscure job. But the pandemic has garnered the office and its current occupant, Gov. Gavin Newsom, an usual degree of attention — positive and negative.
In the pandemic’s first few months, Newsom scored national accolades and high statewide approval for his aggressive handling of the virus. He was the first state leader to impose a shelter-in-place order. He also held regular video updates that, if not always easy to parse, gave the public a sense that someone was at the helm when broad confidence in federal leadership was lacking.
Newsom also transformed California governance in 2020. Never before has a California governor issued so many executive orders. Never before has a state Legislature, forced to curtail its typical schedule and shelter-in-place like the rest of us, ceded so much authority.
That all led to a stream of COVID-related policies issued by edict out of the governor’s office. Since his first on March 12, 2020, Newsom has issued 58. They’ve closed schools and businesses, banned evictions, delayed regulations and rewritten state election law.
Predictably, there’s been a backlash. Exhibit 1: the recall effort that is all but certain to place the governor’s political future on the ballot later this year. Exhibits 2 through 75: lawsuits. Two weeks after Newsom’s first executive order, the first lawsuits were filed challenging his administration’s right to restrict public life in the name of public safety. They’ve been coming ever since.
California life cycle: Record high deaths, record low births
As of March 16, 2021 at least 55,372 Californians have died of COVID-19. That number will continue to grow, as the pace of new infections and hospitalizations slows but does not stop.
It’s an obvious but inescapable point: 2020 was a deadly year in California. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020 was the deadliest year in modern American history.
Monthly deaths of all causes across the state California broke from the historic baseline in March and never returned. In December, when California was besieged by its third and most catastrophic viral wave, the monthly death toll was 60% higher than the same month a year prior.
With more death, there has also been less new life. Monthly births have been on the decline in California and across much of the United States for half a decade. But in January 2021, the most recent figure available and the first that is more than nine months after the beginning of the pandemic, California births reached a new dramatic low: 27,673.
It’s not just California. The entire world seems to be experiencing a baby bust.
It’s not clear why the births were on the decline well before the first documented COVID-19 case in California. Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, said it could be a combination of ever-escalating home prices in California and the dour, uncertain political mood of the last four years.
“People have babies when they are more optimistic,” he said. “The birth rate is a barometer of despair” — only in reverse. As more data comes out, he said he expects a dramatic decline in newborn Californians through 2021.
That should give California baby boosters some optimism, said Myers. He points to the winding down of the pandemic, a likely resurgence in economic activity and more pro-baby policies at the federal level. “We’ve been due for a bounce back and I think we’re gonna get it.”