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In defense of Gavin Newsom


This was not the headline we wanted to wake up to today:


“Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday signaled a major retreat in the state’s two-month effort to recover from the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus,” the article began, outlining Newsom’s latest dire directives: shutting, or rather re-shutting down California restaurants, bars, movie theaters, museums, hair salons, wineries, and just about everything else.

And not just in a few counties with the worst infection rates, but in all 58 of California’s counties. That’s 40 million people, 12% of the entire U.S. population.

Maybe, given Murphy’s Law, we should have seen it coming. For a while, we Californians were very proud of ourselves. We were the first state in the country to shelter-in-place. Our COVID-19 numbers were incredibly low throughout the Spring. Massachusetts had far more cases than we did, even though our population is so much bigger. It looked as if California was setting the pace for the rest of America.

And then came July, and Boom!

Already, Gov. Newsom is starting to get the blame. After being the media’s Wunderkind for the past 1-1/2 years since his election, with positive ratings that would be the envy of any sitting governor, he’s now learning that the media that thrusteth up can also pulleth down. The Bay Area News Group, whose (conservative-leaning) newspapers cover the San Francisco Bay Area, ran a scathing editorial on Sunday (link not available) with a shocking allegation: “Gov. Gavin Newsom bears responsibility for the current surge of COVID-19 cases in California.” They accused him of re-opening the state too soon, and even compared him to Trump: “Like Trump, Newsom keeps trying to push responsibility down to the next-lower level of government.” It concluded that “Newsom’s leadership has fallen woefully short.”

This is grossly unfair. To begin with, science calls this the “novel” coronavirus for a reason: It’s brand new. It has never existed before, and scientists hardly knew anything about it. Figuring out a battle plan against an unknown biological agent is next to impossible; everyone has made mistakes.

Nobody knew, nobody could have known, exactly when to shut down, in which places, or for how long, or when to re-open: all at once, or regionally. This was a game with hundreds of moving parts. There’d been no rules, and, given the utter absence of national leadership, local officials, like Newsom, were left to their own devices. They did the best they could. It’s surely good to learn from the past, but to engage in pointless, partisan, polemical recriminations is not helpful.

Newsom, like all other officials, is trying to find the balance between keeping an embattled economy going, and stopping the spread of the disease. Both are imperatives, but, as we know, they clash. Everyone has struggled with this question. It can’t be easy. Cuomo gets a lot of credit in New York, but we don’t yet know if New York is really out of the woods. Everyone thought California was safe, until it wasn’t. New York might be in for a second surge. So it’s too early to be playing that particular blame game.

Besides, as Cal Matters, a non-profit, non-partisan news provider, points out, one of the main reasons for California’s second surge is because “many Californians haven’t been wearing masks and avoiding crowds.” That’s not Newsom’s fault. Southern Californians and inland, rural counties have been particularly disdainful of masking. Newsom’s messaging has been consistent to the point of relentless: Wear masks! Practice social distance! Don’t go out in crowds! True, Cal Matters says another reason for the resurgence is because of “confusing and mixed messaging.” And it’s true that trying to understand how the rules apply to every nail parlor and bar in 58 counties can be difficult; this, too, is something California and Newsom are learning to deal with. But where are the most “confusing and mixed” messages coming from? Trump. It must be very difficult, even for an articulate governor like Newsom, to make himself heard, no matter how loud or often he speaks, when the President of the United States is lying through his teeth, and his lies are repeated on every news show, every newspaper, and on social media.

We’re all miserable about this situation. Everybody’s looking for someone or something to blame. I understand that; it’s human nature. But let’s be intellectually coherent. Gavin Newsom has come as close to getting a handle on the virus, and in keeping the public informed, as any Governor in America. If he can’t wave a magic wand and make COVID-19 go away, it’s hardly his fault.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    For quite awhile I was touting California as a huge success story with respect to the coronavirus, then all of a sudden I see California on the list of states that have a major resurgence. Your discussion of this is a very good one. And one thing you said struck a cord with me:
    “Nobody knew, nobody could have known, exactly when to shut down, in which places, or for how long, or when to re-open: all at once, or regionally.”
    When my governor issued shutdown rules, one of the complaints was that it was state-wide, not making any distinction between the more populated southern part and the rural northern part with far fewer people and almost no positive Covid cases. But those rules stayed for a couple of months. Then when the governor started to reopen, she made some geographic distinctions; for example, allowing restaurants in most counties to reopen well before those in the more populated southern counties. So what happened: she got sued by a group of restaurants in the closed counties who argued that it was arbitrary to keep restaurants in a few counties closed while allowing those in other counties to open. I haven’t heard anything about those suits lately, and maybe they’re moot because they’re all in the same boat now.

  2. Well, your example just proves the point: it’s complicated!

  3. Bob Henry says:

    If anyone needs proof of how bad it is going for us here in the U.S. vis-à-vis our Western European counterparts in “flattening the curve” of Covid-19 infections, see this infographic from the front page of The Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2020):

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