Californians have shown with great clarity during the coronavirus pandemic that if they’re convinced something needs to be done, they’ll cheerfully do it even when it’s uncomfortable and terribly expensive.
So when Gov. Gavin Newsom in a mid-March first-in-the-nation move ordered most of this huge state’s citizenry to stay home in a quasi-quarantine condition in hopes of limiting the spread of the virus, they complied, with few exceptions.
But now, with far less ambient panic in California’s air, there are cracks in that united front. Demonstrators in places as diverse as San Diego, Newport Beach and Sacramento have turned out in respectable numbers demanding an end to the lockdown. It’s true, some of those demonstrations are orchestrated by ultra-conservative national organizations.
Many protesters ardently back President Trump, who calls for a gradual “opening up” of America. They demand restoration of all rights to freedom of movement and association, never mind social distancing. Some of the demonstrators had been seen on the state Capitol steps before, protesting last year’s new laws making it a bit tougher to get children exempted from vaccination requirements.
The month of March saw nothing like that after Newsom issued his first order. This was partly because the governor was open about estimates of the potential extent of viral spread, contagion and fatalities.
But Newsom, who gets high poll marks for most of his conduct this spring, now must contend with two things he helped create: One is the fact staying home meant California has seen far less contagion and death than predicted. This lessens the panic that first gave him free rein.
The other is that as the crisis persisted and one emergency executive order followed another, often in fields only peripherally related to the virus, Newsom gradually lost the aura of transparency that created the early unity.
Usually, when important new laws are passed in California, they follow a series of public hearings and much discussion. Not so with Newsom’s sudden edicts on everything from blocking evictions for non-payment of rent to freeing felons from jails and prisons early to prevent their becoming infected when those same felons didn’t previously worry about protecting anyone else. There were also orders to rent or buy hotels for housing thousands of the homeless and other decrees authorizing suspension by the courts of virtually all bail requirements for the duration.
Most of these moves lacked the detailed explanation that went into the original stay-home order.
Newsom has also been closed about how he’s spent much of the 7 billion state tax dollars consumed so far in the crisis, especially about his contract to buy almost $1 billion worth of personal protective equipment, including millions of face masks, from a Chinese company previously blacklisted by some federal transit agencies. It turns out no one knows when this stuff will show up, or many conditions of the huge deal. But we do know the state was gouged.
It’s all been justified – with a warranted shot at President Trump – by the fact that the federal government has not unified national purchases or production of masks, face shields, gowns and rubber gloves, thus creating ferocious competition between states and hospital systems for vital equipment. That encouraged price gouging that’s illegal in most crises.
There’s also the question of where Newsom and other governors get the authority to issue myriad fiats and decrees without so much as the right for anyone to petition the government for redress. The Constitution gives governors, presidents and mayors vast leeway to protect public health and safety in emergencies, as when then-Gov. Pete Wilson paid contractors large bonuses for completing bridge rebuilds ahead of schedule after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
But all previous emergencies were finite, with known needed corrective measures (as with evacuations in the face of wildfires) or definite time frames.
There are no time lines here, Newsom and other governors telling their constituents they can’t know how long current orders will be enforced because as yet there is no vaccine for the coronavirus.
The bottom line: While the governor was open about what he did, he enjoyed near-unanimous support. He needs to get back on the transparency track, or California will see more and more cracks in its harmony.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net