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California Rolls Back

The nation's most significant rollback to date of a state reopening plan occurred Monday when California Gov. Gavin Newsom closed seven categories of indoor businesses statewide and an additional six categories of indoor operations in 31 counties.
July 14, 2020, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Coronavirus Protest
Reopen California protestors in Laguna Beach, California on May 2, 2020. On July 14, 2020, Orange County has 382 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, one of the highest rates among populous counties in the state, according to the LA Times.

California is one of four states responsible for half of the nation's coronavirus infections, observed Anthony S. Faucithe nation’s top infectious-diseases expert on June 30 when he warned that the U.S. is headed for 100,000 daily cases. The other three are Arizona, Florida, and Texas.  On July 13, one of those states took decisive statewide action, though short of a return to a stay-at-home order, to reduce its outbreak.

"Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered every county in California to close indoor restaurants, movie theaters and wineries Monday, in a major retreat in the state’s 2-month-old effort to recover from the coronavirus-caused economic collapse," reports Dustin Gardiner for the San Francisco Chronicle. The other four categories are bars and breweries, family entertainment centers (includes bowling alleys and arcades), zoos and museums, and cardrooms. Notably absent in the statewide closures are houses of worship that have been linked to superspreading events.

Across the state, the average number of daily coronavirus cases nearly doubled between June and July. In June, counties reported an average of 4,007 new cases each day, compared with 8,211 over the last week.

Residents of 31 counties on the monitor list for three consecutive days, about 80% of the state's population of almost 40 million, will see additional indoor closures:

  1. Places of worship, 
  2. Indoor protests, 
  3. Offices for non-critical infrastructure sectors, 
  4. Personal care services, 
  5. Hair salons and barbershops, and 
  6. Malls.
"In addition to concerns about urban counties in the Bay Area and Southern California, the state acted because of fears about growing hospitalizations in rural areas, Newsom said," added Gardiner. "He cited Placer and Lake counties as areas where hospital intensive care units are filled almost to capacity."

Newsom's administration devised a roadmap for counties to open provided they meet certain criteria, but also allowed counties to open faster if they "attested" to meeting the readiness criteria. 

Newsom’s administration began allowing counties in May to move ahead on reopening businesses including indoor restaurants and shopping malls if they hit benchmarks in slowing the spread of the virus and creating capacity to contain a surge. Most counties have allowed many nonessential businesses to reopen, although the pace has been slower in the Bay Area than elsewhere.

Political fallout, but not for closures

"Newsom was heralded nationally for his early efforts to control the spread in California," writes Kevin Yamamura for POLITICO Nightly.

He now faces criticism for greenlighting bars and other social activities that contributed to the spread. He has drawn questions about why he left reopening decisions to local officials less equipped to withstand political pressure from residents. And he will increasingly get blamed by parents and teachers who thought he had a better handle on the disease.

County vs. State

Yamamura makes a critical point: should the reopening be left to counties or governors? In Kansas, infection rates are surging because the Republican legislature stripped Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of her authority and gave counties control over their reopenings.

But in the Lone Star State, the opposite scenario is unfolding, where Harris County head, Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Silvester Turner lack authority to issue stay-at-home orders, reports Tracy Connor for the Daily Beast on July 13.

“If it wasn’t clear before, it’s obvious now that having so much still open—from restaurants to all size indoor events to water parks—is not going to turn this thing around, which is why I continue to call for an enforceable stay-home order," said Hidalgo.

Hidalgo and other Houston-area officials have called on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to give the county the power to impose more restrictive measures than he has ordered at the state level. Abbott did recently mandate mask use in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases, and suggested “the next step would have to be a lockdown” if it didn't pay dividends.

As for the two other states responsible for half the nation's coronavirus infections, as of July 13, neither Gov. Doug Ducey (R) of Arizona nor Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida have mandated the statewide usage of masks, though they have closed bars in their states. Newsom mandated wearing of masks on June 18.

What remains to be seen is how effective the shutdowns of indoor businesses will prove in reducing the growth of infections in California.

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Published on Monday, July 13, 2020 in San Francisco Chronicle
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