OAKLAND – The latest wave of coronavirus in California is all anyone can talk about – unless it’s Governor Gavin Newsom.
Faced with a threat of recall, Newsom tries to steer the conversation towards anything but Covid: shoplifting, homelessness, rent relief, broadband, wildfires and drought. But that became difficult after Los Angeles County shocked Californians last week with an indoor mask warrant and other major counties urged residents to mask themselves, regardless of their immunization status.
The sudden whiplash evoked unwelcome memories of past closures and fueled frustration with unvaccinated residents who allowed the more contagious Delta variant to spread. The situation put the Democratic governor in a more precarious political position just weeks before a recall vote.
Despite being one of the most aggressive governors over Covid restrictions last year, Newsom avoids discussing the rules and says little about whether Californians should wear masks or resume. other security practices. His only message is that everyone should get vaccinated.
“Newsom might be in a no-win situation where you’re never going to satisfy the anti-vax and anti-mask crowd that is the place of the recall, but now you are in a situation where you might see Democrats divided as well,” said Robb Korinke, political strategist and director of the GrassrootsLab in Long Beach.
Polls show California voters are prepared to reject the recall, but Republicans are counting on a strong turnout in September to overcome their enrollment disadvantage in this blue state.
It is not lost on anyone that the recall campaign gathered the bulk of its signatures to land on the ballot during the worst time of the pandemic in California in December and January. Frustration boiled over as hospitals were overwhelmed, few could get vaccinated, and most of the economy faced tough rules.
But widely available vaccines and plummeting infection numbers allowed Newsom to reopen the state’s economy on June 15 and embark on a triumphant “California Comeback” tour that also served as a non-campaign promotion. official. A summer back to normal had the potential to set the governor on the path to a fall vote against his recall.
The spike in cases driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant made it impossible to ignore growing questions about whether he would reimpose a mask warrant or other limitations. The governor has diligently deflected such questions, and he never deviates from his common answer: Get vaccinated and we won’t even have to think about it.
“Get the vaccine. We could end this thing quickly if everyone went out and got the vaccine,” Newsom said at a press conference Wednesday in Los Angeles focused on reducing retail theft.
The governor did not even hint at the possibility of reconsidering the mask requirements on Wednesday, when he said any further decisions would be made “on the basis of epidemiology, on the basis of science, based on the state of our health care delivery system.
About half of California’s residents now live in areas where indoor masking is recommended or required for those vaccinated. The spike reignited discussions about vaccine “passports” and other verification methods – perhaps in places like bars and restaurants – as well as employers’ immunization requirements.
There is no clear consensus on how best to proceed. Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has imposed an indoor mask requirement because she believes it is necessary to stop transmission of the Delta variant. But the counties in the San Francisco Bay Area that were the most aggressive in the country on the first Covid-19 restrictions have pulled down ahead of a warrant and issued a recommendation.
As infection rates and hospitalizations rise, the healthcare system is not overwhelmed like it was in the winter. In previous months, the lack of hospital beds was one of the main justifications for Newsom’s restrictions.
“Public health is really between a rock and a hard place right now, and I don’t envy anyone who has to take the lead,” said Andrew Noymer, epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine.
Beyond that, there are social and political arguments. Some fear that the reimposition of a mask mandate sends the wrong message to the unvaccinated that vaccines are not effective. Republicans claimed Newsom ignored the science when he released rules this month requiring all K-12 students to wear masks this fall, even if they have been immunized.
Counties are tightening just weeks before ballots are sent to voters’ mailboxes ahead of the Sept. 14 vote. Even though the new guidelines emanate from local authorities and not Newsom, they are likely to shape the attitudes of the electorate as voters assess Newsom’s leadership.
GOP recall candidates have previously tried to blame Newsom for the Los Angeles mask tenure, saying he should speak out against politics and intervene from Sacramento. “If Gavin Newsom had any common sense he would oppose these new unscientific mask mandates,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Faulconer, who was mayor of San Diego when the pandemic hit last year. .
Participation will be the key to Newsom’s fortune. Newsom will look to increase its margins in Democratic strongholds like Los Angeles County, which overwhelmingly supported it in 2018 and provided more than a quarter of its total votes. The county has seen some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States and is now seeing hospitalizations rise dramatically again. But it’s not clear Democrats there will blame Newsom for backtracking.
“The worst-case scenario for Newsom is a return of the virus which places more restrictions even beyond the mask’s mandate, but who are voters going to blame for it?” Korinke said. “They are going to blame the conservative side of the ledger.”
The California Department of Public Health reported this week that 99% of Covid-19 cases so far this year were among the unvaccinated. Groundbreaking cases among the vaccinated are relatively rare, especially those severe enough to require hospitalization, but that absolute number is expected to increase as more people are vaccinated.
While Newsom regularly touts California’s high vaccination rates, the state still lags many blue states and sits just above the national average. Public health experts agree the governor is right to focus on vaccinations and the state can’t hide its way out of the pandemic.
“The original sin is our low immunization rate, and we have to do better,” Noymer said. “This is how we’re going to get by.”
While Los Angeles County remains the only one requiring masks at this time, a prominent doctor believes Newsom should impose an indoor mask requirement as soon as possible because he suspects the push will only get worse.
Bob Wachter, who chairs the medical department at UC San Francisco and hosted the popular podcast “In the Bubble” for several months, recently said he had return to wearing double masks in stores.
“The governor generally did the right thing and followed the science during the pandemic, and I think voters in California will reward him for it,” Wachter said in an interview.
Acting sooner rather than waiting until Sept. 14 could cause an even bigger backlash than that of the pro-recall contingent, Wachter warned.
“I think the political price would be higher if it was seen to be playing politics with people’s lives,” he said.