In the iconic Peanuts comic strip, one of the recurring plot lines revolved around Charlie Brown repeatedly attempting to kick a football held by Lucy van Pelt, only to have her yank the football away at the last second — every time.
Today in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom keeps holding out the prospect of greater local control over public health, only to pull it back every time the counties reach for it. This dynamic is undermining our ability to manage the coronavirus pandemic by fueling distrust, noncompliance and nonenforcement throughout the state.
It is also hampering our recovery. If we want to successfully reopen society and protect public health, our counties must have the freedom to lead the way.
When Newsom announced the statewide stay-at-home order on March 19, he promised “collaboration and partnership across every level of government” as he rallied Californians to “meet the moment.”
On April 14, after it was clear that the stay-at-home order had flattened the hospitalization curve, Newsom reiterated that “localism (would be) determinative” in making the transition into the next phase of the pandemic.
Despite these promises, Newsom has not collaborated with local governments to ease the transition to the next phase of the pandemic.
Indeed, his ill-fated threat to close all beaches and state parks in California underscored the absence of collaboration that has characterized his response to the pandemic. Coastal governments were blind-sided, and Orange County officials were not given any opportunity to address his concerns. Instead, the matter ended up in court.
Similarly, localism is far from determinative at this point of the pandemic. After his April 14 comments, I interpreted Newsom’s remarks as a call to action for our counties. Many agreed.
Several counties petitioned Newsom for relief from the stay-at-home order based on their progress in containing the virus. But they were all rebuffed.
On May 5, Newsom finally announced that counties would be able to move slightly faster than the state in relaxing public health orders, provided they met certain criteria (no county can proceed to Newsom’s Stage 3 at this time).
As I’ve noted before, however, localism has been a one-way street for Newsom during the pandemic. Counties can tighten the state’s lockdown, but they cannot relax its grip over their communities.
When the criteria for local control were revealed on May 8, it was clear that many counties would not be able to meet them (with the notable exception of a handful of counties in Northern California, many of which were reopening anyway).
Specifically, the state’s latest metrics prevent a county from exercising local control over public health unless it has had no COVID-19 deaths for a 14-day period and no more than 1 positive case per 10,000 residents (over the same period).
The requirement for no fatalities over 14 days may not be achievable in many counties even when a vaccine is available at some point in the future. This is an entirely unrealistic zero-risk policy that the government has never utilized when confronting other significant public health problems (e.g., air quality, vehicle safety and seasonal flu).
With expanded testing, the continued spread of the virus, and the fact that Newsom has now loosened certain parts of his stay-at-home order, we know that the number of positive cases will increase. This means the new case limit will be unachievable for many counties.
It is also entirely unnecessary. If at-risk populations were to stay at home, future infections would not overly burden the health-care system.
In addition, by permitting more activity by low-risk individuals, we would accelerate our efforts to acquire herd immunity. Newsom’s position, by contrast, slows our ability to acquire herd immunity by requiring economically and socially destructive stay-at-home policies to remain in place in order to reduce confirmed positives that will not result in hospitalizations. This is nonsensical.
In Santa Barbara County, we face another irrational obstacle to local control over public health. The state has taken the initial position that the COVID-19 cases from inmates at the Lompoc federal prison complex must be included in our county’s case statistics for the purpose of assessing its readiness to reopen.
This position is without any rational basis in public health policy. The purpose of testing is to prevent community spread of COVID-19 by identifying the infected, isolating them and then tracing their contacts.
By definition, inmates at the Lompoc penitentiary complex are not members of our community and pose no threat of community spread. They are incarcerated. Further, they are already isolated and all their contacts have been effectively traced and tested.
By forcing residents to remain at home because of COVID-19 cases at a federal prison, Newsom is ignoring his duty to protect the interests of the actual residents of Santa Barbara County.
These standards pose another problem for Newsom. If the state chooses to continue moving through Stage 2 before these standards have been met at the statewide level, he would be forced to explain why the state can disregard purportedly critical public health standards but the counties cannot, exposing him to charges of hypocrisy and autocracy.
If the status quo remains until these standards have been met statewide, it could be months — or years — before the next relaxation of the stay-at-home order. This delay would destroy the lives of millions of Californians and set our recovery back by years, if not decades.
Newsom would be wise to scrap these standards in favor of the hospital capacity requirement already contained in the variance guidelines. Remember, ensuring hospital capacity, not avoiding fatalities and coronavirus cases, was the explicit basis for the stay-at-home order.
More broadly, Newsom would be wise to collaborate as promised with local governments and accelerate local control over public health. The state’s heavy-handed approach to managing COVID-19 is costing him necessary support from industries, public officials and residents.
The pace at which California is moving is also insufficient to stem the downward spiral the state and counties are trapped in under the stay-at-home order. Permitting curbside retail activity to stem an economic collapse is a bit like using bubble gum to plug one of a thousand holes in a leaking dam.
If we are to have any hope of living with COVID-19 in a way that enables economic activity and properly weighs the full-range of physical and mental health needs of our residents, we must empower the counties to lead the way.
Let’s hope Newsom trusts his earlier instincts and does so immediately.
— Brian Goebel served as a senior official in the Treasury and Homeland Security departments following 9/11. Since 2005, he has founded successful consulting and analytics firms serving governments around the globe; launched 2040 Matters, a nonpartisan public policy blog dedicated to restoring the American Dream for younger Americans; and was elected to the Montecito Water District Board of Directors in 2018. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.