SACRAMENTO – When it comes to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made clear he’s not concerned that California’s way may be different from that of other states.
While the arrival of the novel coronavirus has prompted governors across the country to issue sweeping statewide orders in the name of public health – legal mandates to cancel school, quarantine the sick and close down businesses – Newsom’s historic directives for the state’s 40 million residents have come with a deliberately light touch.
The Democratic governor has advised schools to consider shuttering in communities with COVID-19 cases, asked event organizers to cancel large gatherings, urged – but not ordered – bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms to close their doors and recommended that seniors and people with underlying health conditions shelter at home.
“We’re not some small isolated state. We’re a nation-state,” Newsom told reporters on Sunday. “Santa Clara County’s conditions are extraordinarily different than Tulare. Extraordinarily different than Madera. Or Colusa. And so, while it may be fanciful and comforting by perception standards, for some (who want) one size fits all, that’s not the world in which we view the reality on the ground. There’s no community spread in some communities, there (is) significant community spread in other communities.”
Some have questioned why Newsom isn’t being more aggressive, and whether his softer tone could put the state at a disadvantage.
But to both Republicans and Democrats who have been part of crisis decisions made by other governors, Newsom’s approach so far looks different: They see a chief executive methodically easing Californians into a new way of life as more drastic quarantine measures begin in counties inundated with cases of the virus.
“He’s been very slow to act authoritarian,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant and former advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “He’s been very intentional that these are his directives. This is what he’s asking and he’s expressing optimism that people will comply because that is how serious the situation is. In the U.S., I think that’s a very important tone to take because people will not take well to having their freedoms restricted.”
Newsom has described differences between his actions and those of other governors as a “nuance” and said California is too large and its counties are too distinct for a singular approach. As a former mayor, Newsom has repeatedly said that he’s responding with a “bottom-up” approach in a state known for a governing model that gives local leaders a wide berth to take the lead in their communities.
California’s public health system largely relies on county public health officers to respond to outbreaks. Counties have issued requirements to their residents that often go above and beyond state guidelines – something Newsom said he’s encouraged in areas hardest hit by the virus.
The state also practices a system of mutual aid during disasters, in which locals officials serve as the first line of response on the ground and look to the state to provide guidance or fill in the gaps when they need help. The state can turn to the federal government to aid in recovery, often for financial support.
Susan Kennedy, a former top aide to Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the system works.
“The locals will tell you what the problems are instead of having the state coming in thinking they know how to solve the problem,” Kennedy said. “This kind of communication in the middle of a disaster is critical. We practice for if you have a gap, you ring the bell and we’re right behind you.”