SACRAMENTO – When coronavirus cases in California began a dangerous ascent in November, Gov. Gavin Newsom tried a new approach.
The state imposed a nighttime curfew for the state’s hardest-hit counties, saying it was crucial to decrease transmission and slow hospitalizations.
“We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom said as he issued the order on Nov. 19.
It didn’t appear to work.
Some local sheriffs, like those in Sacramento and El Dorado County, quickly said they wouldn’t enforce a curfew. Others questioned whether the coronavirus was spreading much at night. Within two weeks, Newsom was on camera once again, announcing stricter measures to slow the spread.
“We’ve seen slight reductions (from the curfew,) but nothing too significant,” Mark Ghaly, Secretary of California Health and Human Services, said last week. “We had hoped and wanted to see more from that.”
After nine months of pandemic pandemonium, warnings to stay home and limit gatherings increasingly are falling on deaf ears.
“Not staying home,” one YouTube user commented as Newsom issued his latest stay-at-home order.
“We already did this AND IT DID NOT WORK,” said another. “I’m so confused. I’ve been staying home all year, what’s changed?”
Newsom himself slipped up in early November with a dinner at the French Laundry. San Francisco Mayor London Breed was spotted at the same swanky Napa restaurant a day later. Five lawmakers ate together outside at a restaurant this week, mixing multiple households following the first day of their session.
“Can we not have dinner?” Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian said when a Sacramento Bee reporter asked about the gathering.
The state’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, has started referring not just to “COVID fatigue,” but to “COVID resentment.”
“It is very difficult to maintain fidelity to this kind of public health behavior,” said Brad Pollock, associate dean for Public Health Sciences at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. “People like to be social, they like to be together. And the problem is that this virus does its damage by spreading before people know they’re sick.”
Human behavior, it seems, has changed little since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
“As time went on, fatigue set in even among those who had complied to begin with,” wrote author Laura Spinney in her recent book, “Pale Rider,” about the Spanish Flu, which killed 675,000 Americans.
“Not only were the measures preventing them from going about their normal lives, but their efficacy appeared to be patchy at best. Role models forgot themselves. The mayor of San Francisco let his face mask dangle while watching a parade to celebrate the armistice. And the logic behind the restrictions was sometimes hard to follow,” she wrote.
Assemblyman Chad Mayes, one of the lawmakers who dined with Nazarian, said just as much this week.
“It has been very unclear,” he said of COVID-19 regulations. “Legislators, just like everybody else – I don’t want to start beating other people up – but they think they’re very unclear.”
Part of the rationale for Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order, tied to ICU capacity, is that the last one worked so well at reducing spread. At the start of the pandemic, the governor’s stay-at-home order stopped the state from experiencing the levels of cases and mortality that overwhelmed other states like New York, experts say.
“We did pretty good, and it was at a time when New York was doing really poorly, and we were doing really well,” said Karin Michels, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health.
“But people become fatigued with the restrictions, and it’s very understandable, because people have been home a long time.”