Newsom Pulls ‘Emergency Brake’ on Reopening as Covid Surges in California

California Covid map as of Nov. 16, 2020.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — With coronavirus cases up over 50% in the last 10 days, California Governor Gavin Newsom halted counties’ reopening efforts effective immediately and said the state is prepping emergency hospitals to deal with the surge.

Newsom called the spike in cases “unprecedented” and placed 40 counties — representing 94% of the state’s population — in the state’s most restrictive reopening tier, meaning stricter rules for businesses and churches. The Democratic governor also urged Californians to wear a mask whenever outside of their home.

“We are sounding the alarm,” said Newsom. “California is experiencing the fastest increase in cases we have seen yet — faster than what we experienced at the outset of the pandemic or even this summer. The spread of Covid-19, if left unchecked, could quickly overwhelm our health care system and lead to catastrophic outcomes. That is why we are pulling an emergency brake.”

It what can only be viewed as one of the worst weeks in California’s pandemic fight, the state last week crossed the 1 million-case mark, issued a statewide travel advisory and ordered nearly a dozen counties to rollback reopening efforts. 

The avalanche of awful news spurred Newsom to interfere in the state’s color-coded reopening scheme on Monday. Last week just 13 counties were under the most restrictive tiers — which bars indoor dining and religious ceremonies — but with Newsom’s intervention, 40 are now in the most stringent category.

Counties demoted to purple include Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Fresno, Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa. Instead of a weekly update, Newsom said tier placements will be assessed more often and changes could happen on a daily basis. In addition, going forward counties will be dropped after one week instead of two if they see increasing cases or positivity rates.

Newsom was the first governor to order a statewide lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, and while the latest coronavirus trends are troubling, he didn’t order another stay-at-home mandate. However he indicated a statewide curfew could soon be a reality, as Newsom said his administration is studying the results of similar measures taken in France, Germany, Portugal and Saudi Arabia.  

The former mayor of San Francisco said the potential curfew is still in the planning stages and didn’t indicate which industries or who would be impacted.

“We really want the data to bear out and we want the information not to be anecdotal; we want to really take a look at those studies,” Newsom said.

Whether residents and businesses — and cities and counties — will comply with the restrictions is anybody’s guess, as is how far the state will go to enforce Newsom’s plan. But Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Monday evening the city will expand enforcement of local health orders to go after businesses that fail to comply.

Although small social gatherings are driving the surge of infections, businesses are increasingly flouting rules meant to prevent transmission of Covid-19. Those found violating public health orders will receive citations and may also have their permits revoked, the mayor said.

Garcetti also urged residents to follow orders to wear masks in public and to consider canceling any unnecessary travel this holiday season. 

“LA is in a very dangerous situation, the alarm bells are ringing,” Garcetti said. “Right now is the toughest moment we’ve faced.”

Garcetti said he understands residents may be exhausted by restrictions after nine months in a pandemic but said people should double their precautions as infections surge in the region.

Counties reported nearly 10,000 new cases on Monday, bumping California’s tally to 1,036,000 cases. The Golden State trails Texas by 25,000 infections and is third in total deaths at 18,270, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Along with a flood of new infections, California hospitalizations have jumped 48% over the last two weeks. The troubling combination has alarmed state officials to the extent plans are now being made to activate so-called “surge hospitals” if needed.

Newsom said 11 temporary hospitals established last spring and summer are still available and could begin taking patients with just one to four days notice. He added that preparations are already being made for a surge hospital in Imperial County, which was the epicenter of one of the state’s worst outbreaks last June. 

While California’s 14-day positivity rate is now at 4.6% and well below the nationwide average of 9.8%, Newsom urged residents not to celebrate or get complacent.

“Don’t be misled by [the totals], the rate of increase is alarming nonetheless,” Newsom said. “We don’t compare ourselves to the average, we can do more and we can do better.”

In a gift to critics that have accused the Democratic governor of issuing overly strict pandemic orders unilaterally over the last several months, Newsom acknowledged last week he recently attended a large birthday dinner for a friend and lobbyist at a swanky restaurant.

The news broke as Newsom’s top public health adviser held a press conference urging 40 million Californians to ditch family traditions and instead hold “virtual Thanksgivings” to stem the spread of Covid-19. The revelation not only showed a lack of judgment on Newsom’s part, it also took the steam out of the vital update by California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly.

Newsom addressed the scandal Monday, saying the turnout was larger than he anticipated and apologized for breaking his own advice by mixing with other households.

“I made a bad mistake,” said Newsom, who attended the dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry in Napa with his wife. “The spirit of what I’m preaching all the time was contradicted and I’ve got to own that.”

The silver lining of Monday’s grim pandemic briefing is that California’s overall hospital capacity and medical stockpile remain strong.

According to Newsom, the state has over 20,000 available ventilators, 500 million masks and the ability to create 1,800 additional hospital beds if the pandemic continues to worsen this fall and winter. He said the numbers should ease the anxieties of worried residents and that the state isn’t being caught flat-footed.

“We have been preparing precisely for this moment. We’ve been modeling this moment, we’ve been foreshadowing this moment for many, many months since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom said. 

The governor capped the press conference by saying he will push to make more financial support available for small businesses in the next budget, noting tax collections are projected to be “substantially greater” than anticipated in the current spending plan. He also said he will continue pressing Congress and President-elect Joe Biden to pass another stimulus package.

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