OAKLAND — California’s latest coronavirus surge is all anyone here can talk about — unless they’re Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Facing a recall threat, Newsom is trying to steer the conversation toward anything but Covid: shoplifting, homelessness, rent relief, broadband, wildfires and the drought. But that’s become difficult after Los Angeles County shocked Californians last week with an indoor mask mandate and other large counties urged residents to mask up, regardless of vaccination status.
The sudden whiplash evoked unwelcome memories of past lockdowns and fueled frustration with the unvaccinated residents who have allowed the more contagious Delta variant to spread. The situation has put the Democratic governor in a more precarious political position just weeks ahead of a recall vote.
Despite being one of the most aggressive governors on Covid restrictions last year, Newsom is shying away from discussing rules and saying little about whether Californians should wear masks or resume other safety practices. His only message is that everyone should get vaccinated.
“Newsom could be in a no-win situation where you’re never going to satisfy the anti-vax, anti-mask crowd who are the locus of the recall, but now you’re in a situation where you could see Democrats divided as well,” said Robb Korinke, a political strategist and principal at Long Beach-based GrassrootsLab.
Polls show California voters are prepared to reject the recall, but Republicans are banking on a large turnout in September to overcome their registration disadvantage in this blue state.
It’s not lost on anyone that the recall drive gathered the bulk of its signatures to land on the ballot during California’s worst stretch of the pandemic in December and January. Frustrations boiled over as hospitals were overwhelmed, few could get vaccinated and most of the economy faced strict rules.
But broadly available vaccines and tumbling infection numbers allowed Newsom to reopen the state’s economy June 15 and embark on a triumphalist “California Comeback” tour that doubled as a non-official campaign promotion. A summer of returning normalcy had the potential to put the governor on a glide path to a fall vote against recalling him.
The spike in cases driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant has made it impossible to ignore increasing questions about whether he would reimpose a mask mandate or other limitations. The governor has diligently deflected such queries, and he never veers from his stock answer: get vaccinated and we won’t even have to contemplate it.
“Get vaccinated. We could end this thing quickly if everyone just went out and got vaccinated,” Newsom said at a press conference Wednesday in Los Angeles focused on reducing retail theft.
The closest the governor has come to even hinting at the possibility of reconsidering mask requirements was Wednesday, when he said any subsequent decisions would be made “on the basis of epidemiology, on the basis of science, on the basis of the status 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 who are vaccinated. The spike has revived talks of vaccine “passports” and other verification methods — possibly at places like bars and restaurants — as well as employer vaccination requirements.
There is no clear consensus on how best to proceed. Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer imposed an indoor mask requirement because she believes it’s necessary to stop transmission of the Delta variant. But the San Francisco Bay Area counties that were the nation’s most aggressive on early Covid-19 restrictions stopped short of a mandate and issued a recommendation.
While infection rates and hospitalizations are climbing, the health care system isn’t overwhelmed the way it was in the winter. In previous months, the lack of hospital beds was one major justification 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 call the shots,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine.
Beyond that, there are social and political arguments. Some fear that reimposing a mask mandate could send the wrong message to the unvaccinated that vaccines aren’t effective. Republicans have asserted that Newsom ignored science when he issued rules this month requiring all K-12 students to wear masks this fall, even if they’ve been immunized.
Counties are tightening up just weeks before ballots are set to hit voters’ mailboxes ahead of the Sept. 14 vote. Even if the new guidelines are emanating from local officials and not Newsom, they are likely to shape the electorate’s attitudes as voters weigh Newsom’s leadership.
GOP recall candidates have already tried to blame Newsom for the Los Angeles mask mandate, saying that he should speak out against the policy and intervene from Sacramento. “If Gavin Newsom had any common sense, he’d step up and oppose these new unscientific mask mandates,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Faulconer, who was San Diego mayor when the pandemic struck last year.
Turnout will be key to Newsom’s fortunes. Newsom will look to run up his margins in Democratic strongholds like Los Angeles County, which overwhelmingly backed him in 2018 and supplied more than quarter of his total votes. The county experienced some of America’s worst coronavirus surges and is now seeing hospitalizations dramatically rise again. But it’s unclear that Democrats there will fault Newsom for the backslide.
“The worst case for Newsom is a return of the virus that forces more restrictions even beyond the mask mandate, but who are voters going to blame for that?” Korinke said. “They’re going to blame the conservative side of the ledger.”
The California Department of Public Health this week reported that 99 percent of the Covid-19 cases so far this year were among the unvaccinated. Breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are relatively rare, particularly those severe enough to require hospitalization, but that absolute number is expected to grow as more people get vaccinated.
While Newsom regularly touts California’s high vaccination rates, the state is still trailing many blue states and is just above the national average. Public health experts agree that the governor is right to focus on vaccinations, and that the state can’t mask its way out of the pandemic.
“The original sin is our low vaccination rate, and we need to do better,” Noymer said. “That’s how we’re going to get out of this.”
While Los Angeles County remains alone in mandating masks at the moment, one prominent doctor believes Newsom should impose an indoor mask requirement sooner rather than later because he suspects the surge will only get worse.
Bob Wachter, who chairs the department of medicine at UC San Francisco and hosted the popular “In the Bubble” podcast for several months, recently said he has gone back to wearing double masks in stores.
“The governor has generally done the right thing and followed the science over the course of the pandemic, and I think the voters of California will reward him for doing that,” Wachter said in an interview.
Acting sooner rather than waiting for Sept. 14 could provide an even bigger backlash than the one from the pro-recall contingent, Wachter warned.
“I think the political price would be greater if he were perceived as playing politics with people’s lives,” he said.