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Why California Gov. Newsom extending the COVID-19 state of emergency matters

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has extended his state's COVID-19 state of emergency declaration through March 2022, which means he will have had emergency powers for (at least) a full two years.

With those emergency powers, Newsom is able to implement sweeping pandemic policy via executive order while side-stepping the Legislature. Perhaps more importantly, under California law, so long as a statewide health emergency declaration is in place, county health officers — who, unlike the governor, were never elected to their positions — are also given broad powers to implement various controls without approval from elected officials such as mayors or supervisors. In the Bay Area, the tension between elected officials and heath officers over restrictions has spilled into the public eye in recent months.

In a statement released last week, Newsom's office wrote, "The state of emergency ensures the state can continue to respond quickly to evolving conditions as the pandemic persists. As we have seen, this virus and variants are unpredictable. The state of emergency will be ended once conditions no longer warrant an emergency response."

SFGATE then reached out to the governor's office Monday morning regarding the statement and gave them a full day to answer the following three questions:

1. Is the governor's office looking at any specific metrics, such as cases, vaccination rates, hospitalizations or deaths, to determine when "conditions no longer warrant an emergency response?"

2. If the health expert consensus that COVID-19 will become endemic like the seasonal flu or common cold is correct and the state will have "COVID season" every winter, would that mean the state will remain under an indefinite state of emergency year-to-year?

3. Is the governor's office aware of the downstream impacts of the state emergency declaration related to giving county health officials sweeping policy-making powers?

At the end of the day Monday, Newsom's office opted not to answer any of those questions, and instead referred SFGATE back to the original statement.

While many states with Democratic governors such as New York, Illinois and Washington still have active emergency declarations, not all of them do. Colorado and Minnesota both allowed their emergency declarations to expire over the summer, with the states' respective governors citing the fact that vaccinations are highly effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization as justification for relinquishing emergency powers.

"(T)he health emergency is over," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in July. "Our hospital capacity is no longer in jeopardy. The virus is certainly still with us and the work continues around vaccinations and economic recovery, but it's an exciting day because it really is an acknowledgment that the steps that Coloradans took to help contain the virus worked."

In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz also allowed his state of emergency order to expire and did not publicly consider reinstating it amid the delta variant's surge. Neither Minnesota nor Colorado saw overwhelmed hospitals over the summer.

When Newsom was asked why he was extending California's emergency declaration over the summer, he responded with, "This disease has not been extinguished. It's not vanished; it's not taking the summer months off."

If Newsom is waiting until COVID-19 has been "extinguished" to lift the state of emergency, that may be a task left to his successor (or that successor's successor) given predictions of COVID-19 becoming endemic. The state Legislature has the power to end the state of emergency with a concurrent resolution, and Republicans such as Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and state Sen. Melissa Melendez have sought to hold such a vote.

Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and have blocked such action to this point.

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