Governing in crisis: Gov. Newsom faces another test with coronavirus
SACRAMENTO — As the coronavirus spreads through California, the restrictions placed on its 40 million residents have varied by county and community, the result of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's early decision to largely allow local governments to set their own rules.
After initially setting statewide guidance to keep crowds under 250 people, Newsom on Monday night restricted all unnecessary gatherings and ordered restaurants to close to dine-in patrons and gyms and movie theaters to shutter. It came after local government leaders in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area had already taken such steps, or even more aggressive ones. He never mandated school closures statewide, though almost every district has shut down.
Other governors, such as Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington and Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, imposed school closures and more restrictive state guidance sooner. Newsom, though, was the first governor to call for self-isolation by people over the age of 65, something President Donald Trump did on Monday.
The severity of the outbreak varies widely. Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, where six counties have ordered nearly 7 million residents to shelter in place, have the highest number of cases. Other areas of the state, like the more sparsely populated north and the agricultural Central Valley have seen fewer.
Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at the California State University, Northridge said Newsom's approach reflects the state's tradition of “bottom up, home rule authority” and a “reluctance of the state to overstep."
He added: “But it still doesn’t quite make sense right from a policy standpoint in a crisis."
Another difference between Newsom and fellow Democratic governors: He's largely avoided criticizing Trump. State lawmakers from both parties have applauded his approach.
Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley offered support for Newsom just before the Legislature approved the governor's emergency funding request.
“I call on every legislator and every Californian, regardless of political preference, to trust Gov. Newsom’s leadership and listen to his guidance," Kiley said. “The partisan rituals of ordinary politics have no place in these extraordinary times.”
Rob Stutzman, head of communications under former Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, applauded Newsom's actions.
“California is a big enough state to let substantial regional leaders, I think, make some alternate decisions,” he said.
He added that Newsom's approach of slowly rolling out restrictions and to avoiding outlining enforcement provisions may help the public better adjust to the changes.
“He's really bent over backward to say I'm asking, I'm directing, I expect you to do this — I don't think we need to enforce,” Stutzman said.
Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor and lieutenant governor, took office just 14 months ago but has experienced a career's worth of crises.
Soon after he took office the state's largest utility declared bankruptcy under the burden of billions in liabilities from wildfires sparked by its equipment. That was followed by widespread blackouts imposed by California utilities as a defense against more wildfires.
Just a month ago, Newsom devoted nearly his entire State of the State to the lack of affordable housing and expanding homelessness.
Ann O'Leary, his chief of staff, said the number of crises "does feel unprecedented in terms of just the intensity.”
She said with a state as large as California, it makes sense that areas with “hot spots and vulnerable populations might want to go a little further."
California has crafted itself as the “resistance” to the Trump administration, but Newsom has been careful not to poke the president during the outbreak. Last week he criticized the federal government's slow roll out of testing, though he was measured in his remarks and didn't mention Trump.