Last Friday, five Bay Area counties announced that they were once again going into shutdown, for four weeks, due to rising Covid-19 rates. Nine months after it became the first region in the U.S. to introduce a stay-at-home health order—originally scheduled for three weeks, its restrictions have never been fully lifted—the Bay Area is resetting the clock, with a shutdown not quite as strict as in March but likely to have more severe social and economic effects.
The stay-at-home orders were having a corrosive impact in California months ago; this new shutdown could be the final straw for many struggling businesses. Making things worse, Governor Gavin Newsom has announced a new state order requiring shutdowns under criteria that the Bay Area does not yet meet. By jumping the gun, the Bay Area could face a longer lockdown if it falls under state criteria later.
Neither California as a whole nor the Bay Area is in a Covid crisis: the overall state infection rate is 39th in the country. Despite the highest-ever daily case count, hospitalizations are at about the same level as in August—and of course the state enacted no shutdowns over the summer. Bay Area counties had more than 20 percent of ICU beds available when the order was issued, and a week later they still had 18 percent. When the order was announced, Covid-19 hospitalizations totaled fewer than 1,000 in the whole region, with fewer than 300 of those in an ICU; the Bay Area’s total population exceeds 7 million.
If ICUs are filling up, it is due as much to an ordinary winter increase as to Covid-19. In San Francisco, just 13 percent of ICU beds are taken by Covid-19 patients (with 28 percent still empty), while in Santa Clara County, the hardest hit, that number is 28 percent. Even Santa Clara’s 8 percent ICU availability is not as dire as it seems; hospitals have an ICU surge capacity (a necessity in earthquake prone California) with over 300 such beds in San Francisco alone. Santa Clara is only using about 200 of almost 800 ventilators.
None of this is preventing claims that the sky is falling. On Wednesday San Francisco Director of Public Health warned in an interview of 500 to 1,500 additional Covid-19 deaths in the next two months without a shutdown—a striking figure given that only 164 San Franciscans have died from Covid-19 so far, all year. If the current measures (no indoor dining, masks, etc.) are so ineffective, one must wonder why infections and deaths were not raging a few months ago as well.
Adding insult to injury are the illogical rules regarding what establishments can or cannot stay open. Indoor retail is allowed but not outdoor dining, though risk of transmission is lower outdoors. Zoos and playgrounds must close, despite the hardship placed on families with children who cannot go to school—yet golf courses and tennis courts can keep running. Outdoor fitness establishments can stay open, with strangers breathing and sweating in proximity to one another if they are “socially distanced,” but drive-in movie theaters (which have made a comeback in the age of Covid-19) cannot, though families staying together in their own car would seem to be the safest possible activity outside the home.
The new state order has many of the same contradictions. Even worse, a colored tier system that has been used for months to regulate restrictions by county was abruptly superseded by a new plan that implements a shutdown depending on ICU capacity in six regions. Asked on Monday by a reporter for evidence that activities previously deemed safe, like outdoor dining, were contributing to Covid-19 spread, Newsom did not provide it.
In fact, the new lockdown regulations might make things worse. The closing of outdoor dining will drive people to socialize indoors. In comparison with the last nine months, this past weekend looked almost like Mardi Gras, as people filled the streets to visit outdoor restaurants while they still could. Those crowds will soon be filling house parties and underground clubs, where the risk of transmission is much higher.
The new orders follow revelations that California leaders have been ignoring their own Covid-19 directives. The day after Newsom attended a mask-less indoor dinner at the expensive French Laundry restaurant in Napa, San Francisco mayor London Breed did the same, earning ire both for her hypocrisy and for eating at a restaurant outside the city, when so many San Francisco restaurants are struggling or closing.
In addition to hypocrisy, California leaders have demonstrated double standards. Los Angeles County also issued a shutdown order this week, closing almost all businesses in the county, but including in the list of “essential” businesses all film and television production (not just television news as a public service). A video has spread across social media of a Sherman Oaks restaurant owner crying as she describes how she was forced to close the outdoor dining area of her restaurant (on which she spent $80,000 to comply with health orders), while in the same parking lot, an outdoor dining area was being set up to cater to a crew filming on location.
Yet resistance is growing to Covid-19 restrictions. Two days before the new lockdown was announced, a group of California legislators representing San Francisco sent a letter urging area school districts to reopen. More than 50 San Francisco pediatricians urged the same, citing the public-health harm of keeping children out of school, which they argue outweighs the risk of Covid-19 (San Francisco schools have been closed for on-site learning since March).
Backlash since the orders were announced has been stronger and quicker. Four Bay Area counties have not joined in the latest shutdown order, while San Mateo County Public Health director Scott Morrow has stated that business closures are a misguided way to fight the epidemic. In the east bay town of Danville, several businesses are openly defying the ban on outdoor dining. In Los Angeles County, a judge issued an injunction against the county health order banning outdoor dining and required the county to justify it (L.A. then fell under the state order, keeping outdoor dining closed). The sheriff of Riverside County, Chad Bianco, blasted both the state shutdown order and Newsom’s hypocrisy before announcing that he would not enforce the new state lockdowns if they were applied to his jurisdiction.
Statewide, criticism over closing playgrounds caused the state to reverse course mid-week and allow them to open—welcome news for parents but a move that just creates more contradictions with continued closure of zoos and outdoor dining. A move to recall Governor Newsom that was dead in the water just a few weeks ago suddenly has steam, and his advisors are worried it may be successful (five previous ones were not). Given that many convicts were released over fear of Covid-19 spread in prisons, more and more Californians are wondering why the state lets criminals go free while law-abiding citizens must lock themselves up.
It remains to be seen if this resistance will result in California moderating its Covid-19 policy. When first enacted in March, stay-at-home orders were presented as a means to “flatten the curve,” with graphs showing that ultimately the same number of people would get the disease, just not all at once, buying time for preparedness. By this measure, California has been successful—California hospitals were not stacking bodies in makeshift morgues in April, as New York was. Now, however, despite massive increases in testing capacity, improved treatments, a lower fatality rate, and the prospect of a vaccine just around the corner, California politicians and public officials have adopted an unreasonable standard of trying to stop the spread entirely—and they are pursuing it without consideration of the social and economic harm that they are inflicting on the state’s citizens.
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