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'Difficult moments': Gavin Newsom on the personal toll of the pandemic as a recall looms and California reopens

·West Coast Correspondent
·17 min read
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It’s been quite a week for California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

On Tuesday, his state became one of the last in the U.S. to end its mask mandate, lift its capacity limits and fully reopen its economy — and Newsom has not been shy about celebrating.

There he was in San Francisco on Monday, announcing a $95 million marketing campaign to boost domestic tourism.

There he was at Universal Studios Hollywood the following morning, drawing $15 million in lottery prizes for newly vaccinated Californians and touting his $100 billion California Comeback Plan — with Optimus Prime, a Troll and a flock of Minions by his side.

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom supervising the Vax for the Win lottery contest at Universal Studios Hollywood. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

A $4.5 million ticket giveaway at Six Flags Magic Mountain. A trip to Bakersfield to launch a new post-pandemic council on fitness and mental well-being. Appearances on James Corden and Seth Meyers. And even a series of campaign ads dismissing the drive to recall him from office as the work of "the same Trump Republicans who refused to accept the presidential election.” For the past few days, the 53-year-old Democrat has seemingly been everywhere, all at once.

Yet this week’s giddy victory lap — a push that has as much to do, of course, with politics as with public health — only underscores the hardships of 15 months that preceded it.

The first governor to implement a stay-at-home order, Newsom was hailed as a COVID hero when California avoided the worst of America’s initial surge. But then the state eased restrictions, cases spiked, confusion reigned and Newsom got caught dining maskless at Napa Valley’s posh French Laundry restaurant.

By the time an even bigger wave of infection started to build ahead of the holidays — and by the time Newsom reacted with another stay-at-home order in an effort to minimize deaths and hospitalizations — many residents had lost their patience. The sixth recall petition against him — the first was launched before the pandemic — qualified for the ballot in April.

Today, a full 57 percent of Californians say they will vote to keep Newsom in office; just 40 percent say the opposite. Even more (64 percent) approve of how the governor has handled the pandemic. California’s COVID case rate is among the lowest in the nation; its vaccination rate is among the highest. Sacramento now boasts a record $80 billion surplus, and last month Newsom was able to announce the biggest state tax rebate in U.S. history. Things are looking up.

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Anti-Newsom sentiment along Interstate 5 near Gustine, Calif. (George Rose/Getty Images)

But Newsom hasn’t forgotten the “darkness” that even he felt during the pandemic. “It's tough enough on the best of days, in the very polarized political world we’re living in,” he told Yahoo News this week. “But then you're surrounded by protesters 24/7 at the house with bullhorns. You got a recall raging. You’re quarantined. You’re working through all this, and the holidays, and your own reflection on how well things are going. Yeah, those were more difficult moments than I’ve experienced before.”

Speaking by phone from the road outside Bakersfield, Newsom went on to discuss the toll the last year has taken on his four young kids, despite their advantages; the reasons why California’s unemployment rate is lagging behind other, more positive economic indicators; what he got wrong about the pandemic; and how he finds it “ironic that some of the biggest critics of cancel culture are out there promoting recalls.”

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

YAHOO NEWS: I was struck by your comments this week about the pandemic’s effect on mental health, especially among children. Your wife is co-chairing a new fitness and mental well-being advisory council, and I know you have four young kids together — some of whom have had to deal with learning differences, like you have with dyslexia. I hope I’m not getting too personal—

GAVIN NEWSOM: No, I appreciate it.

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Eric Risberg/AP)

—but as a father of young children myself, I’m wondering: How has the pandemic affected the wellness of your kids, and how has the experience of parenting during a pandemic informed you and your wife’s approach to this issue?

I think profoundly. The experience at home starts with school. Our little son always says, “Zoom school — I hate Zoom school. I don’t want to do Zoom school again.” The impact on their relationships with their friends, as well as relationships with their family members; the difficulty they’re having reengaging with their friends and family, feeling like folks have grown up without them; some of our oldest family friends doing different activities, developing different skills, different sports — and then how that leads to anxiety.

The overindulgence in media as well. We really prided ourselves as parents at having small doses of media. But we, like I imagine millions of others, just broke down during the pandemic. We started indulging more and more. We needed our own space, needed our own time.

We all paid a price for that. So it’s been very difficult in that respect. And that’s in a household with two parents who have the capacity and means to get support. I can’t imagine what it’s like for others without that capacity, without those means.

This is a tricky question to ask a politician, but do you feel like your mental wellness was affected by the pandemic?

Yeah. There were, I think, some of the most difficult times for me, personally. I’m shocked that I’m even answering. I’d never thought I’d answer the question. But because no one’s asked me, I’ll be as honest as I can about it.

Some of the most difficult moments for me were when I had to quarantine at home. It was at the height of that second surge, last fall, around the holidays. And just the grind of the year and that sort of reflection: coulda, woulda, shoulda. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? How do we work our way out of this? Being physically isolated at home and not capable of going out. Not only out across the state, but even to my own office. Those were, for me, the most difficult moments, days, weeks in the pandemic. That’s when it really hit home.

It’s tough enough on the best of days, in the very polarized political world we’re living in. But then you’re surrounded by protesters 24/7 at the house with bullhorns. You got a recall raging. You’re quarantined. You’re working through all this, and the holidays, and your own reflection on how well things are going. Yeah, those were more difficult moments than I’ve experienced before.

Because I’ve been blessed. My grandfather took his life — suicide. Had serious mental health issues. My mother struggled a lot. Nothing extreme, but I think like a lot of single moms, working moms, it was hard. She was prone to feeling really down and depressed and lonely. She was divorced — never got remarried.

So while I experienced that growing up, I’ve never felt that darkness myself. But there were moments during this pandemic where I saw a little of that coming on in ways that I had never experienced. And it really made me attuned to how people must be feeling and how desperate some people really are in terms of their own mental health.

Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Oakland last month. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I appreciate your honesty. Now on a happier note: Congrats on the reopening. As I've noted in other stories, California’s economy actually contracted less than Florida’s during 2020, and the Golden State accounted for 38 percent of all new U.S. jobs in April. But as folks like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis never tire of pointing out, California’s unemployment rate is still one of the worst in the country: 8.3 percent to Florida’s 4.8 percent. Why haven’t those jobs come back?

It's because the sector that's been disproportionately impacted is hospitality — and that’s the same sector that has outperformed the last three months.

I’ve been very candid. When we announced our efforts to reopen California a couple days ago in San Francisco, we also announced this $95 million marketing campaign [for domestic tourism]. And as I said at the time, this industry has had a sledgehammer taken to it because of this pandemic and the decisions we felt we needed to make. It’s a $145-billion-a-year industry — at least in 2019 it was. That was a record number. So that sector is poised for a big rebound — restaurants, hotels, entertainment.

And I’m already seeing it. As a guy with a bunch of restaurants and a few hotels myself, I have a little practical understanding of where things are going. People are talking about “revenge tourism” — big numbers for businesses that were able to hold the line and keep their doors open. There’s a lot of optimism in that space. But you’re right. It’s stunted.

Do you think reopening sooner, like Florida, would have brought jobs back faster? That’s the DeSantis argument — that he made the right decision reopening indoor bars and restaurants at full capacity and keeping them open in the midst of the winter surge.

Yeah, I know. Look, I respect the different arguments. But if you’re going to have a debate, you’ve got to have a real debate. You’ve got to actually compare apples to apples. If you're looking at epidemiology, if you're looking at spread, you have to look at density. L.A. is seven times denser than Miami. That’s apples and oranges [in terms of the risk of transmission, illness and death].

But good people can disagree, and governors will choose what they think is best for them based upon the innate conditions and circumstances in their state. I’m highlighting the economic contraction because I think it’s important, and because it is not widely known or shared. I haven’t gone to any lengths to criticize the approach of other governors, save one: I was very critical and pointed about what I thought was a premature decision in Texas to let down their guard with face coverings, which I just thought was a big mistake.

But good people can disagree. My point is, if you’re a governor, you’ve got to be a little humble. We’re all struggling with unique circumstances. I think the easy compare and contrast that happens on Fox News is pretty pedestrian. I think a little more sophisticated analysis is due, and that will come in time.

Marisa Harman, right, and Chris Pepino, left
The date night tradition resumes at a restaurant/bar in Redlands, Calif. (Cindy Yamanaka/MediaNews Group/Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

It’s been great to see California’s rising vaccination rates and declining COVID numbers, and I understand that you’re not going to implement any kind of vaccine passport — just an electronic version of the paper vaccination card. But what about the people who still refuse to get vaccinated? Beyond the risk they’re posing to themselves and others — particularly as the Delta variant spreads — they technically aren’t allowed to take off their masks and enjoy all the same freedoms as vaccinated Californians yet. In terms of both the risks and the rules, are we just going to have to accept that we’ll be living in two different Californias for a while — vaccinated California and unvaccinated California?

I think there’s truth to that question, but also there’s progress against that as well. Meaning, I think you’ve seen parts of this state that have outperformed the national numbers in terms of access, availability and ultimately the administration of the vaccine, in ways that I think may surprise some pundits. Take San Diego County — they've been a real leader in terms of administering doses.

You’re right, though: Even within communities, you have both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. So you want to highlight a connection to the broader commonwealth. I think we have to talk in those terms. We have to remind people of their own individual freedom, but also the freedom of others not to contract a variant or mutation of the disease. We’re not going to give up on that.

But it is hard. To go from 30 to 40 percent vaccinated is easy compared to going from 60 to 70 percent. And it’s even harder when you have 72 percent of adults that have already gotten vaccinated, and when the spread is so low. Now people say, “Well, I was thinking about it, but it looks like I don’t need to. This is at bay. This is receding.”

So beyond trusted messengers, availability and access, I think that if the mutations do start coming, if we do start to see real outbreaks in certain communities, that may ultimately drive people’s decisions [around vaccination] more than anything else.

You have said that humility was the biggest lesson of the pandemic for you. Other than a certain meal at a certain restaurant, what is one thing about the pandemic that you got wrong?

I mean, we’re all geniuses in hindsight. You don’t know what you don’t know. We were trying to figure out the difference, honestly, between a surgical mask and a procedure mask. I was trying to figure out what N95 meant versus a respirator. PPP versus PPE, PUA versus UI. It was a whole different language. Antibodies and antigen testing versus PCR tests. Transport mediums. In real time, we were all flying a plane when we’d never flown before. And we were all dealing with the intended and unintended consequences of our decisions.

But the thing that I reflect on is that the 41 weeks we had with color coding — I really think that tiered system, we got that right. And I regret we didn’t do that earlier. I regret that. But that said, it was through iteration that we landed there. Only in hindsight could we have done that, because there was no playbook initially.

And I say that to make this point. We’ve done our own internal research: There were well over six, seven weeks of stability with transmission rates [last spring and summer] where we felt that it was the right decision to start to pull back on the stay-at-home order.

What was not commensurate with that decision was a public education campaign about what it was and what it wasn’t. And that’s where I felt like we would have been better off if we had a tiering system and a color-coded system with numerics that could slowly phase in and phase out. So that’s a reflection that I’ve grappled with and thought a lot about.

Public health workers with patient
Public health workers test a woman for COVID-19 at a free clinic in South Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

You’re facing a recall. So is the Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, potentially, and his counterpart in San Francisco, Chesa Boudin. I even learned this week that people are trying to recall my council member in L.A., Nithya Raman. In fact, there are already more active recall efforts in California over the first five months of this year — 68 — than in four of the last five full years. Are we going overboard with the recalls?

It’s cancel culture gone amok — and I’ve got issues with cancel culture, generally. I think you’re seeing this as a reaction, in many respects, on the other side — the ultimate manifestation of cancel culture is a recall, it seems to me.

I think, in some of them, not my recall — everything’s different — I think there’s a component that’s also a reaction to what has occurred in this country in the last few years around impeachment; a reaction to polarization writ large; the intense frustration that people are feeling. And by definition, the overlay of COVID has really created more anxiety and more friction. That people have felt free to shove again. It’s a combination of all of that. 

My only comment on cancel culture is just that I find it ironic that some of the biggest critics of cancel culture are out there promoting recalls. It’s a rather confusing construct.

Because they can’t wait for the next election.

Yeah.

Last question. I know you’re taking something of a victory lap this week, but as the pandemic recedes, new challenges and crises will come to the fore: homelessness, housing costs, inequality, crime, drought, wildfires. What worries you most about the next year — and what do you want to be able to say you accomplished over the course of that year, when it’s June 2022 and you’re back at Universal Studios hanging out with Optimus Prime again?

Look, we’ve got to make it out of this homeless crisis. What’s been happening for the last few decades is unacceptable. It can’t be normalized. So what I hope is that we will inspire some kind of change. I’m not overpromising here. And no one is suggesting that we could make a profound change in a year. But I think we can make a profound change in the next five to 10 years. And I want to seed that change.

That’s what you’re seeing in our budget [which includes $12 billion to combat homelessness]. It’s not even comparable to any investments in the past — we are doing things at a scale that’s unprecedented in California’s history to rebuild our mental health systems, to focus on localizing solutions, but also demanding more accountability from local leaders [in exchange for the] investments that the state is willing to make.

To me, every Californian has a right to be angry about that one. And we have a responsibility to do more and better on that.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputy Matson
A Los Angeles County sheriff deputy offers housing to two homeless men in Venice, Calif., on June 8, 2021. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

And you're right about wildfires. The same thing. I can’t make up for decades of neglect as it relates to prescribed burns and vegetation management in a heartbeat, and strategies around land use and the wildland-urban interface. But we can make systemic investments and sustainable investments — not just situational, short-term investments but long-term investments — on those issues and provide more support, more mutual aid, more firefighters and more technology in suppression. Because the fact that we’re experiencing triple-digit weather in June in so many different parts of this state — the fact that we’re having these heat domes over the entire West Coast of the United States — is an existential challenge for all of us.

So these issues are very real. I think people are going to demand a lot from us — and they have the right to expect a lot.

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