Editorial: Is Gov. Newsom 'following the science' on COVID reopening, or following the politics?

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The Times Editorial Board
·3 min read
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FILE— In this May 14, 2020 file photo California Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses his revised 2020-2021 state budget during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif. Newsom will unveil his 2021-2022 proposed state budget Friday, Jan. 8. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File, Pool)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the statewide stay-at-home order Monday. (Associated Press)

New coronavirus infections are decreasing in California, as are the number of people filling intensive care hospital beds. It’s a hopeful sign that the extraordinary efforts to flatten the latest curve over the past two months have paid off for the state.

But we're not nearly in the clear. ICU beds are all but unavailable throughout Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley. Thousands of new infections are being confirmed every day, and there are new variants of the virus circulating that could be much more infectious.

That's why Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement Monday that he was lifting the strict stay-at-home orders he put in place in December came as a surprise to many — and raised questions about whether the governor was truly "following the science," as he so often says, or was influenced by growing public discontent with the pandemic restrictions.

Newsom defended the decision by saying that projections based on testing and transmission rates, as well as a steady decrease in the demand for ICU beds, make him confident about returning to the system that imposes various levels of restrictions by county and is tied to the percentage of positive coronavirus test results. But his words weren't all that reassuring, given the governor's record. In the spring, Newsom ignored his own pandemic framework and bowed to political pressure to allow counties to reopen too early. It was a mistake that came with a terrible human cost during the ensuing summer surge.

Newsom has been under fire for not sharing details about the metrics used to inform his pandemic policy. He should be more forthcoming and embrace the transparency he so often preaches.

Granted, it's not clear that sharing data would have saved him from all the criticism leveled Monday. Republican politicians blasted Newsom, even though they have been griping about the restrictions all along. You just can't please some people. But several state and local elected officials, including many of Newsom's fellow Democrats, complained that they were blindsided by the announcement.

Their fear, and ours, is that lifting any restrictions during this critical time will open the door to a setback. The latest change may loosen restrictions just a little, because most of the state is still under the strictest tier. Counties can decide to let nail and hair salons reopen at limited capacity and restaurants reopen for outdoor dining (L.A. County says it will allow outdoor dining to resume); they can't give the green light to bars or parties. But the bigger threat is that Californians will take this as a signal to drop their guard, even as the virus continues to rage.

And if they do, cases and deaths will surge again. The state cannot afford to continue the cycle of one step forward and two steps back that has kept us firmly in the pandemic's grip.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.