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Column: Newsom wise to end one-man rule on coronavirus, giving local leaders more discretion

Gov. Gavin Newsom, in Napa on Monday, announces new criteria on coronavirus hospitalizations and testing that could allow counties to open faster than the state.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has entered his own Phase 2 of the virus war: relinquishing one-man control over the state’s battle against the bug.

In truth, he has barely been staying one step ahead of rural rebels who have been challenging his control and testing him — in some burgs seizing authority from the governor.

Newsom has wisely relented. There’s no need to get into the equivalent of a shooting war with these rural communities — especially those in the far north, where many people resent being part of California anyway. For decades, there have been failed attempts to secede and form their own state of Jefferson with southern Oregon.

Newsom has allowed many counties to reopen for business — what they were threatening to do anyway — but pressured them to agree on his modified terms.

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“Our approach has been to work with businesses that fall out of compliance,” says Nathan Click, spokesman for the governor. “Warn them and work with them constructively.”

No sledgehammers. No business licenses revoked. No lawsuits. Stay-at-home orders relaxed. Everyone wins.

Moreover, all the public beaches are now open, just three weeks after the governor pulled back under pressure from closing them all. Surfers, swimmers and sunbathers had stormed the beaches on a beautiful weekend and threatened to keep doing it even if they weren’t legally allowed to.

Newsom wasn’t going to order them jailed or even fined. That would have been too ugly. He smartly retreated, permitting local governments to open all beaches under his guidelines.

One restriction, however, seems ridiculous: No sunbathing — only physical activity. Some people get tired and need to rest. Many of the people lying around together in the sun are family members. They live with each other 24/7. What’s a little sand time?

And keeping parking lots closed is ludicrous. Beachgoers just park in nearby neighborhoods, clogging streets.

On Monday, Newsom loosened rules for reopening businesses and freeing people from their houses. And he told counties it was up to them to decide when to move into Phase 2 of the agonizingly slow return to normal.

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“Conditions across the state are unique and distinctive depending where you are,” Newsom told reporters, echoing what rural officials have been chanting for weeks.

“The bottom line is people can go at their own pace and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions better than any of us.”

That prompted rare bipartisan kudos from state Senate Republican leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield.

“The governor’s original ‘one-size-fits-all’ plan unfairly placed Kern, Tulare and San Bernardino counties on the same spectrum as San Francisco and Los Angeles,” Grove said. “I want to thank the governor for making such an important modification that’s necessary to revive our local economies, support businesses and employ Californians.”

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Tulare, however, was one of five counties that did not receive Newsom’s green light to venture into Phase 2. The county has been especially hard-hit by the virus, largely because of COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes.

But the Tulare County Board of Supervisors has voted to defy Newsom by opening up anyway. To be continued.

By allowing most counties to control when they reopen — under loosely enforced state guidelines — Newsom has taken the pressure off himself to lift constraints. And he has avoided the heaviest share of criticism if the reopening goes poorly and becomes a virus spreader. Fingers would then be pointed at local officials.

Public pressure to reopen is inevitably mounting. And politically, the reopening side possesses the advantage over keep-it-closed advocates, writes Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and state Assembly speaker, who pens a Sunday column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Brown is one of California’s most brilliant political tacticians.

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The first California governor to fully embrace social media while in office and unleash it as an extension of the bully pulpit, Newsom has capitalized on viral moments, enlisting celebrities as his surrogates to persuade the state’s residents to abide by his stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus crisis and touting his frequent television appearances to discuss the pandemic on Facebook and Twitter.

Republicans, Brown wrote Sunday, “are taking their cue from President Trump and presenting themselves as the champions of the economy. The sooner the full reopening, the better.”

“We Democrats,” Brown continued, “try to assure people that we can have a shutdown and still help them with their rent….

“The question is which side will voters be on come November? My bet is on the reopening.”

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“The one Democrat who does appear to get the message,” Brown concluded, “is Newsom. He’s delivering a blend of vocal concern about the health crisis with an easy hand on the tap for reopening. And he’s doing it with a smile rather than a scowl, a tactic other Democrats should learn.”

Newsom won’t be smiling as much on TV, however. Part of his Phase 2 is stepping back from daily noon virus briefings that have been carried live by many TV stations and also webcast.

The noon shows apparently have been a phenomenal hit with viewers who are stuck at home. The programs gained Newsom more prolonged TV face time than any California governor ever, portraying him as a leader.

But now they’re being pared to two a week. Newsom wanted more flexibility in his schedule and felt the briefings had run their course. There wasn’t enough new information to fill an hour anymore.

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Newsom also was moving out of his bunker at the state emergency center and back into the state Capitol. He needs to negotiate with the Legislature about how to fill a $54-billion budget deficit created by the statewide business shutdown.

That can’t come too soon for the Legislature, which has been griping about the governor ignoring it on virus spending. Rural counties aren’t alone in fuming about Newsom’s one-man rule — lawmakers are too.


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