Newsom’s COVID-19 briefings often leave more questions than answers, some officials say
In his last news briefing of 2020, one of more than 100 held since the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom looked seriously into the camera and assured Californians that public schools could reopen as soon as February.
The pressure to return to in-classroom learning had been intensifying for months, and Newsom’s “California Safe School for All” plan was an attempt to temper growing discontent.
It didn’t work. Superintendents in seven of California’s largest school districts said Newsom failed to address the needs of big-city schoolchildren and called his policy “confused.” The state’s largest teachers’ union said it left “many unanswered questions.” The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, which evaluates proposals for state lawmakers, said the governor’s proposal was “likely unfeasible.”
Once a reassuring elixir to millions of Californians facing the harrowing unknowns of a contagious, deadly virus, Newsom’s briefings — streamed on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and covered extensively by California news outlets — appear to have lost the impact they commanded in the spring.
Part of that can be blamed on natural fatigue after being imprisoned by a pandemic for 10 months, making people more likely to tune out.
“The public has gotten tired of hearing about the coronavirus, and so I think messaging has gotten increasingly difficult because people have stopped listening. Instead of talking more, you have to really sharpen your message to one or two things that people need to understand,” said Jennifer Kent, who was appointed director of the state Department of Health Care Services during the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 before resigning last year.
The criticism, in a letter to Newsom, casts doubt on whether there is broad support among educators for Newsom’s proposal to reopen some classrooms soon.
Newsom himself may share much of the blame. The governor, who had already come to embody the left in this polarized nation, used the briefings to cement himself as the sole voice of the state’s response — inflaming the politicization of the pandemic, while at the same time boosting his name recognition in California and beyond its borders.
But as the crisis has dragged on, the Democratic governor’s credibility has been eroded by more than his decision in November to attend a lobbyist’s birthday party at an upscale restaurant as he advised Californians to stay home. Critics say Newsom frequently hypes announcements and keeps local government and public officials in the dark about his plans.
Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said that, throughout the pandemic, Newsom has made announcements with few details and left lawmakers like himself to field questions about programs they know little about, including his school reopening plan.
“I understand the excitement of talking about a program, but given the sensitivities right now, there are districts that want details,” Ting said. “That has happened quite a bit during the pandemic.”
Newsom acknowledged his decision to visit the Michelin-starred restaurant with other families may diminish his moral authority on COVID-19.
Since the outset of the pandemic, Newsom’s news conferences have been tightly controlled, with news organizations calling in remotely due to being barred from attending in person because of COVID-19 safeguards. Newsom’s aides decide who is permitted to ask a question and follow-up questions — essential when politicians don’t give clear or direct answers — are not allowed.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was awarded the International Emmy Founders Award for his daily news conferences, has come across in his briefings as a “patriarch of a big family” — confident and unafraid to answer questions, said Joseph S. Tuman, a professor of political and legal communications at San Francisco State.
“Newsom strikes me a little bit as wanting to limit the outflow of information and to not invite questions that will just get you in trouble or something like that,” Tuman said, adding that the possibility of a recall appears to be influencing the governor’s messaging. “It’s sort of a defensive posture, and that’s not helpful to him right now.”
The vast majority of Newsom’s briefings are held inside the operations center at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on a decommissioned Air Force base just outside Sacramento. Standing in front of the camera, with the U.S. and state flags draped behind him, Newsom displays an impressive command of the intricate details and complexities of California’s COVID-19 response, and the smooth delivery of a seasoned politician who has been comfortable before TV cameras for two decades.
The platform has provided Newsom with an opportunity to show a captive audience of Californians that he can lead. Through mid-November, the administration had recorded more than 200 videos of Newsom, which had drawn over 243,000 hours of viewership on YouTube alone, according to a tally by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
But the message on occasion gets muddied by the governor’s loquaciousness, and lost in florid, overly rosy and vague Silicon Valley corporate jargon. For example, when describing how the state plans to get California schoolchildren back in class, Newsom talked about his effort to “assert more clarity, more focus, and really create an establishment of expectation” during a long monologue in a briefing that lasted nearly an hour and a half.
Newsom’s conferences in the spring captivated concerned Californians, with hundreds of thousands tuning in to understand the state’s unprecedented crisis. The governor received praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for stepping up and trying to project a sense of leadership. Not surprisingly, fewer Californians have been watching Newsom’s live briefings compared with the spring.
When the governor announced the first stay-at-home order in the nation on March 19, streets emptied, offices closed and Californians began hoarding toilet paper and other essentials as they hunkered down for the long haul. Now far fewer people are adhering to his rules.
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, a Democrat who has praised Newsom’s response to the pandemic, said at first the briefings were a must-watch.
“For a while, I was a devoted follower. It was pretty nice. I mean, I was working from home, I could go downstairs, have my lunch and listen to the governor,” Gibson said. “I don’t listen to them in real time as often.”
After the initial shock of the pandemic wore off and Californians began to question Newsom’s restrictions, his news conferences and announcements appeared less aimed at delivering clear public health directives. Instead, they seemed more geared toward easing political pressures, often by announcing new initiatives — at times prematurely and before his administration had worked out the details — that Newsom billed as addressing problems of the day.
Newsom appeared to try to get in front of potential criticism over California’s slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 4.
California received about 1.3 million doses, but only about 454,000 people have received the vaccine, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.
At a news conference, he announced that just 35% of the vaccine doses that have arrived in the state had been administered, which he said was “not good enough” and pledged new funding and efforts to speed up the process.
When several reporters asked why so few vaccines had been administered, Newsom could provide no clear answers and described it as a “logistics opportunity.”
“And that opportunity is manifest with a sense of urgency that is required of this moment, and the urgency that people demand in terms of execution to the administration of these doses, and so, you’ll be hearing, as I said, a lot more detail on that in the next couple of days,” he said.
Under pressure to accelerate vaccinations, the governor announced Wednesday that people age 65 and older are now eligible to receive a vaccine.
“There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences,” he said in a news release. “Individuals 65 and older are now the next group eligible to start receiving vaccines.”
But it later became clear that the Newsom administration allowed counties to move forward only if they were ready to begin vaccinating the elderly, and some were not, due to a lack of supply or lack of healthcare workers to administer the inoculations, among other problems.
“We want this to work,” tweeted state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda). “We need this to work. But if so many of my constituents just get busy signals, appointments a month away; confusion on where to go and who to talk to — then it is one step forward, two steps backwards. The operational side needs to match the PR side.”
Newsom’s announcement inspired a chaotic scramble, with elderly Californians trying to sign up on websites that crashed or showing up at pharmacies for vaccines that they were not yet able to receive in their counties.
Marcy Rothenberg, 70, said Newsom’s words on Wednesday sparked hope that she would finally be able to receive the vaccine she has been waiting for. But that hope was dashed twice — first, when she learned Los Angeles County was not yet offering vaccine to her age group, and again when she was turned away from her scheduled appointment at a Ralphs supermarket.
“I always had the sense that government, for all its flaws, would be there to provide these services, but it’s as if nothing is working,” Rothenberg said. “It’s sad that they seem to be scrambling instead of coordinating. When this first started, I thought Newsom was doing a good job of communicating. We watched his daily briefings for some time. Somehow, he lost his focus.”
During a news briefing, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that she’d learned of the guidance when most of the public did and hadn’t heard back from the state about vaccine availability and how it would be distributed. She said last week that the county had still not finished vaccinating front-line healthcare workers.
Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner also expressed frustration that he often learns about Newsom’s policy announcements the night before the governor unveils them at his news conference — or at the conferences themselves. Without an explanation from the governor’s office about the reasoning behind the policy, he said, it’s “extraordinarily difficult to sell those policies to constituents.”
“And even in many cases, it’s not details, it’s generalities,” Wagner said. “Frankly, in a lot of cases the governor announces [a new policy] without the details.”
Wagner, a Republican, pointed to the governor’s announcement in the fall about a new equity metric for reopening businesses, which focused on ensuring that counties address infection rates in disadvantaged communities hit hardest by the coronavirus. Newsom made the announcement in August, but the first set of guidelines did not come out for another month.
“We had all kinds of questions about just how it gets implemented,” Wagner said. “Forget the science behind it. How does it get implemented? And [state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr.] Mark Ghaly said we’ll get back to you on that. That makes it real hard to implement.”
He said he first learned that Newsom was planning to close beaches across the state from reading a law enforcement memo after 10 p.m. the night before the governor’s news conference on the topic in April.
“We wake up the next morning, and we hear like a half an hour before the press conference, it’s just Orange County beaches,” Wagner said. “We learned about it for certain at that press conference. That’s not how you do policy in the state of California, but it’s what we live with.”
Critics of Newsom’s plan to reopen schools said it seemed like an example of the governor feeling pressure and rushing to announce an idea instead of a fully cooked policy proposal. Newsom unveiled his plan on Dec. 30 and said details wouldn’t be available until the end of the following week.
Once those policy details were revealed, the Legislative Analyst’s Office wrote that “given the short time frame and significant steps schools would be required to take, we are concerned the proposal for offering in-person instruction is likely unfeasible and could discourage school district participation.”
To open by mid-February as Newsom asserted, “schools would only have a few weeks to complete their reopening plans, arrange routine testing, and develop collective bargaining agreements with their labor unions,” the report said. “It is also unclear whether the state and local health departments have the capacity to provide the support and technical assistance necessary to help schools implement their reopening plans in such a short time frame.”
Elizabeth Ashford, who served as a top communications advisor to Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown, said the two leaders took decidedly different approaches in connecting with Californians during emergencies and times of peril.
Schwarzenegger, she said, chose frequency — continued updates to the public during deadly wildfires. Brown, on the other hand, chose a strategy based on intensity — speaking in public less often and therefore elevating the importance of what he said during crisis situations.
“You can’t have both intensity and frequency,” Ashford said of Newsom’s messaging. “Otherwise, you can lose your audience, you can end up talking above their heads.”
She said Newsom deserves credit for showing up and taking responsibility for his administration but that the frequent briefings may be too much for Californians to absorb.
“When people are in crisis, what they can hear is quite limited, because they’re anxious,” she said.
State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a doctor who chairs the Senate’s Health Committee, said that early in the pandemic, Newsom should have relied more on public health officials to speak at conferences instead of taking center stage himself. Pan said Newsom stepping back from the spotlight could have helped lessen the politicization of the pandemic.
At his first coronavirus news conference in late February, Ghaly and Dr. Sonia Angell, then the state’s public health officer, flanked Newsom at the lectern. But Angell’s role quickly diminished, and Ghaly, who has been featured most of all the state health officials, always came second to Newsom.
Pan said the governor has made changes to his communication style for the better, “but it’s an extremely challenging situation to figure out how to do your messaging when there’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Former Gov. Gray Davis praised Newsom’s ability to connect with and inform Californians during these perilous times, noting that one recent opinion poll showed Newsom is still held in high regard among the state’s voters.
He said that criticism was inevitable as the unprecedented pandemic grew worse and people began to chafe over lockdowns and restrictions.
Davis is familiar with anger arising in times of crisis. He was recalled from office in 2003 after coming under fire because of his slow response to the 2000-2001 energy crisis in California, which triggered rolling blackouts across the state and near financial ruin for utilities.
“In good times, governors get too much credit. In bad times, they get too much blame. That’s just a fact of life,” Davis said. “All you can do is acknowledge that there is pain in the short term, but the cavalry is coming to our rescue. By that, I mean the vaccine.”
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.
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