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Opinion

Column: Rep. Devin Nunes wants you to go to bars and pubs. What’s up with that?

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Sign on a telephone pole at Washington Boulevard and Pacific Avenue near the Venice Pier.
(Robin Abcarian/Los Angeles Times)

OK, so maybe Rep. Devin Nunes doesn’t want you dead.

But he sure seems willing to put your health in jeopardy out of fealty, I assume, to President Trump, who up until this week seemed hellbent on minimizing one of the greatest health crises in our lifetimes.

If Trump has worried mainly about the economy, and not the rapid, uncontrolled spread of a deadly virus that he downplayed until far too late in the game, well then, so has his most loyal acolyte.

“It’s a great time to go out and go to a local restaurant,” the Tulare Republican told Maria Bartiromo of Fox News on Sunday morning. “Likely you can get in easily.” Nunes also urged folks to go to “your local pub.”

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Coronavirus warning sign on pole at Washington Boulevard and Pacific Avenue in Venice. S
(Robin Abcarian/Los Angeles Times)

At virtually the same moment, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, was saying on national television that he, personally, would stay away from restaurants.

“I just wouldn’t because I don’t want to be in a crowded place,” Fauci said on “Face the Nation.” “I have an important job to do. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m going to be all of a sudden self-isolating for 14 days.”

Also on Sunday, after a fifth person in the area tested positive for Coronavirus, Fresno County health officials declared a state of emergency. That did not stop Nunes from telling a local radio station, according to the Fresno Bee, that instead of panic-buying toilet paper at Costco, people should “go to McDonald’s, go to Taco Bell, go to Denny’s.”

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Nunes is surely not alone in dispensing bad advice. But he stands as a shining example of how not to talk to the public during a health crisis.

I cannot put it better than the Bee did Sunday in an editorial: “Devin Nunes might want to think twice before he tries to be a doctor.”

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On Sunday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke knowledgeably about coronavirus and its spread, urging people to stay out of bars and restaurants not just for the sake of their health, but also to slow the spread of a disease likely to soon wreak havoc on the nation’s already overloaded health system. On Monday, he went further, urging all theaters, gyms and health clubs to shut their doors and asking restaurants to close except for takeout.

It was a refreshing counterpoint to the bumbling Trump, who, announcing the national emergency last week, said he had just uttered “two very big words.”

Sunday night, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti went a step further than the governor, ordering the closure of bars, movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers until March 31. Restaurants may operate only in take-out mode.

Before his order took effect, the bars and restaurants along Washington Boulevard near the Venice Pier were hopping. Someone — I would love to know who — had posted bright orange warnings on telephone poles: “Coronavirus spreads BEFORE YOU CAN SEE SYMPTOMS. Don’t take a chance.”

Another sign warned the many younger people who seem to be in denial: “Coronavirus? I’ll be fine,” it said. But a chart on the flier dispelled that statement, showing that younger people transmit the virus, while older people die from it. “Brunch,” said the flier, “can wait.”

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Indeed, by Monday afternoon, the street was dead. Bars and restaurants were shuttered.

And what about in Nunes country? Are residents following their congressman’s advice or that of public health officials? Shortly before lunchtime on Monday, I reached Dean Ametjian, a partner in the Tulare Golf Course in the Central Valley.

Ametjian, whose grandfather built the golf course in the early 1950s, told me the operation is not just a golf course, pro shop and restaurant, but an important gathering place for local farmers, who stop in for meals on their way to and from work.

I asked Ametjian how he was feeling about the conflicting directives from officials like Nunes and Newsom.

Forget about feeling the Bern. Was a hospitality business owner like Ametjian feeling the whiplash?

“I’m a supporter of Nunes,” Ametjian told me. “I’m not going to bash him or Newsom.”

Diplomacy aside, Ametjian said he has decreased the capacity of his restaurant, and if the sun is out, he’s urging people to sit on the patio, because “the virus does not do well in sunlight and open air.” Someone might want to tell the virus that. But he’s also offering curbside pickup for farmers who want to safely grab a meal.

“We are doing everything we can to keep this virus at bay,” he said, “but we are a tight-knit community. When you tell farmers they can’t mingle or converge, they are going to do it no matter what — whether at their house or in their garage or in a public bar. You are not going to keep those people away from each other.”

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A few minutes after we hung up, Fauci was back on television standing shoulder to shoulder with the president and other government officials who have become a familiar presence on our TV screens in the past week. (Why don’t these people take their own damned advice and stand a few feet apart?)

As reporters pressed for answers about whether bars and restaurants should stay open, Fauci held up a copy of new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” which recommends Americans severely curtail contact with others.

“The small print here, it’s really small print,” said Fauci, whose subversiveness is telling. “‘In states with evidence of community transmission,’” he read, “’bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms and other indoor/outdoor venues where groups of people congregate should be closed.’”

That would certainly include California, the most populous state in the country.

Putting such potentially life-saving information in small print is as good a metaphor as we’re going to get for this administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus crisis. We don’t need two big words when two small ones will do: Stay home.


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