So, what did we learn from three years of COVID in California?

Three years ago today, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the statewide stay-at-home order that none of us are likely to ever forget. 

If you’re so inclined, join me on this walk through memory lane.

At the time, Newsom warned that approximately 56% of Californians would become infected with COVID-19 in just eight weeks.

He spoke of a 20% hospitalization rate which, combined with 56% of the state getting it in just a couple of months, would’ve crashed the medical system.

He spoke of the possibility of martial law, but didn’t want people to freak out about that. “I don’t want to get to the point of being alarmist, but we are scaling all of our considerations,” he said.

The tone was set. The standard was set. This was super-serious.

Then came the hard problem of implementing rules and upholding standards consistent with the seriousness of the moment.

The inability to actually do this with any degree of consistency or even logic at times helped lay the foundation for polarized views of the pandemic. 

Economic activity was divided into “essential” and “nonessential” at the discretion of the government. People were told en masse, in other words, that whatever they did wasn’t essential. Their businesses weren’t essential. Not to the government, at least.

Liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries were “essential” under this regime but churches and gun stores were subject to closure. Access to intoxicants was, then, “essential,” but the ability to exercise constitutional rights was not, in other words. These would eventually be litigated, with worshippers and gun sellers vindicated.

Put out of their jobs, many Californians desperately needed the state’s unemployment relief system to work. Instead, they faced the worst of government: A big, clunky bureaucracy with outdated technology and poor management. The Employment Development Department would go on to pay out tens of billions of dollars to fraudsters and even Death Row inmates.

The freedom to go outside was also subject to rules and regulations, which yielded some further oddities. 

Hiking paths were shut down, at least one paddle boarder was arrested in Malibu and a surfer was fined $1,000 in Manhattan Beach for going in the water. 

When things began to open up again, the state of California issued lists of allowed outdoor activities. Canoeing alone was fine, but swimming was not, because the government didn’t want people to go to the beach. 

And Newsom really made his point by closing beaches in Orange County. On April 30, 2020, the Associated Press noted, “After state officials signaled an intention to close all California beaches, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday chose instead to shutter only Orange County’s coastline, a clumsy rollout that left local officials livid and had Republicans claiming politics was at play.” 

By “clumsy rollout,” what the reporters were talking about was that state officials had been telling local government officials across the state that beaches statewide would be closed. The state’s police chiefs association put out a word to its members that beaches statewide were closing. And then Newsom changed his mind inexplicably and just shut down Orange County beaches, while insisting, “We have been consistent, we have been clear, we have been transparent.”

But obviously “we” weren’t, hence the controversy.

As time went on, the stories of hypocritical politicians flouting the rules they insisted were vital to save lives piled up. From then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi getting her hair done to Gavin Newsom’s infamous French Laundry dinner, the sense that the ones insisting the draconian rules and restrictions were absolutely necessary didn’t really think so festered. 

While government K-12 schools were shuttered in California longer than in most other states, many private schools, including those Newsom’s kids went to, reopened quickly in the fall of 2020. Again, rules for thee and not for me.

The governor also assumed in the course of this massive, sweeping powers, including the power to award no-bid contracts to some of his campaign donors. “The contributions range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The contracts range from $2 million to over $1 billion,” reported Scott Rodd for Capradio in 2021.

I mean, maybe those were justified and necessary to save lives. But can you blame anyone for looking at that and thinking otherwise?

And by the tail end of 2020, Southern Californians saw outdoor dining options taken from them without a specific, clear, transparent justification. 

In late November 2020, Los Angeles County officials banned outdoor dining, to save lives, presumably. Within hours, then-Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who voted for the ban, was spotted dining outdoors before the ban went into effect. 

One week later, a judge noted the outdoor dining ban was “not grounded in science, evidence, or logic.”

However, not to be outdone, the state banned outdoor dining. When asked at the time if there was data to support banning outdoor dining, California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly responded the ban was “not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining.” It was about sending a message to Californians to limit their movements to limit the spread of COVID.

Again, is it any wonder that many people perceived that chain of events as reinforcing their cynicism and skepticism of government responses to COVID? 

It is here that I will stop and try to pull together some takeaways.

Even granting the profound difficulty of trying to save lives and respond to something as complex as a highly infectious respiratory virus, state officials were not, in fact, “consistent,” “clear” or even all that “transparent,” as Newsom characterized things. 

That was one issue at the outset. Literally, at the outset. Newsom’s claim that 56% of Californians were expected to get COVID in eight weeks was critiqued the following day by some in the press who noted the figure was a worst-case scenario assuming absolutely nothing was done by anyone to prevent the spread of the virus, which the administration admitted. But by then Californians already had it in their minds the world was ending and most of them were about to get infected in a matter of weeks.

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And that way of going about things would persist throughout the state’s response to the virus. 

If and when the next pandemic happens, will the government try to be consistent, clear and transparent or will it once again err on the side of amplifying the worst-case scenarios and using draconian force to try and save lives? 

I suppose if government officials think they did a fine job handling COVID, it’ll be the latter. But it would be great if government officials could be honest and break down what they did right, what they did wrong, what they stand by and what they don’t with the benefit of time. 

Speaking for myself, I can only hope that consistency, clarity and transparency from the government would be the standard. As would policy decisions grounded in “science, evidence or logic,” preferably as many of those as possible. Respect for constitutional rights would be great, too. 

But if I learned anything from COVID, that’s too much to ask for.

Sal Rodriguez can be reached at

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