Battle erupts in California over when to open
Frustration is mounting in a number of localities in California as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) seeks tough enforcement of the state’s stay-at-home order.
The debate over how soon to ease restrictions and start opening California has pitted local and state officials against one another in one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak. It comes as other states such as Georgia and Texas are moving faster to open up their economies.
Newsom laid out a phased reopening plan this week that would allow certain lower-risk businesses, such as factories and retail stores, to begin reopening in a matter of weeks with curbside pickups as part of a gradual easing of stay-at-home orders.
Higher-risk businesses, such as nail salons and gyms, as well as in-person religious services would be allowed to reopen at a later phase, but Newsom did not provide a specific timetable, saying more progress needed to be achieved in the fight against the pandemic.
That is raising some tensions, with some of the more remote counties seeking to reopen sooner, while others chafe at actions they say amount to an overreach from the state.
Tensions boiled over after Newsom ordered all of Orange County’s beaches to temporarily close on Thursday after images surfaced of people forming crowds and defying social distancing guidelines over the previous weekend amid a burst of good weather.
Many coastline areas in Orange and Ventura counties have remained open, and county officials have said they have been maintaining social distancing guidelines.
The closure order prompted local officials to accuse Newsom of singling out Orange County.
City council members in Huntington Beach and Dana Point took the most direct action against the governor, voting on Thursday evening to pursue legal action against Newsom to reverse the beach closures.
“The world is coming out of this, and the governor is choosing Orange County to clamp down even harder,” Huntington Beach City Council member Mike Posey, who voted in favor of taking legal action, told The Hill.
The Huntington Beach City Council voted 5-2 to “to direct the City Attorney to pursue any and all legal actions” to challenge Newsom’s beach closure directive, while the Dana Point City Council voted 4-1 to seek a temporary restraining order blocking the order.
“We’re going to fight vigorously and invite other cities to join us in our fight and take it as far as we can,” Posey said.
Newsom referred to the beach closures as a “temporary pause” at a news conference Thursday and said the state would be “working with the county.”
So far, more than 50,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths from the disease have been reported in the state, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In Orange County, there have been 2,393 reported coronavirus cases and 45 deaths, according to the data.
County officials say they have been diligent in working to combat the virus, that photographs showing crowded beaches were misleading and that beachgoers were practicing social distancing.
“We have an opportunity to embrace personal responsibility while also taking care of our neighbors,” Michelle Steel, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement on Thursday. “Governor Newsom clearly doesn’t share that faith, and I will be looking into an appropriate response to the governor’s overreaction and abuse of power.”
Steel is challenging Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) for his seat, which he turned blue two years ago.
While Newsom has maintained that closing the beaches is a public health issue, some of his critics in the county question whether the order was politically motivated.
Orange County, which was a bastion for Reagan conservatism in the past, now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Democrats hit that milestone last August, less than a year after they flipped four of the county’s GOP-held House seats.
The tensions aren’t limited to Southern California. In other parts of the state, particularly in more rural Northern California, local officials are pushing Newsom to allow them to begin reopening businesses, arguing that they shouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions as the state’s urban centers, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have been hit harder by the pandemic.
Nearly two dozen officials from six counties in Northern California sent a letter to Newsom late last week asking him to let local officials implement an earlier phased reopening of businesses in the area, noting that the “infection rate has remained low” across their counties.
“At this point, given the COVID-19 numbers locally — and our enhanced healthcare capacity — we ask you to allow our counties to exercise local authority to implement a careful and phased reopening of our local economies,” they wrote.
So far, one county — Modoc, in the northeastern corner of the state — is moving forward with plans to reopen. It’s set to allow bars, restaurants and churches to begin reopening their doors on Friday, in defiance of Newsom’s orders. The county is one of four in the state that has no reported coronavirus cases, according to the California Health and Human Services Agency.
Newsom acknowledged on Thursday that “nuances and diversity” exist across different regions of the state. But he said that California is “not out of the woods yet” and that “no part of the state, no part of this country, few parts of the globe have been immune to this virus.”
“I recognize the nuances and the diversity in this state. We do not adopt a one-size-fits-all, but there are basic foundational principles that we do … want to see advanced throughout the state of California,” he said.
Still, some local and state officials are frustrated with Newsom’s approach, arguing that it fails to take into consideration regional differences — population size and density, for instance — that they say should hasten the pace of reopening certain parts of the state.
“All too often the rural north gets lumped into one-size-fits-all policies alongside San Francisco and Los Angeles, when the makeup and needs of these regions are vastly different,” State Assemblywoman Megan Dahle (R), who represents a vast swath of Northern California, wrote in an op-ed for Plumas News.
“The Governor’s preliminary approach to rolling back some COVID-19 restrictions is poised to be yet another example of this,” she added.
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