New­som needed to mind mes­sage in time of cri­sis

Times Standard (Eureka) - - OPINION -

Dur­ing his first cou­ple weeks of manag­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s COVID-19 cri­sis, Gov. Gavin New­som’s words and ac­tions were im­pres­sively cool­headed and mea­sured.

Last week, how­ever, he veered off the rails, need­lessly caus­ing alarm and con­fu­sion as Cal­i­for­ni­ans were ad­just­ing to the great­est pub­lic health threat in more than a cen­tury. He, like Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, failed to grasp that the hy­per­bolic rhetoric of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign is not tol­er­a­ble in cri­sis man­age­ment.

New­som’s most spec­tac­u­lar mis­step was, in a let­ter to Trump ask­ing for use of a Navy hospi­tal ship, flatly declar­ing, “We project that roughly 56% of our pop­u­la­tion — 25.5 mil­lion peo­ple — will be in­fected with the virus over an eight week pe­riod.”

Im­me­di­ately, news out­lets in Cal­i­for­nia and around the world am­pli­fied that huge num­ber, and it scared the be­je­sus out of any­one who heard it. Buf­feted by de­mands for an ex­pla­na­tion, New­som’s spokesper­sons ac­knowl­edged that the num­ber was a raw es­ti­mate un­ad­justed for ef­forts to slow the spread of in­fec­tion — a vi­tal con­text that the let­ter did not con­tain.

Very quickly, New­som him­self ap­peared be­fore cam­eras to an­nounce a statewide or­der that Cal­i­for­ni­ans “shel­ter in place” and add the caveats that his let­ter sorely lacked.

“The num­bers we put out to­day as­sume we’re just along for the ride, we’re not,” he said. “We want to ma­nip­u­late this num­ber down, that’s what this or­der is all about.”

How­ever, he si­mul­ta­ne­ously im­plied a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his let­ter to Trump. “If we’re to be crit­i­cized at this mo­ment, let us be crit­i­cized for tak­ing this mo­ment se­ri­ously,” he said. “Let us be crit­i­cized for go­ing full force and meet­ing the virus head-on.”

New­som’s sec­ond stum­ble in­volved the stay-at-home or­der it­self. It’s a rather tech­ni­cal doc­u­ment, but New­som’s ver­bal ex­pla­na­tion of its pro­vi­sions didn’t al­ways com­port with what the doc­u­ment said. More­over, its list of ex­empted “es­sen­tial” ac­tiv­i­ties was lifted from a fed­eral doc­u­ment per­tain­ing to war, rather than be­ing tai­lored to Cal­i­for­nia and this cri­sis.

It left Cal­i­for­ni­ans con­fused about what they could and could not do, busi­ness own­ers con­fused about whether they should op­er­ate or must shut down and lay off their work­ers, and lo­cal gov­ern­ments un­cer­tain whether their own or­ders were su­per­seded by New­som’s dec­la­ra­tion.

Fi­nally, there’s the is­sue of mar­tial law — or not.

Early in the week, while an­nounc­ing that he might use Na­tional Guard sol­diers to bat­tle the spread of coro­n­avirus, New­som was asked about im­pos­ing mar­tial law to en­force abate­ment or­ders.

New­som replied that mar­tial law could be used “if we feel the ne­ces­sity,” adding, “I don’t want to get to the point of be­ing alarmist, but we are scal­ing all of our con­sid­er­a­tions.”

A few days later, when he did ac­ti­vate the Guard, so­cial me­dia lit up with spec­u­la­tion that the gov­er­nor was about to de­clare mar­tial law, com­pelling ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to is­sue de­nials.

“We don’t want this to be scary for peo­ple,” Brian Fer­gu­son, spokesman for the Gov­er­nor’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices, said. “This is a hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion to sup­port health and safety.”

Each of these sit­u­a­tions could have been avoided had New­som cho­sen his words more care­fully. He should not have is­sued his 56% in­fec­tion rate pro­jec­tion with­out the con­text he later pro­vided, his ad­min­is­tra­tion should have been more spe­cific about what the stay-at-home or­der meant, and he should not have even cited mar­tial law as a con­tin­gency un­less he in­tended to use it.

The virus it­self scares and con­fuses peo­ple. The gov­er­nor’s job is to re­as­sure his con­stituents and per­suade them, with pre­ci­sion, to do what’s nec­es­sary with­out adding to the fear and anx­i­ety.

Dan Wal­ters has been a jour­nal­ist for over half a cen­tury, spend­ing all but a few of those years work­ing for Cal­i­for­nia news­pa­pers start­ing in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times in Eureka, while still at­tend­ing high school. He can be reached at dan@calmat­ters. org.

Each of these sit­u­a­tions could have been avoided had New­som cho­sen his words more care­fully.

Dan Wal­ters

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