USA TODAY International Edition

California reopening as cases drop, but its ‘ extreme measures’ left scars

- Christal Hayes

Rachel Moore can’t help but feel excited.

The calendar of events at The Music Center, a performing arts center in Los Angeles that she leads, had been blank for months. But now it is slowly filling up with ballets, dance performanc­es and operas.

After a year of some of the strongest pandemic restrictio­ns in the nation, the rate of coronaviru­s cases in California has plummeted to be among the lowest in the U. S. Now the state plans to fully reopen by mid- June. California­ns and the state’s leaders are celebratin­g the low infections and reopening plan, and Gov. Gavin Newsom is touting it on Twitter as he tours the state.

Businesses that have been hamstrung by restrictio­ns for a year or more are seeing regulation­s loosen, some outdoor sports have resumed, and theme parks, including Disneyland, have reopened to excited guests.

Many like Moore are eager to welcome back normalcy, with hopes of recovering from the severe financial losses from pandemic closures.

“There’s incredible pent- up demand for our offerings,” said Moore, president and CEO of The Music Center. “I actually think that people are going to rush back when they feel safe because they’ve had this hole in their heart.”

But had The Music Center been based in another state, it may have reopened months ago.

California’s path through the pandemic has been filled with frustratio­ns and heartbreak. The state started out as a national leader in combating CO

VID- 19, promising to follow the science in and garnering praise from public health experts who say the state’s approach saved saves.

But months of shifting restrictio­ns confused many struggling business owners who saw their livelihood­s ripped away, even as the regulation­s didn’t stop the state’s ICUs from filling with patients.

The tensions have left the state’s governor battling a recall vote.

Restrictio­ns slow virus

California became the first state to lock down. Newsom’s coronaviru­s briefings offered a reassuring, nonpartisa­n message to those in and outside California, even drawing praise from President Donald Trump. But it didn’t last.

The state started reopening efforts several times only to pull back the reins as cases grew. Restrictio­ns would ease, allowing businesses to reopen and spend money to restock and rehire – only for restrictio­ns to be reinstated again. Public schools remained shuttered for the majority of the pandemic and still have yet to fully reopen. Theme parks, outdoor sports, museums, trails and beaches were all subject to closure.

For a while it seemed to work. Cases stayed relatively low as attention focused on places like New York or the Dakotas that were weathering unfathomab­le infection rates, with hospitals and morgues filling up.

The success changed in the late fall and early winter as an intense surge hit California. The state became epicenter of the pandemic for a time. The virus filled the state’s ICUs and mystified experts, many of whom still struggle to rationaliz­e why California’s precaution­s weren’t enough to stop the surge even as more lax states saw fewer cases.

“The fact is that we really cannot fully explain why we see this virus explode in certain areas, and at the same time, relatively quiescent in others,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious diseases and vaccinolog­y professor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley. “There are lots of things we’ve learned about this pandemic. But I would say that there’s still an enormous amount of a lack of understand­ing about its behavior.”

Dr. Robert Kim- Farley, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ public health school who worked at the CDC and World Health Organizati­on, noted some of the differences that set California apart, including homelessne­ss, overcrowdi­ng and the state’s large share of agricultur­al and essential workers.

“California does have some unique aspects of what they call a vulnerabil­ity index,” he said. “So it’s kind of hard sometimes to make those direct comparison­s as to what would have happened had we done some more relaxation of measures.”

He added that if the state did relax some precaution­s, it’s possible the surges may have just occurred quicker or been far worse.

Even so, multiple reports have found the rate of death from COVID- 19 in California isn’t much better than the national average.

Economic damage mounts

Critics of California’s strategy say the state’s approach did a more effective job at crushing the economy than crushing the virus.

Dustin Lancaster, who operates about a dozen restaurant­s and hotels across Los Angeles, said he feels a sense of relief knowing the state is reopening but it’s hard to look back and not hold some resentment and question decisions made by elected leaders.

Over the months of closures, he lost millions along with a music venue and a brand- new hotel he had opened just months before the pandemic. He still owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent.

Lancaster can’t help but look at other states that didn’t spend the majority of the year shut down, like Florida, and questions why the outbreak wasn’t worse there.

“Did any of what we did really do anything to actually stop it? Or was it sort of dumb luck?” he said. “It’s a tough one to understand, and I guess we’ll kind of be unpacking this for years to come.”

Many complained that the messaging from elected leaders was confusing and sometimes contradict­ory. The rationale for certain areas and businesses being closed while others were open often wasn’t clear or intuitive, critics said.

“There were frustratio­ns when certain sectors seemed to get to reopen faster than our sector and not understand­ing the logic behind why certain things were allowed to be open,” Moore said. “Why was retail allowed to be open and the retail shop in a museum not?”

Amid death and heartache, the state also saw an economic collapse. California has lost about 1.5 million jobs. The unemployme­nt rate, now at 8.3%, is one of the nation’s highest.

Simmering frustratio­ns reached new levels in the late- fall and early- winter surge. As ICUs filled, a new set of lockdown measures were announced, including the halting of outdoor dining – once billed as a low- risk lifeline for restaurate­urs.

Emil Eyvazoff, who owns two restaurant­s in Los Angeles – 71Above and Takami – said there was an almost instant shift in the demeanor of restaurant owners.

“I saw business owners that I know go from being supportive of everything that had happened in the past to resentful,” he said, arguing the second set of closures was more hurtful than the first.

Eyvazoff noted the lengths it takes to reopen a business, such as rehiring, retraining, installing new safety measures and restocking supplies. “It can take several weeks to reopen a restaurant,” he said. “It’s not like flipping a switch.”

California saw the highest number of businesses that shuttered both temporaril­y and permanentl­y by a significant margin, according to Yelp data compiled in the company’s Economic Impact Report released in September. Hawaii, which relies heavily on tourism, was the only state to surpass it when examining the data per 1,000 businesses.

California saw nearly 20,000 businesses temporaril­y close and another 20,000 close permanentl­y from March to September. The next highest was Texas with 8,900 temporary and 5,300 permanent closures.

Along with federal money and the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered small businesses loans that can be forgivable, California also offered grants. Just last week, Newsom signed legislatio­n that’s set to offer $ 6.2 billion in tax cuts for over the next six years.

“It’s been a hell of a year: the stress, the anxiety, the fear that so many people have had to struggle with,” Newsom said when he signed the legislatio­n. “That said, the state is coming back. The state is roaring back.”

Were ‘ extreme measures’ worth it?

Public health experts say California will likely be judged favorably in the future, because the state generally followed the advice of health profession­als. Even if the measures were criticized as overly burdensome, the mandates saved lives, they say.

Understand­ing how successful the state was in fighting the virus will be a question for the history books – it will require a deeper understand­ing of the virus as well as the economic effects of lockdowns, experts say.

Zev Yaroslavsk­y, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and a former Los Angeles County supervisor and city councilman, said that when you ask the question “Were all the strict mandates worth it?” you are ultimately asking whether saving even one additional life was worth it.

“How many people are you willing to sacrifice to death? How important is it to save lives?” he said. “Losing your business is an existentia­l event; it’s a brutal price to pay. But you can rebuild your business. You can’t do that with your life.”

The severity of the restrictio­ns is one thing. How they were presented to the public is another concern.

“There were a lot of extreme measures taken, sure, but right now, California does have the lowest case rate in the country,” said Jessica Lall, who leads the Central City Associatio­n, representi­ng businesses in the Los Angeles area.

Yaroslavsk­y noted the mixed messaging, coupled with the hypocrisy of Newsom attending a dinner party at The French Laundry when he was discouragi­ng travel to see family during the holidays, hurt public trust.

For Newsom, the question over his managing of the pandemic might be answered this year when he faces a recall election.

“Any politician today has taken a hit politicall­y because this has been an unpreceden­ted societal disaster,” Yaroslavsk­y said. “But there have definitely been some who are paying a bigger price than others.”

 ?? ROBYN BECK/ AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? California started out as a national leader in combating the virus, until shifting rules confused and frustrated many.
ROBYN BECK/ AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES California started out as a national leader in combating the virus, until shifting rules confused and frustrated many.
 ?? THE MUSIC CENTER ?? The Music Center, a performing arts center, is preparing to reopen in Los Angeles as California relaxes its COVID- 19 restrictio­ns.
THE MUSIC CENTER The Music Center, a performing arts center, is preparing to reopen in Los Angeles as California relaxes its COVID- 19 restrictio­ns.

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