As Newsom urges vigilance, California should adjust coronavirus rules

California has been able to relax coronavirus-related restrictions in many counties over the last several weeks without experiencing a spike in infections. But as the weather cools and flu season arrives, some fear the state could face the increasing spread of COVID-19. With California’s color-coded reopening rules, large counties may slip back into the state’s restrictive purple tier, which forces many indoor businesses to close.

Ideally, as we’ve been learning more about coronavirus and how it spreads, policymakers would be seeking a better balance between protecting public health and allowing society to function.

Across the world, COVID-19 has surged back in many places that seemed to have it under control over the summer. In Europe, cases have been rising sharply in the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. Deaths have also risen, but, thankfully, have remained far below the peaks seen last spring. In the United States, Wisconsin has experienced a spike and as of this writing, cases are rising in over 30 states.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently noted the state’s positive developments in fighting the pandemic but pointed to what is happening in the United Kingdom, France, and other states as a cautionary note.

“This is the second wave that many had predicted based on our closest approximate frame, and that’s what occurred in 1918 and 1919,” Newsom said, making reference to a second wave during the Spanish flu pandemic. “That was an instructive example of what can happen if we let our guard down here. The prospect of a second wave.”

If California sees another surge in COVID-19 cases, counties that have moved into less restrictive tiers could be forced to stop in-person schooling and shut down indoor dining and gyms. As cold and rainy weather arrives, it could become effectively impossible for a lot of businesses, like restaurants and health clubs, to operate under the state’s rules.

While the state’s purple tier rules are not as restrictive as the statewide lockdown California imposed in March and April, government officials can expect to hear renewed calls for much stricter measures if cases spike this fall. Shopping malls, department stores, hair and nail salons, and other so-called non-essential businesses would likely be targeted for closure.

Another strict lockdown would be too much for many businesses to bear, causing more to close permanently and destroying thousands of jobs in the process. A variety of businesses are now open but still struggling to recover as they deal with state restrictions on occupancy levels, which reduce revenues. Additionally, some customers, particularly senior citizens, understandably remain reluctant to enter stores, restaurants, and other establishments during the pandemic.

Hawaii, Iceland, and New Zealand are some of the success cases often cited by lockdown advocates, but California is not an island chain. Those places can limit entry, while it is relatively easy for infected individuals to enter California from other states, Mexico, and elsewhere.

Long-term, a vaccine may ultimately protect us. But a vaccine won’t be widely available this winter.  Since we are indeed in this for the long haul, a reasonable approach is for us to try to balance living with the virus while limiting the spread of the contagion as much as possible. Applying policies that allow businesses to safely operate, workers to remain employed and protected, and children to learn is the best path forward.

Many of my fellow lockdown opponents have placed an unhealthy emphasis on mask resistance. Although the government’s messaging on masks was muddled at the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis, it should be obvious now that the universal use of face coverings reduces viral spread, even if masks don’t filter out every single virus particle.

It would be wise for all of us to depoliticize the coronavirus response and make the effort to find the common ground that will allow us to get through this public health crisis together.

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