Poor Communications Are Hurting the Governor on Covid

Last week, California should have celebrated an important step to help small business owners and Californians reclaim some sense in of normal. Instead, Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement to lift stay-at-home restrictions across the state was met with surprise, confusion, and more questions.

Late Sunday night on Jan. 24, 2021, Sacramento capitol correspondent Ashley Zavala broke the news that the Newsom administration would lift the regional stay-at-home orders.

What made the news surprising was that earlier Sunday, a California Department of Public Health press release said there were no changes to the four-week ICU capacity projections for San Joaquin Valley, Southern California, and the Bay Area. The release also said, “Re-entry framework for a region that has recently exited the Regional Stay at Home Order is being finalized.” The only region that had recently exited was Sacramento and many speculated the Sacramento region would be headed back into a lockdown.

Instead of lockdowns, state officials and Newsom officially lifted all stay-at-home orders and the governor christened the occasion with a trademark press conference at noon Monday, Jan. 25.

During the press conference, Newsom was asked about the lack of communication with elected officials and Newsom said, “We talk to a lot of folks, and we’ve been working with counties directly. We did our best once the data come in. Do we delay a significant announcement that can help small businesses for a long, protracted, comprehensive outreach, or do we just move forward?”

What’s worse, Newsom and his team neglected to really tell the state legislature before the announcement leaked.

How do we know this? Countless lawmakers aired their frustration Sunday evening and Monday as they found out about stay-at-home orders with the media and the rest of the public.

Lawmakers said they were “extremely frustrated and disappointed,” or were “blindsided and confused by shifting and & confusing public health directives.” Others noted there is “bipartisan frustration from the legislature on how the pandemic is being managed.” And those are comments from Democratic lawmakers.

Legislative Republicans are now calling for bipartisan oversight hearings into Newsom’s “secret data.” Headlines from late last week quoted state officials saying that the data used to justify shelter-in-place orders would “mislead and create greater uncertainty for Californians.” Newsom and state health officials did release the formulas used to project intensive care unity capacity.

As Los Angeles Times’ John Myers pointed out, there were no hints that the stay-at-home order would be removed based on the latest information from the California Department of Public Health. Much of the data showed that based on the current numbers, much of the state should still be under a shelter-in-place. Now that the state is back in the purple tier of reopening, is it only a matter of time before the next lockdown occurs? If (and probably when) COVID-19 cases climb back up, where will Newsom pivot next?

Newsom has more issues at play than just suspicion about inconsistent health policies. California is dead last for administering vaccines per capita and requires great effort to figure out how to sign up for a vaccine. The state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) backlog claim is back as 941,000 Californians wait for their unemployment benefits. Late last year, Newsom previously promised to have the backlog cleared by the end of January. Newsom’s school reopening plan is a bust. And, of course, there’s the lingering recall campaign picking up steam.

All of these problems can be traced to communications. Californians do not need to know Newsom is the smartest person in the room or that he knows all the numbers, which he clearly does. The state needs clarity and leadership. Californians are being told what to do without clear direction or expectations.

The menacing Frank Underwood famously said in the House of Cards reboot on Netflix, “I don’t want a version, I want a vision.” Newsom and team have many, many versions, but do we know the vision? First it was colored tiers and regions and percentages, and a billion dollars in spending here and there.  Then, Newsom makes a complete 180-degree policy pivot and everyone is left wondering what happened.

The confusion around the stay-at-home orders is a perfect example of where the Newsom administration has swung and missed. Much of the blame sits with the governor himself. His speaking style comes across as micromanaging. The lengthy press conference strategy hasn’t worked for months but Newsom won’t try something else. In many ways, Newsom is the Aaron Rodgers of California politics; he looks great on paper, but he often goes long, misfires, and leaves you feeling unimpressed.

What is the saying? In the valley of the blind the one-eyed man is king. When it comes where the state is headed on COVID-19, Californians are blind. And for now, Newsom is king. Let us see how long that lasts.

Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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