A familiar story: COVID-19 reopening is premature, poorly executed

STATE AFFAIRS: Almost 1 year after first lockdown, we can’t afford to repeat past mistakes

Illustration depicting people ignoring COVID-19 guidelines outdoors, oblivious to a COVID wave approaching in the background
Rachel Lee/Staff

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The only feeling more familiar — and more nagging — today than the loops of a face mask tucked tightly behind our ears is that of deja vu. California’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be less of a rollercoaster than a drop tower, bouncing between lockdowns and reopenings in a series of whiplash-inducing reversals.

For the third time, California has imposed and now lifted a stay-at-home order that kept regions with less than 15% intensive care unit capacity under strict lockdown. Some businesses statewide, including restaurants and hair salons, are now allowed to resume limited in-person operations.

This reopening comes as cases in California have dropped somewhat steadily in recent weeks — a welcome reprieve from the surge last month that designated the state as one of the worst hotspots in the United States.

We’ve been here before.

Most of California, including Alameda County, remains in the “purple tier,” meaning the risk of infection is still extremely high. Factor in the spread of COVID-19 variants across the state, and there’s no guarantee a reduction in cases will last. In fact, if previous reopenings in California are any guide, another spike in the near future is all too likely.

But that’s exactly the problem: California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders don’t seem to be substantiated by a consistent set of guidelines. The fact that the recent order caught even other legislators off guard demonstrates the abruptness of Newsom’s decision. Some health experts and workers are also questioning the reversal.

Premature openings have repeatedly proven unwise. Relaxing stay-at-home orders can have an immediate effect on the actions of residents, who interpret wavering policies as a green light to flout precautions that remain necessary. Given the lagging rollout of vaccines in the state, lifting the stay-at-home order seems to be an optimistic gamble at best and, at worst, a reckless political ploy.

What’s more, Newsom has largely kept the data points driving the most recent reopening hidden from public view. Withholding information about the disease sows distrust and frustration with the government at a time when transparency is more important than ever. Giving more context to the public won’t make the situation more confusing; it will help assure people that decisions are sound.

During the pandemic, local jurisdictions retain the power to enact more stringent guidelines that are best for their residents. Alameda County officials must do just that, requiring lower store occupancies and limiting outdoor dining. Importantly, these measures must be enforced. At the same time, the city must continue to support the small businesses and workers for whom reopening seems the only path forward.

For their part, students must remain vigilant about their interactions with their peers. Large gatherings, indoors or under the veil of night, remain unacceptable.

We are nearing the end of a long, dark tunnel. We mustn’t now shift into reverse.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.