California’s COVID-19 state of emergency officially ends Tuesday, marking a symbolic end to one of the most challenging chapters in state history and Governor Gavin Newsom’s political career.
The Democratic governor declared a state of emergency three years ago, giving himself broad executive powers to protect Californians from an unpredictable and deadly virus. Having previously resisted GOP pressure to end the emergency as conditions improved, Newsom now says California is finally ready to move forward.
“California is better prepared and that’s because we have a serious legislature and California’s health ecosystem is unparalleled in the country,” Newsom said.
The governor declared a state of emergency on March 4, 2020, at a time when there were only 53 known cases of COVID-19 in California.
Anticipating the rapid spread of the virus that could overwhelm hospitals, the proclamation gave the governor legal authority to make, amend and repeal state regulations, suspend state statutes and redirect state funds. The emergency declaration also allowed Newsom to requisition private properties, including hospitals, medical labs, hotels and motels.
While the pandemic solidified Newsom’s legacy as crisis governor, his use of power has brought him under scrutiny from across the political spectrum. His decisions to issue mask and vaccine mandates and ever-changing restrictions on businesses and day-to-day activities made him a GOP caricature of oppressive Democratic rule.
Newsom was spotted dining with lobbyist friends at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley after advising Californians not to mingle with other households, sparking headlines across the country and criticism of him as a hypocritical leader.
After a Sacramento County Superior Court judge allowed more time to collect petition signatures due to the pandemic, Republicans forced a vote to recall the governor a year later. Critics also took advantage of the fact that Newsom’s children attended private school classes while millions of California public school children were forced into distance learning programs from home.
Newsom handily defeated the recall, but French Laundry’s misstep frustrated even its staunchest supporters. Meanwhile, leaders in his own party sometimes criticized his decisions.
“I think Governor Newsom, like pretty much everyone else in California, is really tired of dealing with COVID,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.
California’s CEO has been careful not to declare victory over the virus, but in June 2021 he proclaimed at a reopening celebration at Universal Studios that the state was ready to “turn the page.” Later that year, another wave of the virus led to more restrictions.
California currently has the 11e lowest COVID-19 death rate per capita in the country, according to data compiled by The Times. The California Department of Public Health also reported this year that the state has passed 100,000 deaths from the virus.
Newsom recently said his government laid the groundwork for ending the state of emergency last year when he lifted most of the remaining restrictions and began moving to a plan to live with the virus. The governor added that California is moving in the same direction as the Biden administration, which announced plans to end the federal public health emergency on May 11.
The change won’t make much of a difference to the day-to-day lives of most Californians, but could ultimately affect the cost of and access to treatment and preventive services.
California law requires health plans to cover the cost of COVID-19 therapies and vaccines and, through November, reimburse the cost of home testing. As of early November, medications and tests will only be covered if obtained from providers in patients’ insurance networks.
The situation is a little less clear for the uninsured, who should have access to the government’s supply of COVID-19 drugs and vaccines until at least this summer. Federal government officials have said the Biden administration is trying to ensure supplies remain available beyond that time.
Robert Wachter, chair of the UC San Francisco Department of Medicine, warned that policy changes that make it more difficult for the uninsured to access free COVID-19 care, testing or vaccinations could create health equity problems and, as a result, could increase the threat of contracting COVID for all Californians.
“If you have a situation where more people are sick, feeling sick, not knowing what they have, possibly going to work and exposing themselves to other people and probably should be using Paxlovid but not being able to access it, that’s all bad,” said Wachter. “In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen.”
In preparation for the emergency’s end, Newsom called for new legislation to allow nurses to continue to provide COVID-19 therapies and lab workers to process only COVID-19 tests. Councilman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) introduced legislation to do that under AB 269, which passed the General Assembly earlier this month and is expected to be voted on the Senate floor this week.
The governor, who has been accused by conservatives of abusing his powers, noted that California is ending the state’s COVID emergency while Republican-led Texas is not.
Texas is one of five states where a state of emergency is still in effect. And like Newsom, Governor Greg Abbott has been reluctant to relinquish it because of the broad powers he’s been given under an emergency declaration, said Randy Erben, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law and former legislative director at Abbott. . .
After initially requiring masks in indoor public places from July 2020 to the following March, Abbott changed course months later and used its emergency powers to prevent cities and counties from enacting their own mask requirements and vaccine mandates.
Although Newsom and Abbott went down divergent paths, Erben said Abbott was “absolutely castigated by the conservative right” for his early mask rules. Contrary to the criticism Newsom received from the GOP about restrictions and mandates, Abbott bore the added pressure of coming from within his own political party.
“I have every sympathy for any president of any state during the COVID pandemic,” Erben said. “I just think there was no winning. And I think what they did in the beginning, and I would say this about anyone, was heroic, and they took huge political risks at a time when no one knew what the right answers were.’