California flips the switch Tuesday, doing away with many COVID-19 restrictions such as social distancing and mask requirements in most public settings.
Gov. Gavin Newsom heralded the long-awaited June 15 reopening as a new chapter of “hopefulness and confidence that the best days are not behind us, but the best days are ahead of us.”
The governor — who is facing a recall election later this year — hopes the economic reopening marks a return to normalcy for Californians, whom he acknowledged have sacrificed much over the past 15 months.
“We are able to achieve all of that because of all you,” he said Monday at a press conference highlighting a push to boost in-state tourism. “Because of the incredible work of 40 million Californians, because of your resilience.”
But challenges loom for Newsom, and there are a few stains on his pandemic record, says GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman. He points to the constant backlog at the state unemployment agency and the ever-changing restrictions on businesses.
“The whipsaw that he put restaurants in particular through — letting them have outdoor [dining] and then closing it after they had invested in all of that — was just awful,” said Stutzman, who worked as a spokesman for former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For the most part, Stutzman said Newsom has handled the past year well: the governor refrained from politicizing the coronavirus and case rates have stayed low for months following a winter surge that overwhelmed hospitals around the state.
“He's got some wind in his sails,” the Republican said of Newsom. “People are exploding with joy at the freedom of being able to be together again.”
But “anything that gets in the way of that or interrupts it can be a flashpoint,” he warned, such as local governments or individual businesses that want to keep some restrictions in place.
“The enthusiasm for the recall is not what it was probably about four months ago," Stutzman said, though "it's still a real threat to him that he has to be conscious of.”
Polls show most Californians support Newsom in the recall election. According to the most recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 40% of likely voters would vote to recall the governor.
Democratic lawmakers are angling to move up the date of the recall, which could place the election in late summer or early fall.
Stutzman adds that one wildcard around that time will be schools. Newsom’s pushing school districts to fully reopen. If students aren’t back to classrooms full-time, it could hurt him in the recall election — even among Democratic voters.
There’s also lingering uncertainty about when masks will no longer be required in the workplace. After flip-flopping on mask rules for employees last week, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as Cal/OSHA, is set to vote on new rules this Thursday.
Newsom said if the independent Cal/OSHA board votes to no longer require fully-vaccinated workers to wear masks on the job, he will issue an executive order to speed up its implementation.
Other hurdles the governor could face include coronavirus variants and an expected uptick in COVID-19 cases as people mix together.
“It’s not ‘mission accomplished’” when restrictions are lifted, Newsom acknowledged. “This virus is not going away.”
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