April 13, 2021

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Newsom stakes his political future on beating the pandemic by June – San Francisco Chronicle

4 min read

Gov. Gavin Newsom is making a big, risky bet on his future. The bet shows who Newsom thinks his enemy is as he faces a likely recall campaign against him.

It isn’t the Republicans who may replace him. It’s Newsom versus the virus.

Newsom said Tuesday that California can reopen June 15 — if there is enough vaccine supply for everyone over 16 who wants to be inoculated and if hospitalization rates remain stable and low.

It’s a risk because a virus — particularly this one — doesn’t behave predictably like Republicans and Democrats do. If another spike in infections causes California to go back into lockdown mode before June 15, a lot of people are going to be looking for someone to blame. And the most likely choice will be Gavin Newsom.

It’s a gamble, and Newsom has made and won big gambles before. He was at the forefront of the legalization of same-sex marriage and marijuana before it was politically cool to do so.

But this is different. Those were social issues involving political stakes and political players. This is a virus. There are no rules or boundaries.

If we’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s to not try to predict how the virus will act.

People creating models of the virus’ behavior “are really accurate in predicting what’s going to happen in four or six weeks. Then, after that, their accuracy drops off dramatically,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

“No one can tell you what things will look like June 15 on April 6,” he said. “They’re guessing.”

Newsom acknowledged Tuesday that California needs to be cautious about “spiking the football” too early or prematurely putting up a “Mission Accomplished” sign, a reference to the infamous banner hung behind President George W. Bush when he gave an upbeat — and tragically premature — speech about progress in the Iraq War.

But that’s essentially what Newsom did Tuesday. California is on the 5-yard line of overcoming the pandemic, and the governor busted into his touchdown celebration dance.

Why is that risky? Because if there’s one other thing we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that when things are going well, don’t tell Americans that things are going well. Too many toss away the masks, if they were wearing them in the first place, and kick into spring break mode.

“The question is the timing of this,” Swartzberg said. True, the public health trend lines in California are as good as they’ve been since last May, he said.

“But why announce this (June 15 reopening date) now, at the beginning of April? Why not announce it at the beginning of May, when you can be much more sure about what we know?

“By saying this now,” Swartzberg said, “people are going to hear what they want to hear. And they’re going to start behaving differently and not wait until June 15.”

There are a lot of factors that could derail those favorable California trend lines. The virus is exploding in India and in many parts of Europe. Not to mention Michigan.

Nevertheless, Newsom is making his bet. Why not, said recall expert Joshua Spivak.

“There’s some hope that this will be done with by October,” when the recall vote is likely to be held, said Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York and the founder of the Recall Elections Blog. “He’s making the claim now that, ‘I’m the guy who did this.’”

But wouldn’t that also make him the guy to blame if it all goes sour?

“If it’s not over by October, then he’s got problems anyway. So why not take credit for it?” Spivak said. “If you’re going to get blamed for the drought, why not take credit for the rain?”

George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, said that from a public health point of view, “it’s quite reasonable to give people a timeline.”

“You’ve got to show people there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Rutherford said. “Otherwise, people get burned out on virus fatigue.”

Many Californians already have virus fatigue. Which is why Newsom is betting his future against an unpredictable enemy.

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli

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