Why Isn't California Criticized Like Florida on Covid-19?

Joe Nocera
·7 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Why aren’t critics of pandemic reopenings talking about California in the same breath as some other states? And what does that say about combating Covid-19?

The pundits always single out Florida. Or Texas. Or Arizona. Or all three. Consider Paul Krugman’s column on Monday. Krugman, one of the liberal stalwarts on the New York Times’s op-ed page, believes that the reason the U.S. is “losing its war against the coronavirus” is Republican politics. He pointed to President Donald Trump’s mid-April tweets calling for states to end their lockdowns and then wrote:

Republican governors in Arizona, Florida, Texas and elsewhere soon lifted stay-at-home orders and ended many restrictions on business operations. They also, following Trump’s lead, refused to require that people wear masks, and Texas and Arizona denied local governments the right to impose such requirements. They waved away warnings from health experts that premature and careless reopening could lead to a new wave of infections.

Krugman is hardly alone. “Amid escalating infections, Florida, once held up by President Trump as a model for how to manage the novel coronavirus, is faring poorly,” the Washington Post wrote on Tuesday.

“How Arizona ‘lost control of the epidemic,’” a Post headline read over an article that described the state as “an epicenter of the early summer coronavirus crisis.”

Texas? “Here we are,” wrote Houston resident Mimi Swartz in the Times in late June, “with a jittery populace and the Texas Medical Center’s coronavirus website competing with TikTok. ICUs in Houston are at 97% capacity, with ‘unsustainable surge capacity’ predicted for hospital beds in late July.”

No question about it: Things have gone badly for the three states since early June. The number of new cases being recorded by each is staggering, and they threaten to overwhelm hospitals in Houston, Miami and Phoenix. Texas and Florida both have more than 200,000 recorded cases of Covid-19, twice what they had less than three weeks ago. Arizona, a much smaller state, passed the 100,000 mark on Monday.

There is also no getting around that the Republican governors — Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona — have made plenty of mistakes, which the media has pounced on. As Krugman noted, Abbott and Ducey not only refused to issue statewide mask mandates, they wouldn’t let local governments do so, either. They all began the reopening process ahead of their own state guidelines. A particularly egregious error, it’s clear now, was allowing bars to reopen, which attracted young people who wanted to party. The vast majority of new Covid-19 victims are in their 20s and 30s.

But I repeat: What about California?

Virtually everything you can say about Texas, Florida and Arizona can also be said about California, starting with the shape of its Covid curve, which climbs gradually until mid-June and then explodes. It took almost two months for California to record its first 100,000 positive cases; it took less than three weeks to record its most recent 100,000. As of July 7, California was second only to New York with 277,000 positive cases. Los Angeles is said to be close to running out of available hospital beds.

Another similarity is that the number of people who have died of Covid-19 in California is remarkably low — just more than 6,500 in a state of almost 40 million people. In Arizona, the number of deaths just crossed 2,000. In Florida, 4,009 deaths have been recorded, and in Texas, the number is 2,813. New Jersey has recorded more deaths than all four states combined.

Since the surge in the South and Southwest began in early June, a theory has developed as to why the death toll has remained relatively low, though it has begun to climb in recent days. Partly, it’s that doctors have a better understanding of how to treat Covid-19; drugs such as remdesivir are among the factors that have apparently made a difference. But it’s also because, well, let’s listen to DeSantis explain what’s going on:

If you look at that 25-34 age group, that is now by far the leading age group for positive tests. … You can’t control them. … I mean they’re younger people. They’re going to do what they’re going to do.

Abbott and Ducey have offered similar explanations. And so has Gavin Newsom, the governor of California. “The young invincibles,” Newsom called the Californians who have been infected in recent weeks. Indeed, several articles about Newsom’s remark included a photograph of a crowded California beach, full of people without masks — exactly the kind of photo that went viral on Twitter a few months ago when the beach in question was in Florida. As you may recall, the hashtag read #floridamorons.

It’s pretty obvious why California and Newsom haven’t been pummeled the way Florida, Texas and Arizona have. California is a Democratic state. Newsom is a Democratic governor. Bringing up California’s pandemic woes punctures the critics’ narrative that Republican mismanagement is the reason for the scary surge in infections.

In truth, Newsom has done many of the same things that his Republican counterparts are being criticized for. He ceded the reopening process to the counties — which raced to end the lockdown before it was wise. Like the Republican governors, he declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, though he did encourage people to use them. He reopened bars, which caused the same problems in California that it caused elsewhere.

In recent days, Newsom has put the brakes on the reopening in much of the state. He issued a mandatory mask order. He shut down the bars, and indoor dining. But that’s exactly what Abbott has done in Texas. All of these governors are trying to recover from mistakes.

Why did DeSantis, Abbott and Ducey reopen their states so early? For the same reason Newsom did. Not to curry favor with Trump, but because they were all desperate to get businesses up and running and people back to work. Did it backfire? Yes. But it also explains why 38 states — red and blue alike — are experiencing rising numbers of positive cases, according to data compiled by the New York Times. They all opened too early. And it backfired on all of them.

The real problem with the Republican governors is not their mistakes but their arrogance. Until this current surge, they bragged that their approach was the right one, proof that the Republicans had the answer even as Democratic states were struggling. No wonder their critics pounced when it turned out they weren’t right.

But in their own way, the critics are just as wrong-headed. Yes, Trump and his administration have failed mightily, and they deserve every bit of criticism that is heaped on them. But party affiliation is not the reason cases are on the rise in various states. Finger-wagging is counterproductive and even beside the point. The real question is how to get Covid-19 under control and the country going again.

In the face of this terrible, unseeable virus, hubris has no place, not from Republican governors or progressive pundits. There’s only one right attitude: humility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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