California’s surprise reopening makes some residents nervous

California Governor Gavin Newsom surprised most people when he announced in late January that the state was reopening with immediate effect. He’s lifted stay-at-home orders and given restaurants, hair salons and other businesses the green light to restart after nearly two months of shutdown. But the changes have come too early and too suddenly for some.

Newsom says it’s safe for California to reopen based on forecasts of ICU capacity in the coming weeks. “As we reopen, inevitably we’re going to see a spike in the total number of cases,” he said, but argued that they now have the capacity to address that spike.

That calculation is based on a complicated metric that considers case rate and test-positivity rate, as well as the level of testing being done in at-risk and underserved communities. But some public-health experts disagree with the decision it led to.

“I'm worried that it was premature. I think we should have stayed in the stay-at-home order a while longer,” says Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. “I think if we had another surge on top of this, which we're just getting over, it would overwhelm the entire health care system.”

The problem, says Swartzberg, is that when people hear “reopening” they might think that means “safe.” And the situation in California is anything but safe.

“You can see how the general population will look at this and say, well, things are really going well again, that's great. And go back to doing the things that got us in this problem in the first place, not wearing masks and not social distancing,” he says.

John Swartzberg
Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program.

The sudden reopening announcement also left many businesses in the state unprepared to reopen their doors. Alan Schulman, who co-owns Akasha restaurant in Culver City with his wife Akasha Richmond, said the restaurant is not ready to reopen and probably will not be until at least Valentine’s Day.

The restaurant will need to rehire staff and retool its entire operation to shift its focus away from takeout and towards table service. And from a public-safety perspective, Schulman and Richmond felt the reopening was happening too soon.

“The situation right now is also a little bit different because there are different strains of this virus that are out and we're not sure if it's as safe as it should be. And we have to be very concerned because we're bringing additional people back into the kitchen,” he says. “This is not about labor or about anything else. This is about a medical situation.”

Alan Schulman
Alan Schulman, co-owner of the Akasha restaurant in Culver City, is not ready to reopen, even though most businesses restrictions have been lifted.

Schulman also worries that if they spend the money to reopen, and then there’s another round of shutdown orders in the future, it could be even more devastating for his business. “It's very expensive, and it's an emotional nightmare to go through that,” he says.

Adding to the anxiety, he says his wife and daughter have respiratory problems that put them at higher risk of serious illness from the virus.

Public-health expert Swartzberg says the latest reopening shows that state authorities have failed to learn from the state’s previous reopenings, each of which led to surges in COVID cases and deaths.

“We continuously repeat the same mistake,” he says. “The numbers are starting to drop [but] we’re lifting things too soon again. And if we have another surge, it can be just a disaster. So we need to learn from our mistakes.”