‘Difficult moments’: Gavin Newsom on the personal toll of the pandemic as a recall looms and California reopens

There he was at Universal Studios Hollywood the following morning, drawing $15 million in lottery prizes for newly vaccinated Californians and touting his $100 billion California Comeback Plan — with Optimus Prime, a Troll and a flock of Minions by his side.

A $4.5 million ticket giveaway at Six Flags Magic Mountain. A trip to Bakersfield to launch a new post-pandemic council on fitness and mental well-being. Appearances on James Corden and Seth Meyers. And even a series of campaign ads dismissing the drive to recall him from office as the work of “the same Trump Republicans who refused to accept the presidential election.” For the past few days, the 53-year-old Democrat has seemingly been everywhere, all at once.

Yet this week’s giddy victory lap — a push that has as much to do, of course, with politics as with public health — only underscores the hardships of 15 months that preceded it.

The first governor to implement a stay-at-home order, Newsom was hailed as a COVID hero when California avoided the worst of America’s initial surge. But then the state eased restrictions, cases spiked, confusion reigned and Newsom got caught dining maskless at Napa Valley’s posh French Laundry restaurant.

By the time an even bigger wave of infection started to build ahead of the holidays — and by the time Newsom reacted with another stay-at-home order in an effort to minimize deaths and hospitalizations — many residents had lost their patience. The sixth recall petition against him — the first was launched before the pandemic — qualified for the ballot in April.

Today, a full 57 percent of Californians say they will vote to keep Newsom in office; just 40 percent say the opposite. Even more (64 percent) approve of how the governor has handled the pandemic. California’s COVID case rate is among the lowest in the nation; its vaccination rate is among the highest. Sacramento now boasts a record $80 billion surplus, and last month Newsom was able to announce the biggest state tax rebate in U.S. history. Things are looking up.

But Newsom hasn’t forgotten the “darkness” that even he felt during the pandemic. “It’s tough enough on the best of days, in the very polarized political world we’re living in,” he told Yahoo News this week. “But then you’re surrounded by protesters 24/7 at the house with bullhorns. You got a recall raging. You’re quarantined. You’re working through all this, and the holidays, and your own reflection on how well things are going. Yeah, those were more difficult moments than I’ve experienced before.”

Speaking by phone from the road outside Bakersfield, Newsom went on to discuss the toll the last year has taken on his four young kids, despite their advantages; the reasons why California’s unemployment rate is lagging behind other, more positive economic indicators; what he got wrong about the pandemic; and how he finds it “ironic that some of the biggest critics of cancel culture are out there promoting recalls.”

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I think profoundly. The experience at home starts with school. Our little son always says, “Zoom school — I hate Zoom school. I don’t want to do Zoom school again.” The impact on their relationships with their friends, as well as relationships with their family members; the difficulty they’re having reengaging with their friends and family, feeling like folks have grown up without them; some of our oldest family friends doing different activities, developing different skills, different sports — and then how that leads to anxiety.

The overindulgence in media as well. We really prided ourselves as parents at having small doses of media. But we, like I imagine millions of others, just broke down during the pandemic. We started indulging more and more. We needed our own space, needed our own time.

We all paid a price for that. So it’s been very difficult in that respect. And that’s in a household with two parents who have the capacity and means to get support. I can’t imagine what it’s like for others without that capacity, without those means.

Yeah. There were, I think, some of the most difficult times for me, personally. I’m shocked that I’m even answering. I’d never thought I’d answer the question. But because no one’s asked me, I’ll be as honest as I can about it.

Some of the most difficult moments for me were when I had to quarantine at home. It was at the height of that second surge, last fall, around the holidays. And just the grind of the year and that sort of reflection: coulda, woulda, shoulda. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? How do we work our way out of this? Being physically isolated at home and not capable of going out. Not only out across the state, but even to my own office. Those were, for me, the most difficult moments, days, weeks in the pandemic. That’s when it really hit home.

It’s tough enough on the best of days, in the very polarized political world we’re living in. But then you’re surrounded by protesters 24/7 at the house with bullhorns. You got a recall raging. You’re quarantined. You’re working through all this, and the holidays, and your own reflection on how well things are going. Yeah, those were more difficult moments than I’ve experienced before.

Because I’ve been blessed. My grandfather took his life — suicide. Had serious mental health issues. My mother struggled a lot. Nothing extreme, but I think like a lot of single moms, working moms, it was hard. She was prone to feeling really down and depressed and lonely. She was divorced — never got remarried.

So while I experienced that growing up, I’ve never felt that darkness myself. But there were moments during this pandemic where I saw a little of that coming on in ways that I had never experienced. And it really made me attuned to how people must be feeling and how desperate some people really are in terms of their own mental health.

It’s because the sector that’s been disproportionately impacted is hospitality — and that’s the same sector that has outperformed the last three months.

I’ve been very candid. When we announced our efforts to reopen California a couple days ago in San Francisco, we also announced this $95 million marketing campaign [for domestic tourism]. And as I said at the time, this industry has had a sledgehammer taken to it because of this pandemic and the decisions we felt we needed to make. It’s a $145-billion-a-year industry — at least in 2019 it was. That was a record number. So that sector is poised for a big rebound — restaurants, hotels, entertainment.

And I’m already seeing it. As a guy with a bunch of restaurants and a few hotels myself, I have a little practical understanding of where things are going. People are talking about “revenge tourism” — big numbers for businesses that were able to hold the line and keep their doors open. There’s a lot of optimism in that space. But you’re right. It’s stunted.

Yeah, I know. Look, I respect the different arguments. But if you’re going to have a debate, you’ve got to have a real debate. You’ve got to actually compare apples to apples. If you’re looking at epidemiology, if you’re looking at spread, you have to look at density. L.A. is seven times denser than Miami. That’s apples and oranges [in terms of the risk of transmission, illness and death].

But good people can disagree, and governors will choose what they think is best for them based upon the innate conditions and circumstances in their state. I’m highlighting the economic contraction because I think it’s important, and because it is not widely known or shared. I haven’t gone to any lengths to criticize the approach of other governors, save one: I was very critical and pointed about what I thought was a premature decision in Texas to let down their guard with face coverings, which I just thought was a big mistake.

But good people can disagree. My point is, if you’re a governor, you’ve got to be a little humble. We’re all struggling with unique circumstances. I think the easy compare and contrast that happens on Fox News is pretty pedestrian. I think a little more sophisticated analysis is due, and that will come in time.

I think there’s truth to that question, but also there’s progress against that as well. Meaning, I think you’ve seen parts of this state that have outperformed the national numbers in terms of access, availability and ultimately the administration of the vaccine, in ways that I think may surprise some pundits. Take San Diego County — they’ve been a real leader in terms of administering doses.

You’re right, though: Even within communities, you have both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. So you want to highlight a connection to the broader commonwealth. I think we have to talk in those terms. We have to remind people of their own individual freedom, but also the freedom of others not to contract a variant or mutation of the disease. We’re not going to give up on that.

But it is hard. To go from 30 to 40 percent vaccinated is easy compared to going from 60 to 70 percent. And it’s even harder when you have 72 percent of adults that have already gotten vaccinated, and when the spread is so low. Now people say, “Well, I was thinking about it, but it looks like I don’t need to. This is at bay. This is receding.”

So beyond trusted messengers, availability and access, I think that if the mutations do start coming, if we do start to see real outbreaks in certain communities, that may ultimately drive people’s decisions [around vaccination] more than anything else.

I mean, we’re all geniuses in hindsight. You don’t know what you don’t know. We were trying to figure out the difference, honestly, between a surgical mask and a procedure mask. I was trying to figure out what N95 meant versus a respirator. PPP versus PPE, PUA versus UI. It was a whole different language. Antibodies and antigen testing versus PCR tests. Transport mediums. In real time, we were all flying a plane when we’d never flown before. And we were all dealing with the intended and unintended consequences of our decisions.

But the thing that I reflect on is that the 41 weeks we had with color coding — I really think that tiered system, we got that right. And I regret we didn’t do that earlier. I regret that. But that said, it was through iteration that we landed there. Only in hindsight could we have done that, because there was no playbook initially.

And I say that to make this point. We’ve done our own internal research: There were well over six, seven weeks of stability with transmission rates [last spring and summer] where we felt that it was the right decision to start to pull back on the stay-at-home order.

What was not commensurate with that decision was a public education campaign about what it was and what it wasn’t. And that’s where I felt like we would have been better off if we had a tiering system and a color-coded system with numerics that could slowly phase in and phase out. So that’s a reflection that I’ve grappled with and thought a lot about.

It’s cancel culture gone amok — and I’ve got issues with cancel culture, generally. I think you’re seeing this as a reaction, in many respects, on the other side — the ultimate manifestation of cancel culture is a recall, it seems to me.

I think, in some of them, not my recall — everything’s different — I think there’s a component that’s also a reaction to what has occurred in this country in the last few years around impeachment; a reaction to polarization writ large; the intense frustration that people are feeling. And by definition, the overlay of COVID has really created more anxiety and more friction. That people have felt free to shove again. It’s a combination of all of that.

My only comment on cancel culture is just that I find it ironic that some of the biggest critics of cancel culture are out there promoting recalls. It’s a rather confusing construct.

Look, we’ve got to make it out of this homeless crisis. What’s been happening for the last few decades is unacceptable. It can’t be normalized. So what I hope is that we will inspire some kind of change. I’m not overpromising here. And no one is suggesting that we could make a profound change in a year. But I think we can make a profound change in the next five to 10 years. And I want to seed that change.

That’s what you’re seeing in our budget [which includes $12 billion to combat homelessness]. It’s not even comparable to any investments in the past — we are doing things at a scale that’s unprecedented in California’s history to rebuild our mental health systems, to focus on localizing solutions, but also demanding more accountability from local leaders [in exchange for the] investments that the state is willing to make.

To me, every Californian has a right to be angry about that one. And we have a responsibility to do more and better on that.

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And you’re right about wildfires. The same thing. I can’t make up for decades of neglect as it relates to prescribed burns and vegetation management in a heartbeat, and strategies around land use and the wildland-urban interface. But we can make systemic investments and sustainable investments — not just situational, short-term investments but long-term investments — on those issues and provide more support, more mutual aid, more firefighters and more technology in suppression. Because the fact that we’re experiencing triple-digit weather in June in so many different parts of this state — the fact that we’re having these heat domes over the entire West Coast of the United States — is an existential challenge for all of us.

So these issues are very real. I think people are going to demand a lot from us — and they have the right to expect a lot.

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