California’s Coronavirus Reopening Sparks Confusion, Anxiety and Defiance

WAXWORD

To experience the reopening is to experience, ultimately, a realization that we don’t have any idea what we’re doing.

Last Friday, the chain link fence separating me and my neighbors from the Pacific Ocean came down. It had been eight weeks since Palisades Park, Santa Monica’s soaring cliffs above the ocean blue, was closed.

That opening came two days after L.A. County “reopened” the beaches. By which county officials meant you can stand, walk or jog on the beach, but not sit on the sand. You can enter the water (previously banned) to swim, but as soon as you get out you must put on a mask. And not sit down. Also you cannot play sports on the sand.

That same day, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti decreed that everyone in Los Angeles had to wear a mask when leaving the house, an unexplained tightening of restrictions that had been in place for weeks.

And so the reopening of America’s largest state began, a confused and confusing process with contradictory guidance from different officials, jointly driven by health results, public pressure and a nosediving economy.

But it’s not, as they say, what the doctor ordered. If you live here, to experience the reopening is to experience confusion, frustration, intolerance and ultimately a realization that we don’t have any idea what we’re doing. (I hesitate to say that California has one of the best records nationally in responding to COVID-19.)

Palisades Park

Palisades Park

I went walking on Venice beach on Wednesday evening and there were surfers and lots of people sitting on the sand, maskless. Lifeguards did not protest. Since last week, I’ve seen no evidence that anyone is really following Garcetti’s enhanced mask “requirement,” nor that the mayor has any ability to enforce it.

Quite the contrary. People are leaving their homes and moving about. There is traffic on the highways where there wasn’t any before. There are more people on the streets, both with and without masks. There are more retail businesses now open, though many more remain closed and many have emptied their shopfronts as they go out of business.

One of my neighbors held a rager on Saturday night — a bunch of families gathered to swim, play loud music and generally provoke anxiety from those of us around them. These were people who were ready for summer and let’s just say it was not the sound of social distancing.

People are not just tired of the lockdown, which they are, they are also uncertain what guidelines to follow.  I’ve given up on understanding how well Los Angeles and California are doing with COVID-19. The broad stroke story is: We’ve “flattened the curve.” The graphs seem to show not much change week after week. As the San Diego Union-Tribune lamented last week: “The problem is, when you chart the number of cases on a linear scale, there’s not an easy way to see when the exponential growth slows.”

California Covid cases by county May

The information coming from Gov. Gavin Newsom continues to be selective and insufficient, particularly on testing. He has yet to answer directly why the state lags so far behind other states (including New York and New Jersey). The tinge of politics continues to color people’s reactions, rather than knowledge and science.

As TheWrap has reported, testing has ramped up in the state, but there isn’t much indication of what that means for those staying at home. And contact tracing is only just getting started in the Bay area, with no timeline provided as to when the first 10,000 tracers will be hired, trained and deployed around the rest of the state. Nor what that means for anyone who wants to reopen their business or send their children to summer camp (let alone school).

Clothing stores can be open, but you can only pick up purchases curbside. Same for sporting goods. How can you shop for clothing that you pick up at the curb? How do you pick out a baseball glove remotely?

Last week on the same day Newsom was outlining steps for restaurants to return to in-site dining, L.A.’s top public health officer Barbara Ferrer said the city’s stay-at-home order was “certainly” staying in place for another three months. (She later clarified her remarks to say she didn’t mean Mach 10 level of the lockdown, but everyone panicked nonetheless.)

It’s hard to say what’s missing here except clarity. Is it federal funding that is stuck in the U.S. Senate that is keeping the state from getting and providing clearer information? Is it the fact that we keep finding that testing is unreliable, with lots of false negatives and positives? Why don’t we have any technology component that would help the public understand the pace and location of infection and death?

All of this means that while we are eager to see the state reopen, we are unable to move forward with confidence. There’s little point in restarting an economy if people are paralyzed by confusion and fear.

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman, is the founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of TheWrap. She is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, and was a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times.