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What California’s new equity rule means for economic reopening

OAKLAND, Calif. — California has launched the nation’s first mandate on reopening that requires local officials to control the coronavirus in their most impoverished communities before easing business restrictions across their entire county.

a group of people sitting at a table in front of a building: Patrons eat at table set up on a sidewalk in Burbank, Calif.

© AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Patrons eat at table set up on a sidewalk in Burbank, Calif.

The approach is aimed at tackling a persistent inequity in California, where low-income people of color have disproportionately struggled to avoid contracting the disease.


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“If you believe in growth and you don’t believe in inclusion, then we’re going to leave a lot of people behind,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week. “And one of the things we value as a state is inclusion, and we believe that we’re all better off when we’re all better off.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid stark the health disparities that have long existed, with poor, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native communities being hardest hit by the pandemic. Latinos, for example, make up about 40 percent of the state’s population, but account for more than 60 percent of coronavirus cases and half the deaths.

California’s “equity metric” attempts to tackle that disparity by requiring that the 35 largest counties invest more in testing and ensure that positive rates of infection in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods come close to meeting the county’s overall positivity rate. The rule ensures that restaurants in Beverly Hills can’t resume indoor dining unless the most impoverished census tracts also show low rates of infection.

The change adds a third metric to the state’s newest reopening structure, which Newsom unveiled in late August and billed as an improvement to the previous approach that has been blamed for the state’s summer infection surge. Before now, the new structure has relied only on a county’s overall positivity mark and the rate of new infections.

The equity move could prompt counties to expand testing in low-income neighborhoods and provide tests to anyone who fears they have been exposed, not just those who show symptoms. That may allow such communities to more quickly isolate patients, especially those who are asymptomatic.

The metric uses the California Healthy Places Index to identify the lowest, most disadvantaged quartile in the larger counties’ census tracts. The smallest 23 counties are exempt — with populations of 106,000 or below — but still have to provide the state with an equity plan for their most vulnerable populations.

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, a former Republican state lawmaker who has been critical of Newsom’s restrictions, called the new measure “virtue signaling” on the part of the Democratic governor. He also described it as another example of “moving the goal posts,” potentially delaying further business reopenings.

“Even if you meet others but don’t meet the equity one, you’re stuck,” Wagner said.

Tuesday marked the first state update to county tiers since the equity metric was quietly rolled out last week. There remained plenty of confusion and mystery around how it might impact county status, but its debut mostly had no effect

This was to be the year for California’s homeless. Instead it’s a slow ‘train wreck’

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority outreach worker Monica Palma, center, visits with Kim M. and her dog Dee-O-G who live homeless under the Santa Monica Freeway along Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles on July 8. <span class="copyright">(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority outreach worker Monica Palma, center, visits with Kim M. and her dog Dee-O-G who live homeless under the Santa Monica Freeway along Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles on July 8. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The message wasn’t lost on Daniel Gonzalez.

Early in the pandemic, one of the first things Imperial County did to ward off the virus was close the public bathrooms and, later, public cooling centers. In this sprawling Southern California desert, where summer brings blistering triple-digit heat, that lack of access could amount to a death sentence for people without shelter.

People like Gonzalez, homeless the past two years, were simply not a priority.

Months into the coronavirus shutdown, Gonzalez, 47, felt lonely. Calexico’s quiet downtown had emptied out. July highs were topping 110, and it was uncomfortable wearing a mask in the swelter. But not having a place to rinse off or wash up, that was just a hazard.

Standing outside a closed restroom in Calexico’s Border Friendship Park, looking out over the complex of metal bars and security equipment that marks the U.S.-Mexico border, he waited for dinner. Every night at 7:30 p.m., volunteers assembled at the park to serve a hot meal to anyone in need. A few weeks before, pressured by the organizers, the county started dropping off hand-washing stations right before the meal, only to whisk them away as soon as it was served.

Gonzalez lined up. At least it was something.

This was supposed to be the year that California finally did something about its epidemic of homelessness. On Feb. 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom stood before lawmakers in the state Capitol, and delivered an unprecedented State of the State address devoted entirely to the homelessness crisis.

California is home to one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population, a grim distinction painfully visible not only on city sidewalks, but also along the state’s freeways and farm levees, in its urban parks and suburban strip malls.

Past administrations had mostly ignored the problem, Newsom said, but he’d be different. “It’s a disgrace that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is falling so far behind to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people,” he told the crowd.

But even as Newsom spoke, a different epidemic was advancing silently across the state. Exactly one month later, he would order a far-reaching statewide shutdown, asking every person in California not working in an essential industry to shelter at home in an effort to stave off COVID-19.

It was a complicated ask for the more than 150,000 Californians without a home.

For two weeks in March, Newsom’s top homelessness advisor, Jason Elliott, gathered with academics, service providers and county representatives at the emergency operations center just outside Sacramento to confront the menace that COVID-19 presented for tens of thousands of people living outside, often without access to clean water or basic hygiene.

They pored over data