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.
© 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.
“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