Spring 2020 was supposed to be a good season for Brooke Johnson, a longtime resident and upstart business owner in the wine country town of Paso Robles, California.
Brunch, her 2-year-old restaurant, had grown steadily throughout the latter half of 2019 at its new downtown location alongside the city’s collection of other trendy restaurants, bars, and hotels. The slow winter months would soon be giving way to warmer weather and waves of out-of-town customers.
“We were getting excited to go into spring and summer in the new, larger location and really kind of have this be our year and just explode,” Johnson recalls.
That trajectory changed in March when COVID-19 became the only thing in the world that mattered. On March 18, San Luis Obispo County, which contains Paso Robles, issued its first shelter-in-place order, requiring people to stay in their homes unless engaged in a few essential activities, like getting food or going to the doctor. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom followed up with his own statewide order a day later.
Restaurants in California had to close except for takeout and delivery service. Johnson went from predicting record growth for her business to just barely hanging on.
“[During] the month of April I looked back and I made $4,000 when I typically make anywhere from $36,000 to $40,000 a month,” she says. She was forced to cut her staff of 12 people down to just two.
The following months proved to be tough but survivable. In late May, Johnson was able to open up for outdoor dining, although the summer heat and haze from wildfires limited its appeal. A loan provided to her through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped keep her afloat as she was raking in about 60 percent of her usual sales.
Late September brought nicer weather and the return of limited indoor dining. Customers proved eager to return, giving Brunch some of its busiest days in months.
Things were looking up again for Johnson until early December. That’s when Newsom surprised the state with his regional stay-at-home order.
The governor’s order divided up California’s counties into five regions, and imposed a raft of new restrictions in any region where intensive care unit (ICU) capacity fell below 15 percent. That included a ban on all on-site dining, indoor or outdoor.
The idea was to preserve hospital capacity across a wider area so that the hardest hit counties could send patients to get medical care farther out of town. In practice, it meant that places like San Luis Obispo County, where spare ICU capacity hovered around 30 percent during the worst of the pandemic, were lumped in with much harder-hit Los Angeles some 200 miles to the south.
It also meant that Brunch would have to close its doors right before the busy holiday season. For Johnson, who’d spent the past nine months navigating ever-shifting public health orders that had brought her business to the brink of ruin, this was the last straw.
“I knew that I would not be able to survive,” she says. “It was also three weeks before Christmas. I wasn’t going to lay off the majority of my staff again. I wasn’t going to lose more revenue.”
Johnson made the decision to defy Newsom’s shutdown order and keep her business open. She wasn’t the only one.
Across California, the reaction to the governor’s order was swift and negative. Videos of business owners pointing out the absurdities of the new restrictions went viral on social media. Sheriff’s departments across the state, including in Los Angeles and Orange counties, said they wouldn’t enforce the order. Trade associations and local governments readied lawsuits. Nine months into a deadly pandemic that had left hundreds of thousands of people dead nationwide, and everyone else stuck inside their homes away from family, friends, and colleagues, the risk was clearly real, as I would find out myself. But patience for another lockdown had been depleted.
Nowhere was this more evident than Paso Robles, where most of the businesses in town came to the same realization as Johnson: Another shutdown could mean their doom.
But instead of accepting their fate, they got organized. Through Facebook groups and clandestine in-person meetings, a coalition of business owners decided to defy the state’s latest order and keep their town open.
It was an exercise in COVID-era civil disobedience. And in many ways, it worked.
For the near two months that the regional shutdown order was in effect, Paso Robles became a bubble of quasi-normality in a state and a country still contending with reams of pandemic restrictions. The crackdown that did eventually come for Paso Robles came just days before Newsom issued a surprise retraction of his regional stay-at-home order.
The experience of California’s second (attempted) lockdown, and the town that refused to comply with it is a lesson in how the response to the pandemic has rested more on the voluntary behavior of individuals than the dictates of government officials. Paso Robles also offers a kind of alternate history of what might have happened, economically and epidemiologically, if more businesses and localities had been allowed to make their own decisions about the risks and rewards of staying open amidst the pandemic.
The emergency powers claimed by Newsom during the pandemic gave the governor a remarkably free hand to prescribe whatever reopening conditions he and public health officials felt were necessary to fight the pandemic. But that largely unchecked centralized authority soon provoked bottom-up resistance. Ultimately that resistance proved to be the regional stay-at-home order’s undoing.
Golden State of Emergency
The stay-at-home order Newsom issued in December that provoked Paso Robles business owners into open rebellion was the governor’s most controversial exercise of emergency powers, but it wasn’t his first.
That came on March 4, 2020, when Newsom declared a state of emergency by invoking California’s Emergency Services Act. Passed in 1970 with unanimous support and little debate, the Emergency Services Act is intended to give the governor the ability to marshal state government resources to respond to sudden crises.
The law gives the governor sweeping powers, including the ability to waive regulations that might interfere with disaster response, commandeer private property, and, more generally, to assume “complete authority over all agencies of the state government” including the ability to exercise “all police powers” needed to bring the act into effect.
Those are very broad grants of authority, but they’re not unlimited, as Keith Paul Bishop noted in a June article for the National Law Review, writing “the Governor’s authority under these provisions is limited to carrying out the provisions of the [Emergency Services Act] and not as a general grant of authority to make laws on any subject.”
And indeed, the governor’s first emergency declaration was mostly limited to giving marching orders to state agencies, enabling them to ink contracts to obtain needed supplies, and allowing them to waive regulations that might restrict hospital capacity for example.
Then on March 19, the governor issued his first stay-at-home order. It instructed Californians to shelter in place except when going to an essential job—which included operating federally identified critical infrastructure as well as other tasks deemed essential by the governor like delivering food or growing cannabis—or shopping for essential needs. That order went far beyond the governor’s first emergency declaration. It effectively shut down the state, save for those industries and activities that the governor explicitly allowed. A year later, it’s still in place.
Newsom’s order effectively forbid everything that wasn’t explicitly allowed. That approach would continue throughout the pandemic, and it would give rise to an ever-changing set of restrictions and reopening conditions.
In late April, the governor announced his “Resilience Roadmap” which created a four-stage process for gradually reopening the state’s economy, beginning with low-risk businesses and hopefully culminating in the lifting of the state’s stay-at-home order.
The summer saw progress. By mid-May, individual counties were receiving clearance to allow the reopening of restaurant dining rooms. Yet by mid-July, rising case counts saw those dining rooms shuttered again statewide.
Then on August 28, the governor ditched the roadmap. He replaced it with a new “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” which placed counties in one of four color-coded tiers based on the rate of new COVID-19 cases (the case rate) being reported, and the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive (the positivity rate).
These tiers ranged from purple (the most restrictive) to yellow (the least restrictive). Unlike the previous roadmap, there was no green tier where things would be allowed to return to normal. Instead a press release from the governor’s office described the blueprint as a “slow, stringent plan for living with COVID-19.”
In September, this blueprint was modified to include an “equity” requirement. Counties could only advance into a less restrictive tier if their case and positivity rates were meeting state targets both across an entire county and in designated disadvantaged communities.
These ever-changing orders were complemented by equally mercurial industry guidance laying out what kinds of pandemic mitigation measures businesses that could open had to adopt. Non-compliant businesses risked fines, revocation of their licenses, and even criminal charges, from state regulatory bodies, city governments, and county health departments.
The combined effect has been to centralize California’s response to COVID-19 at the state level generally and in the office of the governor and the California Public Health Department (CPHD) specifically. That centralized response to the pandemic created two related problems; one constitutional, the other more practical.
“He’s effectively making law and that’s the prerogative of the legislature,” said Luke Wake, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, in an October interview about the constitutional problems with Newsom’s orders. “This very complex, mechanized color-coded system, the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, it looks very much like what we’d expect the legislature to have done—except the legislature wasn’t involved at all.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation is currently suing Newsom on behalf of two business owners over the governor’s blueprint, arguing it’s an unconstitutional usurpation of the powers properly left to the legislature.
The governor’s exercise of so much unilateral authority has also produced a practical problem. His ever-changing orders are hard to follow for both local officials tasked with interpreting and enforcing them, and for business owners expected to comply with them.
“It’s been tough because these orders have come back and they’ve been very, very arbitrary,” says John Peschong, a San Luis Obispo county supervisor. “The governor’s orders have changed so drastically that it’s going to whiplash small businesses. Small businesses will call up their chamber of commerce or they’ll call me as their county supervisor or somebody in the office and try to figure out what the order is in that day.”
Kat Turner, a cafe owner in Los Angeles, says “it’s impossible,” to navigate an ever-changing web of state restrictions. “I want to be able to provide the best information for my guests and my staff, but we’re looking at each other scratching our heads, what does this mean, I don’t understand. It’s so murky and it’s deeply frustrating.”
This centralized approach, meanwhile, ran only one way. Localism was permitted, but only if cities and counties were imposing harsher restrictions than what was coming out of Sacramento.
Despite the frustrations, resistance to state pandemic control measures was relatively muted for most of 2020 heading into the winter. That changed with the return of lockdowns, first at the initiative of several county governments, and then with Newsom’s regional stay-at-home order.
Closed Patios, Open Rebellion
When the regional stay-at-home order went into effect, banning outdoor dining in the newly demarcated region of Southern California, Gessica Russo experienced a profound, if exasperated, sense of deja vu.
“I was just like, I can’t believe this is happening again [but] okay, I guess we have to do what is being told,” says Russo, who owns the Italian restaurant Flour House in San Luis Obispo.
The ever-changing business restrictions that have accompanied the pandemic in California have been hard on restaurants like Flour House. The industry’s thin profit margins mean even slight reductions in capacity can turn a profitable operation into a money-losing endeavor. An inventory of perishable food makes opening and closing on a dime a costly proposition.
The regional stay-at-home order added insult to injury by shutting down outdoor dining patios, many of which restaurateurs had sunk significant money into. Those patios were presumed to be a relatively safe bet, since even the most restrictive tier in the state’s blueprint reopening system allowed for outdoor dining to continue.
Russo personally spent a lot of time and money transforming her side alley—once just a place to park cars and dump trash—into a spot people might want to spend an evening. “We spent about, I want to say $6,000 or 7,000, repainting it, cleaning it, hanging lights, putting music out there… we had to get heaters,” she says.
With the stroke of a pen and a press release, the state rendered all that effort worthless.
The state didn’t have to dwell too much on the consequences of its regional stay-at-home order. But Russo did.
A ban on outdoor dining meant she would have to lay off her staff once again. Russo put substantial effort into providing a safe, legally compliant environment to her customers. Even still, she was being shut down. Yet big box stores like Target and Walmart down the road were operating with few restrictions.
“I don’t know, I just got angry and tired,” she says. “Everything in my being said this is wrong.” So, a week into the regional stay-at-home order, Russo decided to reopen.
Russo became one of hundreds of business owners who’d simply had enough. These business owners represented a new kind of resistance to the state’s stay at home orders, serving notice that California was not going to lock down twice.
Newsom issued his first stay-at-home order in March when the pandemic was new. At the time, the organized resistance came predominantly from either committed conservatives or fringe conspiracy theorists.
The conservative Orange County community of Huntington Beach was one the first to see sizable in-person protests, with the goal of reopening public beaches that had been closed by the state. Late April and early May saw the Freedom Angels, a stridently anti-vaccine group, stage demonstrations at the closed California Capitol building in Sacramento, where people brought banners comparing Gavin Newsom to Adolf Hitler and gave impassioned speeches about the physical dangers of 5G internet service.
December’s negative reaction to lockdowns brought in people who seemingly had no larger agenda than just saving their businesses from destruction.
The sudden reversal on outdoor dining helps explain the changing face of resistance, as does the fact that this time there was no guarantee of additional federal support for businesses or staff. (Congress did eventually pass a pandemic relief package in late December that extended unemployment benefits and provided more PPP loans to businesses.)
The sheer arbitrariness and carelessness with which state and local officials wielded their powers to shut down whole industries also contributed to the anger. The day after Newsom issued his regional stay-at-home order, Los Angeles saloon owner Angela Marsden produced a viral video showing her establishment’s tent-covered tables and chairs shut down—and a TV studio with an identical catering set up across the parking lot from her. The studio’s catering spread was legal. Her restaurant was not.
“I’m losing everything. Everything I own is being taken away from me,” said a tearful Marsden in her video. “And people wonder why I’m protesting, and why I’ve had enough.”
Courts, meanwhile, agreed with business owners that state officials had acted in ways that were arbitrary. On December 8, in response to a lawsuit brought by the California Restaurant Association, a superior court judge in Los Angeles ruled that the Los Angeles County Health Department’s ban on outdoor dining was “an abuse of the Department’s emergency powers, [and] is not grounded in science, evidence, or logic.” A week later, a San Diego superior court judge similarly ruled that restaurants in that county were allowed to open in response to a lawsuit brought by two strip clubs.
Multiple law enforcement agencies also made clear that they had better things to do than harass businesses.
“I want to stay away from businesses that are trying to comply the best they can,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to FOX11’s Bill Melugin. “They bent over backwards to modify their entire operation to conform to these current health orders, and then they have the rug yanked out from under them, that’s a disservice. I don’t want to make their lives any more miserable.”
“Compliance with public health orders is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement,” said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes in a press release in response to the regional stay-at-home order.
Restaurant owners, in turn, started to reopen in defiance of the state’s orders. The success of these efforts varied based on location and whether the business owners attracted attention from the numerous agencies and regulatory bodies tasked with enforcing public health orders.
The Emergency Services Act makes violation of the governor’s emergency orders a misdemeanor penalized by $1,000 fines and up to six months in jail. Violations can be enforced by city police departments, county sheriff’s offices, and county district attorneys.
Non-compliant businesses also run the risk of having their licenses and permits revoked by city code enforcement agents and county public health departments. And state agencies have a role to play, too. Nail salons have to contend with the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. Restaurants that serve alcohol also run the risk of having their liquor license suspended by the state’s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC).
Most agencies enforcing pandemic restrictions say that their primary goal is to educate first, and only penalize the most egregious violators. At the state level at least, the numbers bear that out. The ABC reports that it has conducted 154,000 site visits related to enforcing health orders, but has issued citations or referred businesses for prosecution in 220 cases as of February 1.
Sacramento-based Capital Public Radio reports that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has issued roughly the same number of citations, while the state’s Board of Barbering and Cosmetology has revoked two licenses from just one of the 54,000 businesses it regulates. In New York, for comparison, the state has fined some 1,900 restaurants and bars for violating pandemic regulations.
Those numbers, however, don’t capture the enforcement activity that happens at the city and county level. They also don’t include the numerous ways that businesses can be pressured to comply with the state’s health orders that fall short of bona fide citations.
Russo, for instance, says that her decision to reopen netted her a $1,000 fine from the city of San Luis Obispo. In January she was also told that she was no longer eligible for various recovery grants and promotional programs run by the city. Ironically, this news came the same week that she received an “Award of Excellence” from the county’s Environmental Health Services agency for “exceptional effort in food safety and sanitation.”
Sometimes agencies are at war with themselves over how much educating or enforcement they want to do.
Take the case of Jan Holguin, owner of the upscale seafood and steak restaurant Casa Bella in Ventura, California. The one-two punch of Los Angeles County’s ban on outdoor dining being struck down followed by the state regional health order banning outdoor dining going into effect prompted Holguin to reopen her outdoor dining area for a one-day protest.
She says that she reached out to Ventura County’s health department beforehand and was told she’d only receive a warning. When she did reopen on December 10, she says a health department employee came by at around 3 p.m. and gave her a warning just like they said they would. “It was an amicable, good conversation,” she says.
But then at 10:30 p.m. that night a different employee from the same department showed up and temporarily suspended her license. She was able to get that suspension reversed the next day, she says, but only after repeated phone calls and speaking with the head of the county’s Environmental Health Division.
Both Russo and Holguin struggled to reopen in part because local authorities weren’t willing to tolerate their protests. The two were also isolated incidents; Russo made the decision to reopen on her own, Holguin was only joined by a few other neighboring restaurants. They lacked allies that made them vulnerable to enforcement agents. The story was different in Paso Robles.
The San Luis Obispo County Small Business Coalition
There’s not much about Paso Robles’ Cider Creek Bakery & Deli that would label it as a hotbed of resistance to California’s emergency pandemic orders. Yet ut’s from inside this nondescript storefront, nestled in the corner of a small strip mall next to a nail salon and smoke shop, that owner Brad Daughtry has been waging a not-so-quiet war against the state’s ever-shifting restrictions on his business.
For the first few months of the pandemic, Daughtry’s story tracked pretty closely with that of most other business owners. He shut his doors when ordered to do so in March, limped along through April and early May on about 40 percent of his normal revenue, before finally being allowed to reopen on-site service later that month.
By August he’d had enough. That month, Newsom introduced his reopening blueprint, which reaffirmed a ban on indoor dining imposed in mid-July. August was also the month that the Salinas wildfire filled Paso Robles’ air with smoke, giving it some of the worst air quality in the country.
“The smoke was so bad here that I said screw it, and I let people come indoors,” he says. He’s been open ever since. Emboldening Daughtry’s decision to reopen was the experience he’d had with code enforcement officers over his masking policy.
Twice during the pandemic, county officials sent him warning letters about his failure to require his employees to wear masks. Daughtry says that his employees do wear masks, but that he doesn’t require this of his customers.
In phone calls with enforcement officers, Daughtry asked what evidence the county had that his employees weren’t wearing masks. He says he was told frankly that the county didn’t have the manpower to investigate individual violations, and was instead limited to conducting drive-by inspections in response to complaints.
“They just do a quick drive-by and that’s it. I’m like, well, that’s a lot of harsh accusations for very limited proof,” he says. Because the county wasn’t able to provide proof of his supposed violations, Daughtry wasn’t too bothered by the idea that they would follow through on their threats to fine him or revoke his business license.
That experience, and his growing cynicism about the continually changing restrictions being placed on his and other businesses, meant that when the state once again told restaurants to close indoor dining in November, Daughtry was not only ready to resist this order, he also wanted to encourage others to follow his lead.
A few nights before the new indoor dining ban was officially imposed, Daughtry said he and a handful of other business owners started messaging each other trying to figure out what they would do when the ban came down, and what would happen if they chose not to comply.
“We were just messaging back and forth all night, like about 10 to 15 of us, until about 4 in the morning,” he says. “I finally just said, ‘Look guys, clearly we have a lot to talk about and nobody really knows what to do. Let’s get together and talk about this.'”
They all agreed to meet a few days later at the Alchemist’s Garden, a cocktail bar in downtown Paso Robles. During those few days, word had spread to other business owners in town. Instead of the 15 or so people Daughtry was expecting to show up, 45 people assembled on the bar’s patio eager to discuss strategy for avoiding the losses that would come with a second lockdown. Daughtry got up and told the crowd that he was committed to keeping his business open.
“I had already made the decision that I was opening and that they were literally going to have to take me to jail to shut me down,” he says. “I had no more reserves, and if I close my doors again and I go back to 50 percent capacity or 50 percent sales, I’m going to lose my business.”
“Everybody basically was just in the same boat and they were just trying to figure out how to do it,” he says.
It was out of that meeting that the San Luis Obispo County Small Business Coalition was born. Through repeat gatherings and discussions on their Facebook group, the coalition started to function as a sort of mutual support society. People would share their experiences about enforcement with the group and then strategize before responding.
“It’s just a question-and-answer type thing. So, somebody will stand up and say, ‘Hey, I had code enforcement come to my place’ and [we’d] be like, ‘Okay, well tell me what happened,'” says Daughtry, describing a typical meeting of the coalition. “So, they’ll tell the group what happened with the interaction and what the end result was. So, then we start to learn a game plan on how to attack and fight back.”
Over the course of repeat meetings, the initial group of about 45 business owners grew. By the next meeting, their numbers had swelled to around 60, and by early January, over 120 people were showing up at these gatherings.
Their organization started to score policy wins too. On December 10, the Paso Robles City Council met for a special session to discuss the regional stay-at-home order that had been issued a week before, and how the city would go about enforcing it.
At that meeting, roughly 40 business owners—many of whom were members of the coalition—called in to express their opposition to the new order and beg the city to do whatever was in its power to not enforce the new regulations.
Their message appeared to sink in. The city council, in guidance issued the next day and reaffirmed by a formal vote on December 15, said that it would continue with its enforcement approach that relied primarily on “empathy and education,” and promised to continue to pressure the state government to lift the regional stay-at-home order. The city council also declined to revoke permits it had issued that allowed restaurants to serve customers in city-owned parklets, despite these now being illegal under the state’s new order.
At the same time, the city council made clear that while the city was largely declining to enforce the regional stay-at-home order, there was nothing they could do to keep county or state regulators at bay.
Between the city’s hands-off approach and the efforts of the growing coalition, Paso Robles stayed open while the rest of the state was shutting down.
I visited the town one weekend in mid-January. The most remarkable thing was just how unremarkable it was. Everyone was behaving more or less normally, despite a state emergency order largely requiring them to stay in their homes.
Newsom’s order forbade California hotels from renting rooms to people not traveling on essential business. Yet the clerk at my hotel casually asked if I was in town for vacation. Businesses around town sported signs assuring potential customers they were indeed open for business, both indoors and outdoors.
When I stopped by the Cider Creek Bakery & Deli, customers were sitting around inside, happily eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. The nail salon a few doors down, which technically had been required to shut down by the state order, was busy as well.
On Saturday night, the city’s downtown restaurants were filled with families and friends meeting up for meals, couples sharing drinks together, and other typical signs of nightlife that existed pre-2020. Absent the servers’ masks and tented outdoor dining on the streets, there was scant evidence that there was a pandemic, or that the state had ordered the hospitality industry to shut down in response to it.
Even the local dive bar in town was hopping with unmasked, mostly college-aged patrons drinking, playing pool, and entertaining each other with karaoke renditions of country songs and Afroman. Customers were required to buy a taco, supposedly to comply with state health regulations requiring drinkers to also order food, but that appeared to be the only pandemic precaution being taken.
This was in contrast to San Luis Obispo, about a 30-minute drive south of Paso Robles. The city government there hadn’t agreed to be as hands off. The result was a downtown that wasn’t quite dead, but was far from thriving.
Saturday evenings there were decidedly tamer, at least. A few retail shops remained open, but with imposing signs warning about capacity limits. The main theater downtown was closed, its marquee bearing a message urging everyone to stay healthy. Most restaurants were open for business, but only for takeout and delivery.
A few scattered diners were eating meals out of takeout containers in parklet spaces, which the city allowed them to do on the condition that restaurants don’t offer them table service or sell them alcohol. Their presence added some life to the streetscape. Still, those conditions also meant that restaurants couldn’t make money selling high-margin drinks, servers were shorted on the tips they would have made from providing table service, and bussers and hostesses didn’t have jobs at all.
The city “did that to…throw us a bone,” says Russo of the takeout meal arrangement. But for her it just became more evidence that the people making decisions about her business had no idea how her industry really worked.
Pandemics and Prohibitions
People convinced of the merits of business closures as a means of fighting the pandemic probably won’t find the example of Paso Robles all that inspiring.
And indeed, in interviewing business owners who had decided to reopen, I came across a range of attitudes and practices. Some proprietors were sincerely interested in protecting both their business from ruinous lockdowns and their customers from COVID-19. Others were far less concerned about the health implications of staying open.
Still, the course of the pandemic in San Luis Obispo County while the stay-at-home order was in effect, and an after-the-fact analysis of the order’s impact, lend credence to the idea that small business owners operating their outdoor patios wasn’t a major driver of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
When the regional stay-at-home order went into effect, about 40 percent of the county’s ICU beds were free. By early February, a week after the order was lifted, the county had about 50 percent of its ICU beds open.
It’s hard to blame business owners for chafing at restrictions being imposed by virtue of their being lumped in with a region that included Los Angeles, 200 miles to the south, where ICUs did eventually run out of room for COVID-19 patients.
True, that chafing resulted in some businesses reopening under conditions that were not ideal for preventing the spread of coronavirus, with customers eagerly flocking to them.
Yet for some public health experts, this was a predictable consequence of state officials constantly falling back on bans and prohibitions to fight the virus.
“Some of the things they’re telling you not to do are incredibly low-risk,” said Brown University economist Emily Oster to the Los Angeles Times in early December. “When you are so strict about what people can do, they stop listening.” In other words, the longer you tell people not to eat outdoors, the more likely they will be to crowd into a dive bar.
Speaking of dive bars, a few days after my visit to Paso Robles, I came down with a case of COVID-19.
All in all, it turned out to be a relatively mild episode. I had a fever and cough for a couple days, followed by a couple weeks of fatigue and shortness of breath. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and certainly outweighed the enjoyment I got from spending a night in a crowded bar. But it also wasn’t the worst illness I’ve had.
Proponents of lockdowns and business closures could reasonably take this as evidence that Paso Robles-style reopening is a bad idea.
Without proactive enforcement of public health orders, dangerous, virus-spreading environments operated in the town unmolested. Without the theories of some harm reductionists, safer outdoor drinking and dining environments didn’t absorb everyone looking to spend a night out. When given the option, plenty of people were still happy to congregate in a place where the chances of transmission were high.
The lax attitude of Paso Robles’ officials and residents plausibly explains why the town has had almost twice the number of COVID-19 cases per capita as neighboring San Luis Obispo.
Nevertheless, the trajectory of the pandemic in both cities rose and fell in tandem. The latter’s lockdown probably moderately reduced the per capita number of cases the city saw.
San Luis Obispo County’s death rate—77 deaths per 100,000—is also unremarkable, and certainly much better than the state’s overall death rate of 125 deaths per 100,000 people.
To the extent that the town’s excess cases when compared to its neighbors looked like mine—a mild infection of a younger, healthier person—it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable trade-off to prevent the collapse of the city’s hospitality industry. Indeed, everything we’ve learned about the regional stay-at-home order has confirmed that it was an incredibly costly policy that yielded little in the way of public health benefits, at least compared to other means of combating the pandemic.
A week after Newsom lifted his regional stay-at-home order—a decision largely attributed by both supporters and decorators to mounting political pressure—California public health officials proudly declared that an estimated 25,000 severe cases of COVID-19 were prevented by the policy over the near two months it was in effect.
That’s an impressive number that pales in comparison to the 155,000 cases of COVID-19 the state was preventing each day through its vaccination campaign. Those vaccinations, mind you, did not require business owners to submit to having their enterprises ruined.
Ultimately, Paso Robles’ experience with reopening in defiance of the state proved to be a mixed success. In the face of large-scale resistance, city and county authorities proved unwilling or unable to bring the hammer down on the town. State regulators were not so easily cowed.
On one day in late January, ABC agents called up noncompliant businesses in downtown Paso Robles and let them know in no uncertain terms that if they continued to operate in violation of the state’s regional stay-at-home order, they would have their liquor licenses suspended and be hit with massive fines.
That proved to be enough to quash the town’s stab at mass civil disobedience. Save for one or two holdouts, the threatened businesses bowed to the state’s threats and closed up shop.
But then on the following Monday, Newsom announced, to the surprise of almost everyone, that he was lifting his regional stay-at-home order, and that the state would return to operating under the color-tiered reopening blueprint. Businesses in San Luis Obispo County would be allowed to open up for outdoor dining again.
It was a big victory that came on the heels of a big defeat. When push came to shove, Paso Robles on its own wasn’t able to resist the state’s authority. But the resistance sparked by Newsom’s regional stay-at-home order ultimately proved to be its undoing.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsom has claimed sweeping emergency powers over the state’s economy, businesses, and individual citizens. Those emergency powers, with a few notable exceptions, have gone unchecked by courts and legislators.
That autocratic power liberated the governor from having to consult with or obtain consent from the parties that would ultimately be required to enforce or comply with his dictates. That had the benefit of allowing Newsom to impose exceedingly complex pandemic regulations backed by the “science” and the “data.”
With each new scheme of restrictions cooked up by Newsom and state public health officials, there was less and less buy-in from the people that would be expected to comply with it. Arbitrary power could only be pushed so far before it became impotent.
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