In Gavin Newsom’s California, COVID-19 Rules Are for Those Without Political Power

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When should you be forced to get a vaccination and when should you be exempt? In California, it depends on how much political clout you have.

The California Attorney General’s Office announced Tuesday that it will appeal a federal judge’s September order that would require all state prison staffers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The notice of appeal comes after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom declared last month that Democratic officials should “lean in” to COVID-19 prevention efforts, citing their “moral authority” to save people’s lives.

And it comes after Newsom’s office announced on October 1 that California would become the first state in the country to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students, pending full Food and Drug Administration approval of the vaccines.

The power dynamics at play here are not subtle or hard to divine. California is insisting that school children get vaccinated, while simultaneously fighting to protect prison guards from a vaccine mandate, because students, who are at very low risk of serious COVID-19 complications compared to older age brackets, don’t have a public sector union with deep pockets. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the state’s powerful prison guard union, donated $1.75 million to Newsom’s recall defense.

Meanwhile, prisons have been the epicenter of many major COVID-19 clusters. In U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar’s September order requiring that all 66,000 state employees entering California prisons be vaccinated or have a religious or medical exemption, Tigar noted that from August to mid-September, 48 outbreaks have been traced back to prison staff.

As I wrote last year during the early stages of the pandemic, prisons are petri dishes for disease. At one point last April, eight out of 10 of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. were prisons and jails. Diseases don’t stay within prison walls, though. Staff take them back into their communities. Prison inmates, meanwhile, especially older men and women with chronic health conditions, are trapped in institutions that have little to no concern for their well-being. (Tigar’s order came in part because the California prison system’s medical services have been under receivership since 2006 due to its repeated failures to provide adequate health care to incarcerated people.)

Tigar’s order was opposed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the CCPOA, and Newsom’s office. Newsom has ordered all state employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but that order includes an option for regular COVID-19 tests in lieu of getting the jab. Newsom’s student mandate, like the court order the governor is fighting, includes no such option for frequent testing.

This is not “following the science” or leaning in. It’s just naked machine politics, another example of hypocritical “rules for thee, not for me” policy making that spread like, well, an epidemic during the past year and a half.

Recall when Newsom was caught dining unmasked at The French Laundry, a three-Michelin-star restaurant, with a CEO and a lobbyist, just days after advising Californians to practice social distancing and avoid private social gatherings, including Thanksgiving.

Tigar’s order has been temporarily blocked by a Kern County judge, who was appointed by Newsom. That injunction, however, only applies to CCPOA members and not other prison staffers.

It must be nice being part of the political class that’s not subject to the feckless whims of Newsom’s “moral authority.”

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