When California began to quickly reopen the economy, Santa Cruz County officials decided that it was safest to keep their landmark beaches largely closed in the afternoon to avoid crowds that could spread the coronavirus.
But the public increasingly ignored the rules and demanded summer on the sand, swimming, sunbathing and just going out. Unable to stop the crowd, the county authorities simply gave up.
“People are no longer willing to be governed in this regard,” said doctor Gail Newel, as the municipality rescinded its beach closure order last week.
This is the problem that California officials now face when dealing with a huge increase in coronavirus cases linked to business reopening, social gatherings and other factors, and hospitals are becoming increasingly crowded. As the public got used to the pandemic, Californians apparently became less afraid of the highly contagious virus, even though it is no less infectious than in winter.
When California became the first state in the country to impose a home stay order on March 19, people listened.
Business stopped and many stayed at home as long as possible, watching the COVID-19 make a deadly march through places like New York and northern Italy.
We emptied the supermarkets as if we were preparing for the apocalypse. We disinfect our cell phones every hour. Some of us even clean up groceries or leave packages shipped alone for days, for fear that the virus could be left on the surface.
Months later, California emerged with an apparent coronavirus success story, with far fewer deaths than in other hot spots. But these bragging rights also brought complacency and a demand that we return to the old routines that could revive the devastated economy. Eventually, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations began to increase rapidly.
“We were the victims of our own success,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and specialist in infectious diseases at UC San Francisco.
Government officials must now try to reverse some of the reopenings, hoping to avoid a disastrous July 4 weekend that spreads the infection even more quickly with social events and crowds.
Governor Gavin Newsom this week ordered the closure of restaurants, bars, wineries, cinemas, zoos and museums in 19 municipalities, affecting more than 28 million Californians, or 72% of the state’s population. Beaches were ordered by local government officials in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Getting more people to comply with a state order to wear masks in public remains a challenge. And many got used to being in the crowd after participating in protests, seeing restaurants reopening and holding social gatherings.
“California should be commended for doing so well at the beginning. We really hung up and I think we really got the right messages, ”said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, president of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco. “So, why do we start to leave?”
“We felt good about everything we had achieved, without realizing that the virus never left us. The virus was under control, ”she said. And while the closing of the company happened quickly, “it made us believe that we could open the same way”.
Many residents are divided – they understand the growing dangers of coronavirus, but they also say that the months of virtual blocking have had an emotional impact. Casey Parlette, a resident of Laguna Beach, said he was divided over whether his city should have closed its beaches during the holiday weekend.
“I hear both sides of the discussion … but it is difficult when everything is closed. When the beaches, slopes, parks were closed, the only thing that was open was maybe your backyard, if you have one, and the middle of the street, and that was pretty much the same, ”said Parlette.
“We were trying to find creative ways to get my 3-year-old son out and do things,” he added. “But I think there is a certain amount of implicit responsibility that individuals need to take in order not to be part of the problem.”
California, however, is not yet in the same crisis as other states, such as Arizona and Florida. While the rate at which coronavirus tests confirm infections in California in the past seven days is 6.9%, in Arizona it’s 24%, is at Florida is 16%.
Some experts say California can avert disaster if it changes its behavior now – without having to return to the stricter order to stay home.
This is partly due to our better understanding of the virus – doctors are able to provide better hospital care than in the early days of the pandemic.
But people also need to do a better job, avoiding higher-risk activities. Experts say that closed bars are high risk, as are large indoor meetings.
Less risky activities involve meeting with friends or family outdoors, in smaller meetings, for shorter periods, while wearing masks when they are not eating or drinking. San Francisco health order, for example, allows outdoor meetings, but requires masks and encourages social distance and no more than 12 people for special meetings and no more than six for a meal.
In LA County, the coronavirus crisis is still so severe that officials do not recommend meetings outside the home. Newsom discouraged those meetings this holiday weekend.
It is possible to change our habits. Wearing a seat belt became California law in 1986. Smoking is no longer permitted in crowded public areas.
“Public health, when it works best, is not telling people what to do. It is telling people how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe so that people can make their decisions about how to do this, ”said Bibbins-Domingo.
Blocking fatigue is not a new phenomenon. During the 1918 flu pandemic, San Franciscans threw their masks in the air when they thought the pandemic was over, unaware that a deadly new wave of flu would arrive in a few weeks, said Chin-Hong at UC San Francisco.
“People are afraid that history will repeat itself,” he said.
California’s exuberant optimism that the worst of the pandemic was behind was fueled by the state’s initial success. While many people in California may not know someone who has died, said Chin-Hong in New York, it seems that everyone knows someone who has died.
Without that deep-seated fear, it has been difficult for some Californians to accept that some traditions that seem safe and healthy – like finding an extended family at home – are now risky.
In California, large internal meetings triggered multigenerational outbreaks of COVID-19. People are particularly infectious in the days before they develop symptoms if they get sick; a substantial portion of infected people never show symptoms, but can still be highly contagious.
The stunning differences between neighboring municipalities throughout the reopening also complicated the public message system. You can’t cut your hair in San Francisco, but you could do it by car to Napa County.
And in LA County, it would have been difficult to keep businesses closed for longer than in neighboring counties, Mayor Eric Garcetti said in May. “Regions need to move,” he said at the time, adding that it would be difficult to tell a barber in Long Beach to remain closed while hairdressing salons are open nearby in Orange County.
The rules are so confusing across counties that people may end up thinking, “These people don’t know what they’re talking about – I’m going to do what I do,” said Chin-Hong.
In addition, the historic protests that arose after the assassination of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer may have led some people to think, “If that is right, certainly start meeting with other people … it must also be fine,” Said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the UCLA School of Public Health.
Another reason why coronavirus is difficult to contain is the mortality rate. Although it is 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, making staying at home orders reasonable for many, the virus is not as lethal as the 2002-03 severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, which had a lethality rate 10 times greater and would likely require broader support for stronger blocking measures, said Kim-Farley.
To get out of this new crisis, public health officials, politicians and the public need to reach an agreement that is easy to understand, said Kim-Farley.
A unified message and a wave of public support helped to contain the virus in places like Taiwan and New Zealand.
First, public health officials and politicians need to work together to identify widely understood goals; then, politicians need to work with the public to establish support and “they need to lead and demonstrate, for example, the actions they want the public to take. “like wearing masks,” said Kim-Farley.
If the authorities can devise disease control measures that the public will support, it will help to create new social norms.
“We have to create a new public health standard for COVID – that it’s not cool to be outside without a mask,” said Kim-Farley, or that customers don’t go to restaurants that don’t keep tables at a safe distance. . Perhaps county officials can assess companies’ compliance with COVID-19 regulations, he said.
For now, health officials hope that news of the current rise in infections and hospitalizations will persuade Californians to change their behavior.
Bibbins-Domingo said he did not think California was destined to overload the New York-style hospital system. “What New York saw was a rate of growth so fast in a very tight environment that it was really impossible to cope with,” said Bibbins-Domingo.
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