Has the “New Normal” Already Arrived?

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

“I see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel….and the light is getting brighter and brighter every day. People want to get back to their jobs.”

Thus spake the president at a recent Task Force briefing.

California and the majority of other states are apparently shining a different flashlight with a higher beam. 

That includes Gov. Gavin Newsom who has a responsibility that extends well beyond what he is able to see down that dimly lit tunnel. 

Newsom is not saying let’s go fast or let’s go slow. He is saying let’s go smart. He wants to ramp up to 60,000-80,000 tests per day. Without federal assistance that may be a tough goal. Nationally we have been doing a total of 150,000 tests daily. 

The White House is pushing opening the country as testing is just getting underway in some states—including California.

No Californian and no American currently unemployed would disagree that opening the nation for business once again is essential. The pivotal questions are when, where and how?

This pandemic will not allow short term victory regardless of all the cheerleading. It is lethal, persistent, lacking any solutions and most likely will be with us for some time to come. 

We are not talking about deadlines for when the Dodgers or Giants will be able to take the field again or when we can go back to our favorite movie theaters.

We are talking about when it will be once again safe for children to return to school, when people can go down shopping aisles without masks and gloves, when a trip to a pharmacy will not be a perilous venture. 

We are talking about getting the vitally-needed equipment to doctors, nurses, other hospital workers and first responders who have no choice but to take such risks. 

We are talking about food assembly line workers and grocery deliverers, bus drivers and migrant farmworkers, hospital janitors and elder-care aides who are helping to keep us alive.

We are talking about mobilizing the total powers of the state’s top executive and legislative leaders to whom we have given ultimate responsibility .

We are talking about getting the participation of the best health, business, labor, academic and community brains available to us that can be assembled behind the forceful initiatives to conquer an unprecedented crisis. 

This demands all hands on board. To that end he has created an 80-member non-partisan task force to promote business and economic recovery for which he is already taking some flack.

Its formation should be more than just ceremonial and it has the muscle to do much good as we work our way out of this nightmare.

Regrettably, opening society is not the principal issue. Opening it only when it is safe to do so is. Not a single clear-headed scientific or medical expert in California or in the nation is urging otherwise. 

Maintaining a robust economy is non-negotiable. We knew that before it collapsed and before even the first death was recorded. Long-term economic disruption is not sustainable and will certainly make the rebuilding process more difficult the longer it lasts.

Unfortunately the virus does not respect that mandate and will take itself anywhere it wants to go until it is thoroughly crushed!

We do not set deadlines for when wars will end. They conclude only after we have mounted defenses sufficient to defeat the enemy. We have not yet done that!

Wars go through many phases before final victory can be claimed. Opening up the country must follow the same pattern. When Californians are ready to return to any form of normal we will sense it—and if we have done our homework, there will be plenty of validation!

We can try to “liberate” some states prematurely.  But we cannot put expiration dates on human life and guidelines are only as good as the willingness of government leaders and the public to follow them.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is doing exactly what any intelligent business leader, mayor, school principal, restaurant owner, storekeeper, parent or —-yes—president must do.

He is making difficult risk assessments based on the huge quantities of data at his disposal to guide his decisions and taking his queues from the ample evidence-informed authorities accountable to him.

He does not get special credit.  That’s his job. Trump has far greater resources at his command if only he will use them.

If an infected worker does not realize he or she could be carrying this highly communicable disease and has not been tested for immunity—impossible without the necessary testing equipment—and goes back to work, they risk not only their own lives but those of their fellow employees.

Newsom is not willing to subject millions to such risks and millions of Californians will likely be very grateful for his forbearance. 

One of the prevailing themes is that once we are “over the hump” we need to be accepting of a “new normal.” 

The new normal may have already arrived. There is no guarantee of a single “hump “which will somehow make us secure once we get past the “first wave.” 

The “flattening of the curve” in one community may give no hint of signs of new infections still undetected in a neighboring town.  

70 elderly people died at an Andover Nursing home with body bags piled outside. They had not been tested. In a San Francisco senior care facility, 67 tested positive for the virus.

Los Angeles infections in our state’s largest and most dense populace are still curving upwards and San Francisco which closed down before any other city is still working toward full containment. 

Some California localities are not yet through the initial wave with large percentages of poorer and African-American residents that have not benefitted from quicker responses to those in more affluent communities who contracted the disease.

The Spanish Flu (1917-18) had several comebacks. The standard influenza epidemic makes its reappearance every year even though we have long since invented vaccines that can reduce its impacts which many still refuse to take. 

The simultaneous occurrence of both flus in the Fall is adding to healthcare concerns. Flus typically mutate but in the past we have been prepared. Not this time.

Second pandemic waves that could extend into the Fall and beyond are predictable according to the president’s own health advisors even if maximum mitigations are employed.  

Physical distancing rules in every workplace and in all public gatherings could become as commonplace as seatbelts until a safe FDA-approved vaccine is discovered. Temperature checks might become routine for awhile.

Hotel workers and guests at all large hospitality venues, attendees at sport stadiums, restaurant workers and diners, airplane passengers and concert attendees may be required to carry “digital health passports” that certify negative test results.

These may be among the less ambitious remedies before the vast labor force of “contact-tracers” can be mobilized who will be required to administer the more reliable “herd immunity” tests possible only after sufficient anti-body development in the general public.

Newsom is trying to bring some uniformity of coordination to a complicated situation respecting the latest presidential protocols that some governors are ignoring. 

It is a delicate balancing act that pits political expediency against intelligent crisis management.

Georgia will be opening beauty and massage parlors as well as bowling alleys. Florida is letting residents return to the beaches. New Jersey and New York will not be doing that. Shouldn’t reopening of our schools and universities come first?

California got ahead of the curves—so far—because we were determined to act wisely and knew how. 

The nation needs a Marshall plan. Instead we got a Barnum & Bailey Circus.

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