The pandemic has made us so crazy that the governor of California is now apologizing for patronizing a California business. 

Of course, there is more to le scandalette involving Gov. Newsom’s decision to attend a 50th birthday party (Jason Kinney, you’re old!) at the French Laundry, a famous restaurant in Yountville, in Napa County. But not much more. 

The scandal has quite a lot to do with the intense feeling that Northern Californians have about the restaurant, a once-in-a-lifetime sort of place where it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation. As a columnist, I’ve been inside the French Laundry, but have never had the interest, or the four free hours necessary to eat there. As a teetotaler, a cheapskate, and Southern Californian, it’s hard to understand the appeal of paying $350, plus extra for wine, for food you don’t pick yourself. I was also shocked to discover that for that $350 prix fixe, the French Laundry doesn’t offer fluff-and-fold. What a rip-off! 

So simply dining there is enough to produce public resentment, at least for those Californians who think the French Laundry is a better place to eat than the taco truck in the empty parking lot just up the road. (They are wrong, but there is no accounting for taste). Dining there in a pandemic, with the state backsliding on COVID response and officials advising us to avoid family Thanksgivings, is even more infuriating. And then to see in photos obtained by a TV station that the dinner involved close seating, no masks, and seating that was indoors (albeit with open glass doors), is all a bit much. 

Newsom’s abject apology was wise; there also ought to be an accounting for the California Medical Association personnel who were there, and whether everyone had been tested. But I also think we might want to do some forgiving, especially if it turns out that this wasn’t a spreader event. 

The case for forgivesness goes like this. We want our governor, and Californians to the extent possible, to be out patronizing California businesses, and dining outdoors at restaurants. He didn’t drive too far to go to the restaurant. He was among longtime friends, which is good for his mental health, which is important to our state. We Californians should be able to do everything he did, even in the midst of the pandemic. 

It’s just essential that we do it safely. The governor said he should have walked away from the dinner and gone home; I think that’s wrong. He should have demanded changes in the seating and set-up, so it was safe. He should have made the restaurant move the party entirely outside. Yes, it wasn’t his party, but the governor is supposed to take charge. His failure here was not in the hypocrisy, but in the lack of leadership and responsibility. 

We Californians can’t and shouldn’t hide in our houses. We should behave safely and cautiously—to the extent Newsom didn’t do that, that’s what he should apologize for. 

If Newsom’s French Laundry dinner is worth forgiving, then what is unforgivable? I’d suggest that the legislators who went to Hawai‘I for a conference deserve more condemnation. They traveled far. They’re spending money at businesses outside California. If they needed to retreat, there are plenty of safe places in California desperate for the business. Would an outdoor gathering at Pebble Beach be so hard?

If politicians are going to take the political risks of going out in a pandemic, they should take those risks inside the state.