It’s a big day in California. With the state’s color-coded reopening tiers riding off into the sunset, there’s no more social distancing, and masks in almost every indoor situation are being retired.
It’s been a long road to get here. As many businesses rejoice that capacity limits and other protocols are finally going out the window, others are struggling to reopen, and some weren’t able to survive the travails of the state’s strict COVID shutdowns and regulations.
As the state marks the occasion of being fully back to business, KCRW speaks to one of the leaders who has played a key role in shaping many of the policies that have influenced day-to-day life over the last year. Dee Dee Myers, a senior advisor to Governor Gavin Newsom, leads the governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.
Myers says June 15 is an exciting day, and gratitude should be one of the top feelings people are experiencing as this new chapter begins.
“We got through this. We got through this together,” she says. “People did it by coming together, following the science, doing the right thing, protecting each other, wearing their mask, keeping distant. And now we have the lowest infection rate in the country. … The net result of all that is we can go back to normal life in so many ways.”
When it comes to California’s economy, Myers says a prediction of boom times ahead by UCLA’s Anderson Forecast is spot on. That report indicates the state’s pandemic safety protocols, which strictly limited many sectors of the economy, may actually help it rebound faster.
Myers says the travel and tourism sectors were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, but points out they’re already seeing “really robust job recovery and growth” as the state has relaxed COVID restrictions. More broadly speaking, Myers says the state is just beginning to register the impacts of a slow mass return to workplaces by many employees.
“I think what we’ll see in the months ahead … is that not only will California grow, its growth will lead the country,” says Myers.
Despite the good news and legitimate cause for celebration, the Golden State remains in a “state of emergency” due to the COVID crisis first instituted by the governor in March of last year. That’s strategic, says Myers.
“There’s a lot of reasons that you declare an emergency,” she says. “One is obviously to be able to pass certain kinds of provisions that will allow people to get through it. Another is because it entitles you to things like additional federal funding to pay for things like the vaccines. We still need that.”
Many of Newsom’s executive orders pertaining to the pandemic are off the books today. Myers says more rollbacks are coming — some later in June and some as late as September.
“By the time we’re at Labor Day, we’ll be back to normal in almost every way,” she says.
While all signs point to the fall looking mostly like “the before times” we fondly hearken back to, in the immediate future, masks might still be at least a small part of life as Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety regulator, sets safety policies for the office in the waning days of the pandemic.
The agency has been all over the place in its recommendations. First it said employees could go maskless in a room if every person inside was vaccinated. But if just one person wasn’t immunized, it was masks on for everyone. That policy was much stricter than guidelines from the CDC touted by state health officials, which fully considered the remarkably high efficacy of vaccines. Cal/OSHA faced a lot of blowback and eventually said its guidance would mesh with that of other leading health experts.
With a sigh, Myers says hindsight is 20/20. “Obviously we wish the process had been a little smoother.”
She gives the agency the benefit of the doubt, saying she believes they were trying to reflect the current state of California’s public health guidance, but she thinks they fell out of sync.
“Once the California Department of Public Health issued updated guidance on masking, Cal/OSHA said, ‘Hey, we need to take a look at that and factor that new guidance into our guidelines for the workplace.’”
As many workplaces navigate the uncertainty of what the exact masking policies will be going forward, some businesses don’t have that luxury, having succumbed to the difficulties brought about by the pandemic.
“Obviously we’ve lost a lot of businesses,” Myers says. “[Governor Newsom’s] heart breaks for people who have seen their dreams really challenged and sometimes lost at least for now. I think among the things he’s tried to do is to try to both provide additional incentives for new businesses to start, provide cash into the hands of all Californians through the Golden State stimulus, [and] provide other incentives and opportunities for businesses and get the economy going.”
Part of California’s rebound has focused on the notion of economic justice, especially in the wake of protests around racial justice and equity in the spring of 2020. Myers says the COVID crisis shined a glaring light on economic inequality.
“Among the things we’ve tried to do to address it was when we created this $4-plus billion in small business grants,” says Myers. “We really wanted to get to those businesses and those communities and those sectors that were hardest hit. And so we did that and the vast majority have gone to those targeted populations.”
Another priority of equity has been vaccines. “It was really important not just to make the vaccine available, but to make sure we got it into those hardest hit communities. We worked hard with the local community organizations, with health providers in neighborhoods, everything from making sure vaccines are available in pharmacies to putting mobile vans out into the community, to actually knocking on doors and really encouraging people to get vaccinated. Because we know that those communities have been hardest hit, and unless they have full access to the vaccine and are at that community immunity point, even after today we’ll continue to do that.”