How Tom Steyer is advising Gov. Newsom on California’s economic recovery during pandemic

Shortly after the pandemic hit, Governor Newsom announced a star-studded task force to advise him on opening up the economy. It included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger, former Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, and billionaire environmental activist, and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

“Some of the most well known business leaders in the world happen to reside here in California. Some of the great social justice warriors. And we have tasked 80 of them to begin to work through each and every sector of our economy to put together tangible actionable ideas for short term, medium and long term economic recovery,” Newsom announced in April. 

Now there are nearly 640,000 confirmed COVID-19  cases and more than 11,000 deaths in California. The spike in cases and deaths is tied to the economy reopening around Memorial Day. That reopening had to be partially rolled back. Unemployment in the state was nearly 15% in June.

How instrumental was the task force in advising the governor to reopen?

KCRW speaks with task force co-chair Tom Steyer.

KCRW: Was it a mistake to reopen California at the beginning of June?

Tom Steyer: “No. What happened at the beginning of June was that the governor, with advice from the task force, had created protocols for opening up different businesses as the virus was under control. And those protocols, things like wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands, being very clear about not transmitting the virus, in fact, are effective and do work, and were the right thing to do. The reason that we had an upturn: People around the state felt like if we're opening up, things must be fine. They stopped obeying the protocols.”

Are you saying it was the people’s fault?

“No. I'm saying if there was a mistake made, it was in not preparing people to understand that opening up with protocols was possible, but that those protocols were critical to the state working. If there was a mistake made, it was redressed when the governor, with the support of the task force, did a big public service campaign about wearing masks. And it's worked.”

You're saying it wasn't opening restaurants, bars or stores that contributed to the uptick? It was that people weren't wearing masks when they were inside those establishments?

“What I'm saying is we opened up in a way so that people weren't prepared. There are strict rules about how and when to open up based on where the virus is.”

The numbers were going up when the state began reopening at the beginning of June. Help us understand how Governor Newsom made his decision, and how you advised him to begin reopening the economy when the virus was not under control.

“Okay, but let's be clear about what this task force does. It is an advisory task force on economic recovery. What we were called upon to do was give the governor advice, really trying to understand how businesses can work safely. 

But did he ask people who run stores, 'What do you think about the health situation?' No. And I feel very strongly that in terms of advising him on those protocols, people on the task force did exactly what they were supposed to do. 

The first specific project we did was to help small business [sic] because this is such a threat to small business [sic]. That campaign was 'Shop Safe Shop Local.' That was to help small businesses do more things online, have more personal protective equipment. What the task force is for is to give the governor advice. But the question about the health decisions, those go to the health professionals.”

Was it a mistake to open so widely, given the statistics on infections, hospitalizations and deaths at the time? 

“What I've heard the governor say, and what I believe is true, is that if there was a mistake made, it was in not preparing Californians enough to realize that opening up did not mean we had licked the virus. 

I think that what the governor is doing is exactly what he said he would do: He's putting health first. He's letting the data dictate what happens. He's responding to information by putting in protocols and rules that will protect people, and closing down things that were causing the spike.”

Many public health officials have been pressured by businesses to give the okay to reopen. Not only here in California, but across the country. 

“I've never said that because I really trust the governor on this. I think he's 100% right that we can't have a robust recovery until we have the health and safety of Californian's secured. And I know there's a natural tension between business owners — particularly small business owners were terribly worried. There's a natural inclination to want to reopen as fast as possible. The task force and I have supported the governor and believe him to be correct, and believe him to be doing the right thing, in putting the health and safety of Californians first.”

What are you advising him now in terms of reopening?

“I believe we will only have a robust recovery when the health and safety of Californians are secured, which is exactly what Governor Newsom has been saying and doing. 

In the meantime, this task force has been working really hard to try and protect California business, to try and protect the safety and health of California workers by making sure those protocols protect working people on the job so that they don't get sick. 

So we've been doing very immediate short term work. We've been doing medium term work in terms of things like working hard on closing the digital divide, working hard on trying to connect people online, to take advantage of job opportunities and training. 

And then we're thinking big picture. We're not trying to go back to California in January of 2020. We know that we need to rebuild a more just and equitable California. We're trying to work for a green, clean future.” 

How often do you meet? 

“The task force meets in full once every two weeks. There are five subcommittees dealing with different parts of the recovery that meet every week. There's a staff supporting it. And I personally meet every single day and work every single day.”

One task force member is Tim Cook of Apple, which is now valued at $2 trillion, the highest of any American company. It made half of that money in just the last five months. What is Apple doing for kids for this coming school year? Would it be possible to give a laptop to every kid who doesn't have one?

“Apple is coming in with partners to make it possible for kids. They're not doing it for free, but they're doing it at rock bottom prices to make sure that every kid can end up with a device. As part of the Cares Act, $5.3 billion was sent to the state of California, and delivered to the school districts to take care of educational problems caused by COVID, including connecting people to high speed internet. 

So a number of companies, including big internet service providers, and a number of the big device companies, like Apple, have come together to make offers to all thousand of those school districts. To make it possible for them to purchase equipment, establish high speed connections, and to have affordable plans. 

We've been trying to push these big companies to do exactly what you're saying. As a society, we need the people who are profiting the most to take responsibility for the other people who are suffering, and I think that that is happening. … Almost every school kid in California has to go school online. And if you aren't connected, you can't even have a chance of that. So it's absolutely critical that the thing we're talking about happen. Just from a moral decency standard, it has to happen. 

That's why we did 'Shop Safe Shop Local,' to try and preserve those people who run a nail salon, small family restaurants. To try to set up protocols and to support them in every way. So maybe they can't have indoor dining, but being able to take on orders online to support them and getting the equipment to protect their employees. That's exactly the kind of things [sic] we're trying to do.”

To clarify, the $5.3 billion Cares Act that went to California is federal taxpayer money. That's the money that would go to Apple and these other companies?

“It's complicated, I know, but it goes to the thousand school districts.”

School districts that then pay these companies to provide them with equipment?

“They become the ultimate customer. But the companies don't negotiate with every single school district. They have a plan that they offer to every school district.”

So you’re saying these companies are being federally subsidized?

“Well, no. I'm saying being federally paid for, and then being sold at cost by these companies.”

There is an argument that had California done what New York, Italy or China did — a complete and extended shutdown —that it wouldn't be in the situation it's in today.

“Well, they are in a different situation. They all went through something that we didn't go through. I think if you look from start to finish, the governor has done a good job. He's put health first. We closed down first. What every one of those places went through was absolutely terrible — far beyond what anything we've gone through. 

I think you have to give the governor very high marks overall. He said that he thought it was a mistake not to prepare people for the reopening, not to do the public service campaign first. But I think that he's responded to the news. And in fact, he's been saying it's back under control, and I take him at his word.”

— Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin