Gov. Gavin Newsom again reported a significant rise in coronavirus cases in California on Wednesday, noting that a record-breaking 7,149 new positive results were confirmed in the state in the last day.
The news came shortly before Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned in a Sacramento Press Club appearance that easing restrictions to slow the spread of the virus does not mean it’s safe to resume normal life again.
At a news conference on Wednesday to discuss the state’s coronavirus response, Newsom warned that COVID-19 hospitalizations, as well as the number of coronavirus patients sent to intensive care units, have been rising significantly — telltale signs that “we are not out of the first wave.”
“This virus is virulent. This virus knows no boundaries and it knows no age cohort. It is a deadly virus,” Newsom said during the briefing in Sacramento. “That’s why it’s incumbent upon all of us to step things up to the extent we can, be more vigilant.”
California has seen a 29% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past 14 days and nearly a 20% increase in virus patients being treated in ICUs, Newsom said.
The Democratic governor again emphasized, however, that California’s first-in-the-nation stay-at-home order, which Newsom enacted in mid-March, significantly slowed spread of the coronavirus. That allowed the state hospital system to increase capacity to handle a potential surge in patients, and bought the state enough time to acquire the necessary personal protective gear, ventilators and other equipment, he said.
“We are confident in our capacity, in the short run, to meet the needs of those most in need in the state of California,” Newsom said.
Almost all counties have received permission from the state to ease up on Newsom’s original stay-at-home order, allowing stores, restaurants, salons and other businesses to reopen under certain conditions, such as limiting the number of customers, requiring face coverings and enacting sanitation protocols.
Newsom warned that counties that fail to abide by the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, including the mandate that Californians must wear face coverings while in public, could face cuts in state funding targeting the coronavirus outbreak.
The governor’s effort to persuade local officials to do more extends to the budget agreement he struck with legislative leaders on Monday. The proposal, set to be approved by the Legislature on Friday, ties a county’s share of at least $750 million in state funds to orders issued by the California Dept. of Public Health. Those funds are intended to replace missing tax revenues that normally fund health and public safety programs on the county level.
The total amount of local assistance could rise to $1 billion if new federal coronavirus funds arrive in California. During budget talks, it was not widely known that Newsom would insist the money be sent to local officials with strings attached.
Newsom’s warning Wednesday came after a number of local sheriffs said they would not enforcement the face covering mandate, and some local elected officials protested the directive.
“There are some that have made rhetorical comments about not giving a damn, flouting any consideration of supporting the broader health directives coming out of the state of California,” Newsom said. “That’s exactly why I look forward to signing this budget that will afford me a little bit of leverage in that conversation and I think that’s the appropriate next step.”
Last week, Newsom said state agencies may also be enlisted to enforce the state coronavirus restrictions, including the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which enforces workplace safety requirements, and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which regulates the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants.
Newsom added that he believes the vast majority of Californians and local governments have heeded the state’s coronavirus restrictions and said he expects possible punitive actions to be rare.
“We hope we never have to trigger that. I think the vast majority of local officials care deeply about their constituency, people about their community, want people to self enforce,” Newsom said.
In his livestreamed appearance on Wednesday to discuss pandemic response, Fauci warned that too many people view decisions to ease restrictions as a green light to return to normal life as coronavirus cases continue to increase in California after the governor allowed businesses to reopen.
“I don’t think it’s anything that the state of California is doing wrong or not,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s what the response of the people are to what the opening process is.”
The country’s leading health expert spoke positively about Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
“I think California is starting to see little bits of surges at the community level as they’re opening up,” Fauci said. “I think that from the administrative standpoint, that you have a good handle on what things to do.”
But Fauci said California may need to reassess its restrictions as cases continue to increase.
“You don’t really need to go back to lockdown,” Fauci said. “Now you may need to stay where you are and then impose a few more restrictions, or maybe back up a little. But again, just like you don’t want to open in an all or none, you don’t want to start locking down completely.”
He described the desire to resume normal life and socialize with people as normal. But he urged Californians to uphold their social responsibility by wearing masks and maintaining a physical distance when gathering with others.
“The things that we’re doing that are uncomfortable now because they’re restrictive are the very thing that is going to get us to normality,” Fauci said. “So, the good news is that it will end, I promise you. The sobering news is that we got a lot of work to do to get there.”
Times Staff Writer John Myers contributed to this report.