California has one of the lowest coronavirus case rates in the nation. And after being one of the nation’s most stringently locked-down states for more than a year, the state next week will lift nearly all of its pandemic rules in what officials have said they are confident will be a safe, triumphant reopening.
So why, then, are we still in a state of emergency? And why will we continue to be in a state of emergency, even after June 15?
Those are questions that have been raised by opponents of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who have accused him of using the ongoing emergency to wield what they describe as despotic power, claiming the proclamation as cover to impose overly strict and unnecessary regulations.
This week, a small group of Republican state lawmakers sent the governor a letter urging him to end the state of emergency or explain why he won’t.
“Ending the state of emergency is not optional,” one of the letter’s authors, Kevin Kiley, said in a tweet.
Of course, it’s important to remember that this push is coming in the midst of an effort to recall Newsom from office.
A few days before sending the letter, Kiley himself tweeted: “It hardly even matters that Gov. Newsom is refusing to end the State of Emergency on June 15.” The governor, he wrote, will “keep abusing his power until he’s removed.”
Still, the moment has created confusion about what is usually a prosaic part of the state’s response to any of the myriad disasters that California so often faces: the declaration of an emergency under California’s Emergency Services Act.
State officials said this week that the pandemic state of emergency, which Newsom declared on March 4, 2020, isn’t unusual.
Formal states of emergency routinely extend long past the immediate crisis, because they allow ongoing aid programs and recovery efforts to continue without interruption.
“The emergency doesn’t stop after a wildfire is contained,” Alex Pal, chief counsel with the Office of Emergency Services, told me. “After an earthquake, the emergency doesn’t stop after the shaking ends.”
Many emergencies related to fires and floods in recent years are still active, including the one related to the devastating and deadly Camp Fire in 2018; there are still efforts to clear debris and rebuild.
The official proclamation of an emergency, Pal explained, does give the governor the authority to use state assets and suspend regulations. But it also allows the state to more easily tap into federal aid.
What has set the pandemic emergency apart is its scale and breadth.
“With COVID, it was unprecedented, and it impacted every sector of the state,” Pal said. “With a fire, there’s usually one jurisdiction and a few sectors.”
Still, Alex Stack, a spokesman for the governor, said Newsom’s use of emergency authority had been effective.
His orders have allowed state workers to shift into contact tracing roles and relaxed criteria for which professionals can administer vaccines. The vaccine rollout, Stack said, is something that will continue to require support from both local and federal agencies.
He said there were no estimates for when the state of emergency might be lifted.
“We’re approaching this reopening date,” Stack said, adding that there are still many unknowns. “We would need to be able to keep the state of emergency in place just in case we needed to move quickly to respond to outbreaks.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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