Californians Trust Health Officials to Keep Them Safe. Business Leaders Should Too.

Sign on grocery store shelf reminding customers to practice social distancing

It has been more than two months since California’s elected leaders and public health officials made the incredibly difficult decision to issue statewide shelter-in-place orders that have kept millions of us in our homes — safe and largely healthy in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 90,000 Americans.

Now, laid-off workers are eager to get back to their jobs. Business owners want their employees back. Parents are ready for their kids to go back to school. We could all use a haircut and a night out at our favorite restaurant.

But the coronavirus doesn’t care.

Even as jobless numbers mount and our state budget faces unprecedented new deficits, it is important for us all to remember this isn’t over.

No Cure, No Surefire Treatment

There is no cure for COVID-19, there is no reliable treatment, and we do not yet have a vaccine. Because of that, the next phase of the pandemic will be fraught with more hard choices about when to allow people to return to work and under what conditions.

For that reason, we must continue to put our confidence in the expertise of local health officials who have kept so many of us safe for the last two months. These public servants have dedicated their lives to maintaining the health of our communities. They have the training and access to the data needed to understand how this virus works, where testing and health care resources are needed, and what kinds of community responses can keep people safe.

As the statewide shelter-in-place order is being relaxed, local public health agencies will likely become even more important. Once that happens, we can expect to see a rolling wave of COVID-19 hot spots. Each new local outbreak will need rapid and highly localized responses.

Meanwhile, public health officials will continue to work day and night to keep mayors and county supervisors informed about the spread of coronavirus — helping elected leaders maximize what’s good for the economy with what is good for their community’s health.

If public health experts tell us we need to wait one or two more weeks before certain businesses can reopen, we should believe them.

Trusting the Experts

Fortunately, the vast majority of Californians do: Since the outbreak began, the California Health Care Foundation has been conducting weekly polls tracking residents’ experiences and attitudes in the face of COVID-19.

In our most recent poll conducted in mid-May, nearly 7 in 10 respondents said they have trust and confidence in how state and local public health officials are responding to COVID-19. Similar numbers of Californians — including those with low incomes — continue to support shelter-in-place policies as long as they are needed to protect the public’s health, even if it means continued damage to the economy. And more than 8 in 10 Californians are actively complying with social distancing measures, like wearing masks or avoiding trips outside of the home. That ongoing trust and shared commitment will be crucial as state and local leaders make tough choices in the weeks and months ahead.

California has been — and should be — held up as an example of how to do this right: Lacking a clear national plan or a stockpile of medical supplies, our state — and the Bay Area in particular — acted quickly to use the one tool we had at our disposal to avoid a major outbreak: social distancing. And the vast majority of residents rose to the challenge, making sacrifices at home and work to protect their families, friends, coworkers, and community.

More than 3,000 Californians have died from the coronavirus — an alarming reminder of the lethal nature of what we are up against. But compared to places like New York City, where more than 20,000 people have died, our state has been extremely fortunate. During those critical weeks in March, with the virus spreading, we trusted in science and data and the expertise of local public health officials to shut down before other parts of the country. We were right to do so, and it is not an exaggeration to say tens of thousands of Californians are alive today because of these actions.

Californians have made incredible sacrifices over the last two months to keep each other safe during these extraordinary times.

They also recognize that for it to be worth it, we need to continue putting public health first.

This article also appeared in CalMatters on May 26, 2020.

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