California's Pandemic Response Must Balance Health vs. Economy, Not Expand Government and Limit Freedoms | Opinion

When I ran for governor of California against Gavin Newsom in 2018, I – like nearly all Americans – had no idea what my state would be facing a couple of short years later. I do know something about the coronavirus we are facing: I contracted it. Luckily, I recovered. Other friends also caught it and wound up on ventilators. Thank goodness for the best health care system in the country.

The governor's stay-at-home order was a tough decision – many other governors as well as our president have been called to make tough decisions. We shouldn't second guess that it was needed to prepare for a surge and to enable health care providers to prepare with sufficient personnel, practices, supplies and procedures. There was concern that ventilators and ICU beds would be in short supply. No one knew for certain whether the projected surge would overwhelm us. Abundance of caution required weighing the health risks against the economic damage to private business and government.

But a month later, a clearer picture has come into focus. We need to protect public health, but we can do that and still move with due speed to carefully reopen the economy. Happily, the models of infections and deaths have overstated the depth of the problem. A recent study in Santa Clara County (followed by another in L.A. County) shows the potential overstatement of mortality to be possibly multiples of previous estimates, due to the prevalence of asymptomatic or mild symptom infections.

We are witnessing the power of U.S. technology and medical research in being able to treat and prevent the incidence of the virus. Treatments like remdesivir have shown promise, even though its clinical results need to be proven.

In record time, new vaccines are undergoing clinical trials. Apple and Google are collaborating on an app that can help contact tracing. That's important since we need to identify those who get infected, although we need to balance the public interest in protecting public health with the privacy concerns. Our people have responded by modifying their behavior to practice social distancing and mask-wearing. These are reasonable in light of the contagion involved.

But we need to consider the impact on the economy and the jobs we have lost. As a result, we need to strike a reasonable balance. Already over 26 million Americans (and over 4 million Californians) have applied for unemployment insurance. A federal government already massively in debt from excessive spending has ramped up spending and added trillions to the debt that will saddle our children and grandchildren. The sad news is that many small businesses will fail to survive, even if temporarily supported by government money. Some estimates put that number at 30 to 50 percent, which echo Great Depression statistics.

The shutdown creates a serious crisis for other private businesses, government and non-profit organizations. These entities rely on the shuttered businesses for their revenues. As such, our economy is complex and interdependent. Government revenues needed for essential services are shrinking. All of this highlights an underfunded government employee pension and health care system. Non-profits from hospitals to churches that rely on private donations are hamstrung.

The tax revenues to the state as well as local communities are coming under serious pressure. Municipal bankruptcies – which we unpleasantly saw in California during the last recession – are possible. These will impact residents and municipal employees.

The homelessness crisis in California has been considered to be a breeding ground for many diseases like hepatitis A, typhus, and even the bubonic plague. We've now leapfrogged from the 14th to the 21st century, as a recent report estimated that almost two-thirds of homeless living on our streets could be carrying COVID-19. We were worried before about how much disease could be transmitted by the prevalence and lack of sanitation from the homelessness crisis. Now we are absolutely petrified.

A pandemic is a scary thing. Our leaders have a duty to warn us of the dangers. They also have a duty to prepare us, manage our expectations and provide the infrastructure that enables the private economy to revive. Poverty endangers our health as much as a virus. An economic depression creates a physical and mental health hazard.

Last but certainly not least, we also need to be on the watch for public officials using this crisis to expand government and/or curtail our civil liberties. Our country is very different from many others around the world since we have a constitution that was drafted in response to an authoritarian king and is structured very specifically to limit the power of government. The stay-at-home order is being justified as needed to protect public health, and for a very temporary moment we can accept that. What we cannot accept is a long term expansion of limits on our freedom as well as the mechanism of government expanded to meet what we are being told is a public health need.

We need to move decisively to both reopen the economy and protect public health. Prudent leadership can do both. We need an effective vaccine to combat the virus. But let's make certain that in the meantime, we don't compound the challenge with an economic catastrophe. Let's plan to get Californians back working, take precautions like wearing masks and be careful with handwashing – then gradually open businesses as we carefully monitor the effects on public health and our most vulnerable.

Some mainstream media seem to take great pleasure in mocking the protesters we see take to the streets in some areas over these last several days, making them out to be ideologues who are embracing a disease they know little about. I don't see that at all. I see working and struggling Americans who need to get back to work and know that a two-thousand-dollar-a-month check from the government isn't sustainable. They are the 'Zoom-Moms,' doing everything they can to virtually partner with teachers to keep our education system moving. These are people who know life is full of risks and they're looking for leaders who will carefully balance their health needs with a desire not to tank their livelihoods forever. Carefully balancing those interests is what we need right now.

Nobody has to tell me how tough this disease is. I know that firsthand. But we can't lose our way to decisions driven by political ideologies, instead of sound and prudent policies that balance our economic and health interests.

John Cox is a businessman who was the GOP nominee for governor of California in 2018. He has stayed active in trying to make California more affordable and livable, founding a program called Change California (change-ca.org).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

California and coronavirus
SOLVANG, CA - APRIL 19: A small clothing shop in the now closed historic downtown features a "closed until further notice by order of the Governor of California" sign in its window on April 19, 2020 in Solvang, California. Because of its close proximity to Southern California and Los Angeles population centers, this Danish-themed tourist attraction in Santa Barbara County has become a popular weekend travel getaway destination for millions of tourists each year. George Rose/Getty Images/Getty