Judging from the Bay Area counties’ flattened curve of confirmed infections, theirs was the right decision, at least from a public health standpoint. But in the state’s more rural counties, such as Fresno, where I live, there hasn’t been much of a curve to flatten. As of Tuesday, there were only 61 hospital beds occupied by coronavirus patients, and 25 were in ICUs. With a population of nearly 1 million people, Fresno Country has had nine deaths. Yet we remain under statewide shutdown orders through May 31.
Just as the virus has not spread evenly across the state, neither will the economic consequences of the shutdown. Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, was hit hard by the virus, yet a recent analysis by the Center for Business and Policy Research projects that it will experience the lowest coronavirus-related peak unemployment rate in the state (15.3 percent), whereas Fresno’s is expected to hit 21 percent.
The city of Fresno will suffer a catastrophe just as it was climbing out of the last recession. I’ve witnessed firsthand what a long struggle that has been.
Shortly after the Great Recession, my wife and I invested in medium-size commercial buildings in the “less desirable” parts of town, with an eye toward architectural gems that had gone to pot: places where homeless people, mostly drug addicts, camped out, foraged through trash cans, relieved themselves and set fires to keep warm.
Making these buildings shine again was a long labor of love, but slowly it paid off. One by one, tenants signed up: an Asian artist who dreamed of a gallery where he would feature local artists; a middle-aged Latino who had run his media company from home; three women started a wellness center serving the Latino community; a local nonprofit oriented toward putting struggling people to work opened a high-end vintage clothing store. After at least a decade of neglect, our buildings were becoming places that I, my tenants and our community could be proud of. But just as important, the same thing was happening around town.
This progress, however, is fragile. The median home price here is still about 10 percent below its historical high in 2006. Just before covid-19 struck, Fresno’s unemployment rate was 8.5 percent, about where San Francisco’s was during the worst of the recession.
Fresnans have hardly been oblivious to the dangers of the virus. Traffic had all but disappeared during the first weeks of the shutdown, but by mid-April the demand to stay at home began to feel capricious, even cruel. There were times I felt I was living in a kind of mandated dystopia.
Something had to give. Over the past 10 days or so, rebelliousness has set in: The streets have been busy. People are simply trying to secure their livelihoods.
Many Californians balked when, two weeks ago, President Trump claimed he had “total authority” to open up the national economy, yet Newsom, who recently characterized California as its own “nation-state,” treated local realities with nothing short of “total authority.” A few counties — more rural than Fresno but similarly economically vulnerable and with a handful of covid-19 cases — this week have done what Fresno County should have done already: They have fully reopened their economies and communities while adopting responsible health and safety measures.
The state government is now trying to play catch-up. On Monday, after threats of lawsuits and public protests, Newsom promised further guidelines this Thursday that would lay out “modifications” that would be needed for localities and particular economic sectors to reopen.
It’s a step in the right direction, but none of these decisions should have been Newsom’s alone. Going forward, he should trust his state’s mayors and county supervisors and do what’s best for their constituents. Local control, but only by the state government’s permission, is not local control at all.
I spent a good deal of April helping my tenants keep their hopes up. Rents will soon be past due for May. I’m working with my tenants to find a way forward, and I even had to convince two of them not to walk away from their dreams. If we remain at the state’s mercy, many small-business owners will call it quits. Some will migrate to a city, state or federal job. Others might find work at a megastore or filling orders shoulder-to-shoulder with the robots at Amazon, which has distribution centers on the outskirts of many of our valley’s towns. A vast left-in-the-dust underclass will undoubtedly become wards of the state.
California’s local governments set the national tone on how to responsibly and efficiently handle the coronavirus pandemic. Newsom should let them lead the way on reopening.