The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yet another politician breaks their own covid-19 restrictions. Why does this keep happening?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks at a covid-19 testing facility in Valencia, Calif., on Oct. 30. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Americans are increasingly — and understandably — impatient about tight and even draconian restrictions on their daily lives because of the pandemic. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they become outraged when those who impose the rules fail to live by them, too. Case in point: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent fancy dinner in Napa Valley.

The California Democrat has imposed some of the strictest requirements anywhere in the United States. Most populous counties in the state have never come close to the degree of reopening that most of the rest of the country experienced over the summer. Newsom has also been one of the most nannyish of leaders, going so far as to tell people to take their masks off only when actually putting food in their mouths while eating in public. That absurd comment, which ran against the World Health Organization’s recommendation to touch one’s mask as little as possible, is an indication that he governs more for virtue signaling than public health.

It is thus warranted that Newsom’s trip to the world-famous French Laundry restaurant in violation of his own directives has attracted so much attention. It was bad enough that the dinner included more people from outside his own household than permitted. But he then made things worse with his non-apology apology. Newsom stated the dinner was outdoors, but that was revealed to be untrue when pictures emerged showing him and his guests indoors, dining maskless at a non-socially distanced table.

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He has tried to brush this off as a lapse in judgment, saying he "should have … got[ten] back in my car and drove back to my house” when he saw what the party really was. That’s laughable considering that French Laundry is in Yountville, an hour-and-a-half drive from the multimillion-dollar, eight-acre private estate where he lives (he and his family decided not to live in the official governor’s mansion that state taxpayers have paid for). Given that lobbyists from the California Medical Association were at the dinner, also in violation of the CMA’s own recommendations, it’s clear that Newsom knew what he was getting into and is only sorry he got caught.

It would be bad enough if this were the only high-profile example of a leader disobeying their own pandemic rules. But that’s not the case. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was caught this summer getting a haircut without a mask in a San Francisco salon at a time when normal people in the city were barred from such visits. She also made things worse for herself by claiming she was “set up.” Again, breaking the rules isn’t what bothers our high and mighty; getting caught breaking them does.

The hypocrisy epidemic seems to spread far and wide. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) was unrepentant after getting a haircut when salons were closed in her city, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) was defiant after going to a public gym in March as New York City was shutting everything down. “I need to exercise to stay healthy and make … decisions,” he roared. So do we all, Mr. Mayor.

The “rules for thee, but not for me” virus has infected leaders elsewhere, too. In March, Britain was under one of the world’s tightest lockdowns. Nevertheless, the then-chief adviser to Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, took a 260-mile journey to the north of England to stay with family when his wife developed covid-19 symptoms. The scandal ultimately contributed to his departure last week. Neil Ferguson, a prominent scientific adviser to the prime minister who helped devise the original lockdown rules, also resigned in early May after he allowed his lover to spend the night at his home in flagrant contravention of government rules against such behavior. Three Canadian leaders — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory — have also come under fire for violating their own restrictions.

Democracies around the world are under stress. Trust in our elected leaders and institutions is crucial to our ability to beat the pandemic and for political health generally. A fundamental tenet of all modern democracies is that one law applies to rulers and ruled. Leaders who violate that even in symbolic ways do great damage to our way of life and deserve the condemnation they incur.

Common sense and respect for your fellow citizens are the only vaccines a leader can take to curb the temptation to put one’s self above the law. Those such as Newsom who repeatedly refuse to take them shouldn’t be surprised if cooked goose soon appears on their political menu.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

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