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Opinion Gavin Newsom gets vaccine mandates right in California

Student Dina Kassan talks with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) during his visit to a second-grade classroom in Oakland, Calif., on Aug. 11. (Santiago Mejia/AP)
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ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — This week, California announced that teachers and support staff, at both public and private schools, must get vaccinated against covid-19 or submit to regular coronavirus testing. The mandate follows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order from last week demanding the same of the state’s health-care workers.

It’s all but certain Californians have the recall election to thank for this excellent, common-sense turn of events. Polls show that Newsom, a Democrat, is in trouble, with the issues extending beyond covid. The state’s cost of living is high, housing is expensive, and the homelessness crisis is seemingly intractable. One thing that would most certainly help Newsom ahead of the Sept. 14 vote: showing that he is doing everything he can to get the state’s schools reopened.

California educates the most public-school students in the country, with the 600,000 students in Los Angeles alone making it the nation’s second-largest school district. Many districts here were among the first to close last spring as covid-19 hit and then were slow to reopen. In Los Angeles, public schools were closed for more than a year.

The impact was horrendous on multiple levels. Remote education was a profound failure. Learning losses were severe, with minorities and poorer students most compromised. The emotional toll of remote learning was high, with at least one study, conducted in Texas, showing a sharp increase in suicidal thinking among tweens and teens compared with the same period in 2019. When the city of San Francisco, desperate to get schools reopened, resorted to suing its own school district, it cited record-breaking numbers of mentally distressed and suicidal kids at area hospitals. And the increased caregiving responsibilities among parents pushed millions of women out of the workforce.

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Against this backdrop, Newsom can only benefit from comparisons with the statements of his leading Republican rivals. At last week’s little-watched gubernatorial debate, they denounced mandatory vaccinations and mask mandates — despite the fact that children under 12 are not eligible for vaccines, leaving masks as one of the few ways to protect them when they attend class.

In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, many opponents quickly condemned Newsom. Radio host Larry Elder promised that, if elected, he would “reverse” the order. “Encouraging vaccination is fine. Government mandating it is not,” he tweeted.

This sort of stuff is catnip for the anti-Newsom Republican base — but those people are highly unlikely to vote to keep Newsom in office no matter what. It’s everyone else whom Newsom needs to get on his side. And, to many people, the Republican argument looks increasingly like a fringe position.

As of Thursday, more than half of Californians eligible to get the jab are fully vaccinated, and more than 60 percent have received at least one shot. Across the state, a growing number of corporate offices and businesses are demanding proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for entry.

Many Californians are angry at the unvaccinated, especially as the delta variant has driven coronavirus case numbers up. People are no longer inclined to coddle the unvaccinated or bring them along slowly. They want action. And Newsom just gave it to them.

Frustration over California’s shuttered schools was one of the major issues pushing recall support last fall and winter. People have forgotten that when Newsom got caught dining out at the French Laundry last November, he was already enmeshed in no small amount of controversy over his decision to send his children to a private school that offered hybrid in-person learning while most of the children in the district he lives in could only access remote classes.

To many parents, it often seemed as though Newsom was more afraid of confronting the state’s powerful teachers unions than doing right by students. Importantly, those unions backed Newsom’s action this week; the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, Cecily Myart-Cruz, said her membership “doesn’t oppose” the vaccine mandate.

Finally, summer is winding down. Almost 18 months into the pandemic, Californians want to resume a normal life. Beaches and parks are teeming with people. Restaurants are so packed at peak hours, it was tough to make dinner reservations in Laguna Beach on Monday, even though that’s traditionally one of the least popular evenings to dine out. (Traffic, sadly, is also back — and almost as bad as ever.)

Although some people remain anti-vaxxers, it’s hard to see how these mandates backfire on Newsom. In fact, his embrace of vaccine mandates might just make him finally look like the leader California needs at this moment.

It’s about time.