Are SLO County leaders attempting to politicize the coronavirus?

April 29, 2020

Richard Schmidt


The most bizarre recent SLO Covid-19 moment came one day last week when we San Luis Obispo County people, listening to Gov. Newsom’s daily noon briefing, learned through this state-wide discussion that SLO County’s “elected leaders” had asked him to let them “reopen” the SLO County economy right then.


Where did this come from? We the people were certainly in the dark. There’d been no public disclosure here. There’d been no public discussion either. We were not only excluded from whatever process had led to this letter, we didn’t even know there was a process.

Then before we the people had half of the story on this, our “leaders” were talking to out-of-town media, getting their names and quotes into big city dailies as progressive geniuses who’d got so far ahead of the corona virus they deserved virtuous special treatment from the governor. Wow, this was truly news. SLO County was being publicized as “safe,” so big city people from pandemic central, please come on up and bring us your virus.

On the home media front, within days the Tribune blessed us with yet another of Mayor Heidi Harmon’s op-eds, best characterized as persiflage, just more of the meaningless banter for which Harmon is famous.

Like many among us, I was shocked when I heard “our leaders” had opened this untimely Pandora’s box. What were they thinking? True, our numbers thus far had been pretty good. But we’d not reached a peak. Were they assuming that meant we’d never have one?

Meanwhile, in New York, thousands were dying of the virus. To our immediate south, a short drive away, hundreds were dying. Sickness and death were prevalent, and gave no sign of going away anytime soon. Contagion respects no county lines, so it was insane to suppose Santa Maria’s outbreak would stop at the Santa Maria River if normal social/commercial intercourse with that nearby city were to resume.

Why did our county supervisors, mayors and assemblyman imagine this was the time to stop staying home? It made no sense. Every credible Covid-19 expert has warned against relaxing prophylactic efforts too soon lest we induce an even bigger epidemic that negates all our sacrifices to date. Were our SLO County “leaders” thumbing their noses at expertise and science just like somebody bigger who’s in the news a lot for doing that?

I had no idea. I decided to fire off a note to our SLO City Council expressing my concerns, and asking them to rein in the mayor:

“We are far from being out of this mess,” I wrote them. “Reopening now is sure to mean before long we have to shut down again, after more victims have piled up. It is in every sense counter-productive.

“There is a smugness abroad in certain segments of our community that we are exceptional because our official numbers are so low. Smugness is not fact, and pridefulness goes before a fall. We don’t know what our actual numbers may be, between lack of tests and the acknowledged inaccuracy of the tests. If we do have low numbers, it’s pure luck. Look what’s happening to our south, with 81 deaths per day in LA just two days ago. Look at what’s happening in NY where they’re “happy” to have only 500 deaths per day.

“This is far from over. Now is not the time to relax containment.”

I got only one council response, from Andy Pease. Thank you Andy for always acknowledging your constituents’ communications. I gather that Andy, whose husband is a very fine doctor, shares my misgivings. I have no clue whether the remaining Silent Four do or don’t.

My letter to the council also produced a response from City Manager Derek Johnson. He said this decision is up to the governor and county. If that’s so, I wanted to ask, why’s our mayor mixed up in it? Johnson’s reply felt like a friendly brush-off. He suggested I listen to the governor’s briefings.

I wrote back that I do listen, and that very day the SLO County leaders’ letter was discussed.

“Today,” I wrote, “there was a press question about a letter sent to [Newsom] from San Luis Obispo asking for ‘reopening.’ If such a letter has been sent to the governor, why do we have to learn about it in such a roundabout way, and why are its contents not posted for all to see, including the signators’ signatures? Just wondering about what seems like a less-than-open move.”

Johnson replied: “The norms of public engagement are obviously difficult to achieve during isolation and a pandemic . . . and we have operated within the guidelines for . . . governance under the revised Brown Act rules (though not applicable in this instance) and the need for public officials to collectively work on efforts for which they believe are in the best interests of our county.  The letter hit the press literally after the last signature was obtained.”

Which is interesting in that I didn’t raise the Brown Act, but I did question the lack of public openness which he seems to suggest was OK since there was some rush to get the letter to Newsom. I do not find this reassuring.

But we did establish, apparently, that the county is the leader in this pandemic mischief. That suggests the seven mayors signing onto the Newsom letter was more decoration than substance.

As for why we the people knew nothing, here is an excerpt from the county’s “reopening” action plan issued at about the same time as the Newsom letter:

“A broad cross-section of stakeholders ⎯ including representatives from education, tourism and hospitality, building and design, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, community group [sic] and others ⎯ will review medical guidelines for a phased reopening and will provide feedback on how the guidelines would affect their operations. The County team will use this input to develop the draft plan and will present to the community next week.”

So look who will be consulted: a list of vested-interest “stakeholders.” Look at who’s missing and not consulted: we the people. This is a basic problem with local government today – it doesn’t even occur to those running things that we live in a democracy. They serve and include only vested interests, not we the people.

A second mind-boggling aspect of this vested input is that these medical amateurs “will review medical guidelines for a phased reopening.” That is truly crazy if this policy-making is allegedly based on science not politics. If science rules, why are developers and hotel owners reviewing medical guidelines?

Getting ahold of the actual Newsom letter, as opposed to quotes from it in the press, was a bit challenging. When I finally got it, I did a double-take.

I had expected to see a letter on plain paper befitting communication from an ad hoc bi-partisan group. But no, this was no plain paper. It was Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham’s official blue-ink Assembly letterhead, with its rustic picture of the state capitol, his office addresses and phones, and a list of all the Assembly committees on which he serves.

Up to the letter’s fourth windy paragraph, one would assume this letter is from Cunningham to Newsom. Only then do we learn of a “bipartisan group of local elected leaders.”

After two windy pages of self-congratulation for doing such a good job defeating the virus, we get to the signature page.

Cunningham is first. County Supervisor John Peschong is second, and Supervisor Debbie Arnold is third, followed by seven mayors sequenced alphabetically by city.

Wait a minute: three north county Republican heavies, apparently the real authors of this request, with seven mayors added for bi-partisan legitimacy. Newsom a Democratic governor. The Republican party openly stirring up opposition for political purposes to Newsom’s brilliant handling of a horrible health crisis. You don’t suppose this letter is just politics and our “progressive” mayoral signators, too nice to understand that, stepped into a well-laid elephant trap?

And here’s the kicker: the letter resides on the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County’s website.

The letter may be nothing more than a disingenuous effort by a political party to further politicize the pandemic.

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Mr. Schmidt does not get science but he does get scared.

Thank you Mr. Schmidt. Your article is very informative and I agree with you.

How will I pay my taxes and fees if I don’t go back to work?

The Government who shut you down will give you a low interest loan.

It appears you are the one politicizing the virus. The leaders of this area are doing what they can to help the common person get back to a life providing for themselves and their families. Not all of us have a taxpayer funded, over compensated pension.

Your handle commonsenseguy is well deserved. One would think that your position is obvious. No wonder you have 17 up votes.