Don’t Call It a Curfew: California's New, Less Restrictive Stay-at-Home Order Still Draws Backlash

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A generally empty 5th Avenue in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter just before an imposed curfew on Nov. 21, 2020. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

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Update, Monday, Nov. 30: As coronavirus trends worsen in California — and across the country — the state over the weekend downgraded another nine counties to stricter reopening tiers. They include include San Francisco, San Mateo, Calaveras, Modoc and Plumas counties, which were all moved to the most restrictive purple tier, signifying widespread transmission rates.

That puts a total of 51 of California’s 58 counties in the purple tier, accounting for 99% of the state’s population, or 38.8 million of its 39.1 million residents. Those counties are now all required to adhere to the state's stay-at-home order and must also close indoor operations of restaurants, gyms, houses of worship, movie theaters and a host of other indoor entertainment venues.

Original post, Nov. 23: Gov. Gavin Newsom telling me to stay at home? Across California, some residents are bristling at the thought.

Hundreds of people gathered on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Huntington Beach to protest the state's recent stay-at-home order, which prohibits nonessential trips between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. A smaller protest in Fresno drew about 50 disgruntled residents.

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Some local law enforcement officials have even said they won’t enforce the order.

Newsom’s recent political black eye — a $450-per-person French Laundry dinner he attended in violation of his own guidelines — is just one reason some have publicly said they are hesitant to embrace the new stay-at-home orders, while others say the order itself is the sticking point.

Other community leaders and lawmakers, however, say one word in particular — “curfew” — isn’t accurate due to the number of exceptions in the order, contending that the state needs to brush up on its messaging.

Jon Jacobo is the health committee chair of San Francisco’s Latino Task Force, which is helping to tackle the pandemic in the city’s hard-hit Latinx community.

“The city and state have that problem sometimes, putting things in regular-people terms,” Jacobo said. “It’s not like we’re going to send people in for a crackdown, the A-Team and all this.”

In a Nov. 16 press conference, Newsom repeatedly said he was mulling a statewide “curfew,” but the state’s subsequent messaging refers to it as a “limited stay-at-home order.”

“The message has to be clear,” Jacobo said.

More on the stay-at-home order

The state's stay-at-home order is effective through at least Dec. 21. Individual violators are subject to fines or misdemeanor charges, and businesses not in compliance could have their licenses revoked.

To be clear, though, the order comes with multiple exceptions:

  • People are still allowed to run “essential” errands, like going to a grocery store or pharmacy, and can partake in outdoor activities alone or with immediate household members — like jogging or walking a pet
  • Restaurants can still remain open for takeout and delivery after 10 p.m.
  • Workers can continue to commute to or from their workplaces
  • The order exempts what the state defines as “essential workforce and critical infrastructure,” including health care and emergency workers, and various workers in the food and agriculture, water and sewage, transportation, energy, communications, government, manufacturing and financial services sectors
  • Anyone homeless is also exempted

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, says it's best to think of it as “a way of restricting gatherings.”

“As I understand, we’ve had problems in the state with parties happening late at night. And this is designed to get to that,” he said. “It’s not an actual curfew.”

The new order is an effort to slow a striking surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. Over the last seven days, California has averaged 13,937 cases per day, a 74.5% increase from two weeks ago, according to data collected by the Los Angeles Times. Roughly 6.2% of tests this past week have come back positive.

Not the ‘Curfew’ You’re Looking For

The stay-at-home order applies to 51 of the state’s 58 counties that are in the “purple” tier, the most restrictive of four tiers guiding various stages of economic reopening. That encompasses roughly 99% — or 38.8 million — of California’s 39.1 million residents. Those counties are also now required to close down indoor operations of restaurants, gyms, houses of worship, movie theaters and most other indoor entertainment venues.

But it's still less restrictive than California’s first-in-the-nation, around-the-clock lockdown in March, which covered the entire state.

The new order is also far less restrictive than the curfew order instituted by San Francisco Mayor London Breed in late May, amid protests and some acts of vandalism stemming from the police killing of George Floyd.

That time, city officials actually did call it a “curfew,” and required people to stay indoors from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. for two days. If they left the house, residents had to “establish to the satisfaction of a peace officer” that they were traveling home or to a workplace, with few other exemptions.

Even though the stay-at-home order isn’t as restrictive as past efforts, it’s a necessary ask, Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of UCSF's Department of Medicine, told KQED Newsroom on Friday.

“The virus is skyrocketing everywhere,” he said.

Wachter likened the current order to a “dimmer switch” — a metaphor Newsom has frequently used — ramping up restrictions without moving to a full lockdown.

“It’s a reasonable thing to say we won’t shut down all gatherings,” Wachter said, “but we are going to say if you're going to a friend's house to drink, that’s a pretty risky thing to do.”



The Issue of Enforcement

But that hasn’t stopped some officials from saying publicly that they have no intention of enforcing the order.

Officials in a number of counties, including El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Placer, Sacramento, San Bernardino and Stanislaus, were among those saying they would not enforce the curfew, with some voicing particularly strong opposition.

“We’re looking at a curfew that’s extremely difficult to enforce. Our law enforcement has been stretched,” Fresno Mayor Lee Brand told KQED Newsroom on Friday. “I’m not advocating people openly rebel, but we have to depend on voluntary compliance.”

Other cities are striking a different balance.

San Francisco, for one, is expected to enter the purple tier — the state’s most restrictive pandemic classification — sometime in late November, which would place it under the stay-at-home order.

Should that happen, the city's Police Department said it would employ a “progressive enforcement strategy,” said SFPD spokesman Matt Dorsey. As it does with other public health orders, the department would first educate individuals and businesses on the restrictions, then ask for voluntary compliance, and failing that, issue warnings to violators.

Only after that would police issue a citation.

And if the surge doesn't abate, it’s likely the state will ramp up restrictions even further.

“If things don’t turn around quickly, I think we will see more [restrictions],” Wachter, from UCSF, said.

For his part, Wachter said he is celebrating Thanksgiving just with his immediate family: his wife and their adult children sitting across a very, very big table.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.