Facing a virulent new strain of coronavirus, California’s pandemic outbreak is so out of control that public officials have had to lift air pollution regulations in order to accomodate a spike in cremations. Meanwhile, public opinion data shows widespread support for keeping businesses closed to halt the outbreak.
In response to the emergency, Democratic governor Gavin Newsom is lifting stay-at-home restrictions, removing essential workers from the state’s vaccine priority list, and championing a complex deal that extends the state’s expiring partial eviction moratorium but still allows landlords to pursue evictions. Newsom has long insisted his decisions are “lead by data and science” — but his moves come just as new studies show that keeping workers out of the workplace and banning evictions play pivotal roles in reducing the spread of the deadly virus.
The first study, from University of Pennsylvania researchers, found that workers deemed essential and required to go to their workplaces have a 55 percent higher chance of being infected than those staying home. Family members and roommates living with essential workers also have a significantly higher chance of being infected. The data — gleaned from health insurance records in the Philadelphia area — builds on a previous University of Alabama research documenting how stay-at-home orders likely reduced the virus spread during the spring of 2020.
Asked what he thought of his state’s reopening, Democratic US Rep. Ro Khanna told the Daily Poster: “We ought to be prioritizing public health.”
The findings echo a November report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which found that working in offices and schools increases an individual’s risk of contracting COVID-19. The study looked at 314 people with similar levels of community exposure and found that those who tested positive for the novel coronavirus were nearly twice as likely to work in an office or school than at home. The report recommended businesses offer “alternative work site options” where possible.
“Providing the option to work from home or telework when possible, is an important consideration for reducing the risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the report read.
A separate report from researchers at UC San Francisco detailed which essential workers appear to be the most at risk. Topping the list were cooks, packaging and filling machine operators and tenders, agricultural workers, bakers, construction workers, and production workers.
Despite data showing that essential workers face extra risk of dying from COVID, California’s new measures remove essential workers from the state’s vaccination priority list, transitioning to a system based on age.
California’s Emergency Could Worsen
While coronavirus cases have been dropping on average in California since January 15, the state had more than 1.1 million new cases last week and more than three thousand five hundred COVID-related deaths.
California is currently one of just six states that has some kind of stay-at-home order in place. Newsom’s decision to follow the Republican-fueled trend to reopen is confounding because his restrictions were just starting to show positive results. ICU capacity in the Bay Area steadily improved over the span of two weeks, reaching 23.4 percent. The situation could deteriorate with Newsom’s new order and the expiration of the state’s eviction protections.
Hospitals in Southern California are still stretched to their limits with ICUs at capacity. Adding to the concern, the state has identified a new strain of coronavirus. There is concern among the scientific community that new mutant strains of COVID — like, but not necessarily the one in California — are being created through uncontrolled viral spread, and could drive reinfections and require updated vaccines.
California is not the only blue state relaxing restrictions. On Monday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo cited declining COVID trends in his state and announced forthcoming changes to the state’s micro-cluster zones and restrictions on businesses. Those changes, he explained, would not include indoor dining.
As the Daily Poster previously reported, Cuomo previously changed the state’s zoning metrics in December to enable areas to remain open longer despite surging case numbers.
Weak Eviction Moratorium As Data Show Stronger Steps Reduce COVID Spread
California is also facing the prospect of its partial eviction moratorium expiring at the end of the month, as rent comes due. Already, thirty-three states do not currently have any kind of eviction moratoria according to the legal assistance company Nolo — and separate research shows how that is contributing to the COVID crisis. Moreover, at least thirty-nine states do not have any moratorium on utility shutoffs.
The study from Duke University researchers finds that the prospect of eviction and utility shutoffs exacerbates infection rates. The research found that “policies that limit evictions are found to reduce COVID-19 infections by 3.8 percent and reduce deaths by 11 percent. Moratoria on utility disconnections reduce COVID-19 infections by 4.4 percent and mortality rates by 7.4 percent.”
The researchers found that these policies — had they been in place federally from March 2020 through November — would have had dramatic effects. Limiting evictions could have reduced the COVID infection rate by 14.2 percent over that time period and deaths by 40.7 percent. A moratorium on utility disconnections could have reduced infection rate by 8.7 percent and deaths by 14.8 percent.
These findings buttress those of a study released last month, indicating that the lapsing of eviction protections in twenty-seven states across the country resulted in an estimated 433,700 excess individuals contracting COVID, and 10,700 deaths.
“Lifting eviction moratoriums was associated with increased COVID-19 incidence and mortality, supporting the public health rationale for use of eviction moratoriums to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” researchers found.
The bill would extend California’s partial eviction moratorium through June 30. The law covers low-income tenants who paid at least 25 percent of their rent during the pandemic. Using federal subsidy money, the state would pay off 80 percent of a tenant’s unpaid rent — provided their landlord agrees to forgive the rest and not pursue eviction.
If landlords do not accept rental relief and decide to pursue evictions instead, the deal instructs courts to reduce damages owed by qualifying tenants.
Federal rules limit rental assistance to individuals making up to 80 percent of the area median income. The deal prioritizes individuals earning less than 50 percent of the area median income with strong payback records.
Many tenants could benefit from this moratorium policy, as it might make financial sense for landlords to take 80 percent of the rent they’re owed. But the policy leaves tenants at the mercy of their landlords, who can decide it’s better to evict them amid a cascading public health crisis.
Newsom has raked in more than $2.7 million worth of campaign contributions from donors in the real estate industry, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Strong Federal Action Still In Question
One of the first executive orders President Joe Biden issued was an extension of the existing federal eviction moratorium through March. But he’s already facing pressure to do more.
As American Prospect editor David Dayen noted in a recent piece, the rule, which comes from the CDC, does not bar evictions that are unrelated to non-payment, requires renters to attest under penalty of perjury that they cannot afford to pay, and allows unpaid rent and interest to accrue.
To his point, evictions have indeed continued with the CDC order in place. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes, Dayen explained.
Biden is also facing pressure to end utility shutoffs for the duration of the pandemic. As it stands, there is no rule in place to prevent shutoffs for necessities like electricity and gas. Americans continue to accrue debt for utilities. In October, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association projected electric and gas debts alone could surpass $24.3 billion by January.
Biden has the power at his disposal to halt evictions and utility shutoffs entirely and to prevent the accumulation of debt. The only question is whether or not he will.