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Politics as Usual

The face behind the mask

With reopening and unmasking now in full swing, how wisely will we spend our time and money?

We might all have gone through this pandemic together, but we neither experienced the same things nor will our lives be the same afterward.

On June 15, a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said you only had to wear masks at Halloween, California will finally adopt the new guidance. At that point, fully vaccinated people will be able to ditch a face mask when going about their daily activities of shopping, walking, going to the cinemas or to church.

The state’s Covid-19 information resource assures Californians, “You will still have the option to wear a mask if you choose.” Which surely will be music to the ears of people who invested in the booming mask industry in recent months; they might still lose money.

My first job out of college was based in a beautiful old estate on the edges of Indianapolis. The English Gothic mansion had been built more than 100 years ago by a local banking scion named Stoughton A. Fletcher, who invested heavily in war machinery production during World War I. However, just as he got his factories ready (and his wallet ready to earn back his investment), the war ended. He lost everything, including his wonderful mansion. Fletcher later moved to California, where he worked as an elevator operator for a time. Let that be a lesson to everyone who tried to corner the markets for face masks or toilet paper during the pandemic.

June 15 will also see the state fully reopen, more or less. Capacity limitations will be lifted for indoor and outdoor gatherings, vaccination verification will only be required for “indoor mega events,” and physical distancing rules will be dropped. 

So it currently looks like things are all moving in the right direction, but some caution is advised, lest we end up like Fletcher.

MONEY COUNTS

First, I have a confession to make. I wrote in these pages more than once that local and state governments would come out of this pandemic on fiscal life support. I thought all the spending they had to do to keep things going, and the loss of tax revenue from shuttered businesses, would leave them as budget basket cases. I was wrong. The state of California has a $79 billion surplus. Keep in mind that $79 billion is more than the entire actual budget of almost any other state in the union. But even the City and County of San Francisco had an unexpected $125 million surplus for its fiscal year.

City leaders said the money would be put to use aiding small businesses, residents, and arts and cultural organizations impacted by the pandemic. That’s wise. On the state side, Gov. Gavin Newsom gets to play Santa Claus at a time when the GOP-led recall effort is already flailing for attention.

“This is a case where you can very easily overpromise, overperform in the short term and underperform for years after,” Santa Clara University political science professor Dr. Larry Gerston told me in a recent political roundtable. He said California’s volatile economy is propped up by tech and federal pandemic stimulus payments; this $79 billion is a one-off surplus. 

“The governor — wisely, on his part — is going to replenish the rainy day fund, from which he took $10 billion to get through the [pandemic],” said Gerston. “Remember, he was expecting a $54 billion deficit. So . . . that was good to pay it back. But as far as the other things go, they’d better be described as one-time investments. For example, he wants to go to a universal four-year pre-K. I think that’s a great idea. I really do. As someone who studies education policy, it’s fabulous. [But] it’s costly. And you can do it this year, and maybe next year, but where is the money going to come from after that? That’s why people are worried about a tax increase downstream. So that’s why I say he ought to do it delicately, carefully, precisely, and bearing in mind that what you see right now is going to be much different from what you see a year from now.”

Using the unexpected proceeds from the pandemic to deal with the negative effects of the pandemic sounds both smart and compassionate. It could also help to offset the disruptive effects of closed schools. Also in that political discussion were former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders (fresh off her four-year stint as a White House correspondent) and USC professor Dan Schnur, who both suggested investing in summer school as a way to help students, especially disadvantaged students, catch up with their wealthier cohorts who were able to rely on tutors and other resources during a year of online learning.

COUNTING ON BUSINESS

I no longer work in a gothic mansion in Indianapolis. Now, I work in a modern building on San Francisco’s waterfront. On a recent trek to my downtown office — my first visit there in weeks — there were exactly four other people in my BART train car, leading me to suspect that the reports of widespread returns to the workplace had been overblown. But when I took a Muni bus home, the bus was standing-room-only packed.

Business people will be watching closely to see if and how people’s patterns change post-pandemic. Most people probably will return to their offices. But however many who will now work from home instead (10 percent? 20 percent? 30 percent?) will have impacts on public and private transportation and on stores and restaurants across this city. 

Some employees want to avoid public transportation for the time being and are asking for their employers to subsidize parking near their workplace. And there might be fewer people at busy Financial District eateries, but neighborhood restaurants could then experience an uptick from people who escape their home offices for an occasional lunch. 

Having already admitted that I was wrong about government budgets, I don’t claim to know how things will pan out in the end. But I do think we are now in a period in which we will all be navigating uncertainties. Should I expand or shrink my business? Hire or layoff? Work from home or go to the office? Go back to that job that laid me off last year or wait for a better one? Will my cat even care if I go back to the office and am no longer home 24/7?

There are also questions that business people will have to deal with just as much as nonbusiness people. Should the business have a mask rule? Some businesses no doubt are eager to get rid of anything that makes people hesitant to shop or eat there. But others might have immunocompromised people in their families or among their employees (or their employees’ families). 

The fact is, we won’t know for certain if strangers are vaccinated. People lie. (How many of you had fake I.D.s when you were under 21? Now there’s a brisk business in fake vaccination cards.)

We will just have to accept that we are in a new world in which some people will pretend to be vaccinated but aren’t, some people will be vaccinated but will wish to continue wearing masks, some people will continue to think that masks represent a black helicopter conspiracy by the lizard people to control our lives.

And our best guesses and thought-out plans could still come back to haunt us if a vaccine-resistant variant sweeps around the world, in which case we’ll be little better off than Stoughton A. Fletcher, politely asking patrons what floor they want to get off on.

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