Multiple California emergencies declared by the last two governors officially ended on Friday — including for heat waves, an oil spill, wildfires and the civil unrest in reaction to George Floyd’s murder — but Gov. Gavin Newsom said the threat from the coronavirus lives on and so does the emergency he declared for it nearly two years ago.
In all, Newsom signed an order ending 12 state of emergency declarations, which automatically terminate any associated executive orders relating to those events. But he offered no timeline for ending the statewide coronavirus emergency, meaning he will continue to wield broad authority to change or suspend state laws in response to the pandemic.
Newsom has used that authority to issue 561 orders since the pandemic began. Some were relatively small, like delaying deadlines for filing taxes or renewing driver’s licenses. Others were big, like issuing a statewide stay-at-home order that put millions of people out of work.
Newsom began lifting many of those orders last summer, when he declared the state had “reopened” following a decline in new cases and hospitalizations. But he issued more orders in the winter in response to the omicron surge.
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Newsom announced Friday he was terminating an additional 52 orders, leaving only 30 in place.
“We’ll continue to focus on scaling back provisions while maintaining essential testing, vaccination and health care system supports that ensure California has the needed tools and flexibility to strategically adapt our response for what lies ahead,” Newsom said in a news release.
A number of public health orders also remain in place. They are issued by state and local public health officers and are not dependent upon an emergency declaration, said Ann Patterson, Newsom’s top lawyer.
One example is the one requiring children to wear masks in schools. That order is not tied to the coronavirus emergency declaration. On Monday, Newsom is expected to announce when that order will end.
Newsom’s actions Friday infuriated Republicans, who have tried for months to force a vote in the Democratic-dominated state Legislature to end the pandemic emergency declaration. Their most recent attempt came just before the Super Bowl, which was played in Los Angeles before tens of thousands of fans.
“It’s outrageous that the governor would recognize there is no longer a need for these executive orders but he nevertheless wants to cling to the extraordinary powers he has exercised for the last two years,” said Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, a Republican who is running for Congress and last year tried to unseat Newsom in a recall election. “We don’t need one person making decisions on behalf of 40 million” state residents.
The recall was driven by critics of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. They believe he routinely overstepped his authority and was too quick to order shutdowns.
The orders still in place do things the Newsom administration says the state can’t do without. For example, a state law requires doctors to review each health test result before it can be released to patients. Newsom suspended that law for COVID tests because “it would be literally impossible for us to have enough health care people to review 500,000 tests,” said Patterson, a reference to the number of tests per day California processed at the height of omicron.
“If we were to terminate the emergency tomorrow and terminate those provisions, it would really cripple the core functions that the state is continuing to provide here to respond to the pandemic as it exists in California today,” Patterson said.
But Kiley said if these policies were so important, Newsom could have asked the state Legislature to pass laws addressing them.
“There is no reason he needs to have unilateral authority to do these things on his own, especially after two years of dealing with this,” Kiley said.
There are only two ways to end an emergency declaration. The governor can end it, or the state Legislature can vote to end it for him. Republican state Sen. Melissa Melendez has tried for months to force a vote in the Legislature to end the emergency, but her colleagues have always voted it down.
However, the Senate will hold a hearing next month on whether to end the emergency, the first time Democrats will have discussed the matter publicly.
“I understand we are all tired of living life in an emergency, but ending the emergency must be done responsibly to ensure there are no unintended consequences so we can continue to meet the need of our state’s residents in an unpredictable future,” Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, said when announcing the hearing earlier this month.
The power for the governor to declare emergencies comes from the state’s Emergency Services Act, which was designed for the government to act quickly in case of fires, earthquakes or other natural disasters.
Most of these emergency declarations are declared and then quickly forgotten. After Friday’s action, California has 48 active states of emergencies. The oldest dates to 2015 and was imposed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in response to a tree-killing disease.
There were 82 state of emergency declarations in place when Newsom took office, Patterson said. She said he ordered his staff to do a routine evaluation of all emergency declarations to figure out when they could safely be lifted. In December 2019, Newsom signed an order ending 70 different state of emergency declarations.
While other states have ended their pandemic emergency declarations, Patterson said about half of the states still have declarations in place. She said it’s not unusual for declarations to stay in effect for years.
“The emergency isn’t over when the ground stopped shaking. It’s not over when the fire is put out,” she said. “The effects of a disaster can continue for years.”