Signs directed reporters to sit several feet apart from each other in the governor’s press conference room on March 12, 2020, to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Photo by Laurel Rosenhall/CalMatters

Facing Pandemic, California Takes Cover, from the Capitol to Disneyland

Back CalMatters Mar 13, 2020 By Laurel Rosenhall and Ana B. Ibarra

California’s governor took extraordinary action on Thursday, clamping down on public gatherings, ordering residents to follow public health rules, authorizing the state to commandeer hotels and medical facilities and whipping emergency officials into action to proactively stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom flexed his executive authority, which came less than a day after banning gatherings of 250 people or more, even as the pandemic fears drove the stock market to their worst day of trading since the crash of 1987.

The executive order only accelerated California’ rising impulse to batten down the hatches. 

Disneyland — which had been ground zero for the massive 2015 measles outbreak — succumbed within minutes to state pressure and announced it would close its parks in Southern California until April, starting Saturday. Most professional and collegiate sports organizations suspended play. The NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournaments were cancelled. Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Presents, the huge California-based concert promoters, suspended all their North American tour engagements. Public hearings were postponed in municipalities throughout the state.

The Walt Disney Company announced it would follow the state’s guidelines and take the precautionary step for employees and guests even though there have been no known cases of coronavirus at Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure, and even though Newsom excluded theme parks from the meeting ban, along with casinos and movie theaters, for the near term, citing “the complexity of their unique circumstances.” Park employees will continue to receive pay.

“These are challenging times for everyone,” Disney’s executive chairman and former chief executive Bob Iger said Wednesday at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. 

As of Thursday afternoon, California had officially reported four deaths and more than 250 positive cases of COVID-19, not counting passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland. The state had the third highest number of confirmed cases of the virus, behind Washington and New York. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, Los Angeles Zoo and Universal Studios Hollywood also announced temporary shutdowns, as did the Getty Center and Getty Villa in Southern California. Cultural performances continued to halt. In San Diego, the symphony, opera and playhouse all announced canceled shows through the end of the month. 

It wasn’t immediately clear if Legoland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain and other popular California theme parks would follow suit. Newsom warned the public to expect more closures as his administration negotiated with casinos and cardrooms, as well as other businesses. 

California is bracing for the economic fallout from the pandemic and Hollywood isn’t immune. Though movie theaters remain open for now, closures in that sector are said to be under discussion, and the entertainment industry is scrambling to reschedule movie releases. Even actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, shared the news they tested positive.

“Expect more announcements like this shortly,” the governor said.

Newsom’s executive order aims to prod a state of nearly 40 million naturally social creatures to make sacrifices — from concerts and games to proms and birthday parties — at least until the end of March. People at gatherings of fewer than 250 people are recommended to practice social distancing of six feet per person, and those who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are being instructed to limit themselves to no more than 10 people. 

Though children who contract the virus appear to display only mild symptoms, there’s tremendous concern for the elderly and people in poor health.

“Each of us has extraordinary power to slow the spread of this disease,” Newsom said in a statement. “Not holding that concert or community event can have cascading effects — saving dozens of lives and preserving critical health care resources that your family may need a month from now. The people in our lives who are most at risk — seniors and those with underlying health conditions — are depending on us all to make the right choice.” 

Thus far, he has not ordered public schools to close since they are considered essential functions, though some districts, including San Francisco and Elk Grove, decided to close. And the Archdiocese of San Francisco announced the closure of 90 schools in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties after a student tested positive for coronavirus. In many cases, parents and caretakers have taken action on their own.

In addition, Newsom’s directive waives a one-week waiting period for people who file for unemployment insurance as a result of COVID-19 and grants a 60-day extension for state tax filings for people to comply with public health requirements. It allows the state to take over hotels and medical facilities to isolate or treat patients. 

He acknowledged that his latest directive banning large gatherings was more guidance than mandate, noting “its legal authority is limited.”

But he said pressure from health professionals — and the general public writ large — would force companies to limit events. The mantra “flatten the curve” has emerged as a critical response (and a hashtag) to slow the spread of the coronavirus so the nation’s health care facilities and providers can cope with the volume of sick patients. 

“I think people recognize the imperative of this moment, the importance for non-essential events to limit that social interaction,” Newsom said.

As it was, pressure had been mounting on major sporting events including the National Basketball AssociationMajor League Soccer and the National Hockey League. On Wednesday, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus. On Thursday, MLS suspended matches for 30 days, the NHL suspended its season and Major League Baseball canceled spring training and pushed back opening day by two weeks.

Newsom’s order allows local and state governments to hold meetings electronically, but state legislators continued with scheduled hearings Thursday. The state Capitol routinely hosts public hearings that draws scores of visitors, as well as protests and field trips.  

Senate leader Toni Atkins said legislative leaders continue to evaluate how they might limit access or change procedures for public hearings. In the Assembly, staffers who wanted to work from home and not staff public hearings were told they needed to use sick time and that the public could . not be shut out of the Capitol building, sources told CalMatters. One veteran lobbyist suggested changing deadlines.

“A switch to remote legislating is not an option at this time,” Atkins told fellow senators on the floor.

That meant state lawmakers continued with scheduled hearings, though hand-washing instructions were posted in restrooms. A large bronze statue of a bear donated by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger that greets guests in front of the governor’s office was roped off. A parody account — called “Bacteria Bear” because the popular statue has been touched over the years by so many school kids — joked the bear had decided to self-quarantine.

As lobbyists and activists adjusted to new protocols, it wasn’t clear that all Californians would go as gently into the new rules as Disney’s Iger. 

During a health budget hearing, Sen. Richard Pan, who is also a medical doctor, encouraged the audience to practice social distancing even though committee rooms are cramped. An upstairs gallery, usually meant for overflow, was opened for anyone who wanted more space. Still, many sat close to each other, and when it came time to testify, people crowded into long lines to speak into, breathe on and touch the same microphone.

“We have to carry out the functions of government. We have to continue to have the confidence of the public that we’re doing the process and that everyone has the chance to weigh in,” Pan said after his hearing, which included discussions about public health funding to better respond to outbreaks like the coronavirus. 

“Interestingly enough, today we were talking about the very things we need to do to take care of this current crisis. If we shut down we wouldn’t be doing that.”

Guadalupe Chavez of Richmond was at Pan’s hearing. She has been at the Capitol twice this week as a member of a hospitality industry union, Unite Here 2, to advocate for the proposed Office of Health Care Affordability. If that office is created, it will be tasked with helping bring down health care costs for Californians. 

She’s concerned about the spread of the coronavirus, but she also has work to do and a cause to advocate for. 

Ironically, she said, “health care is expensive and if we do get the coronavirus, we won’t afford the care.”

CalMatters reporters Elizabeth Aguilera and Judy Lin contributed to this report. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.