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Fear vs. Freedom: In Age of COVID, Family Dinners Become Controversial



As Thanksgiving nears, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is “pulling the emergency brake” on reopening California, but some legislators and officials say citizens can — and should be able to — make decisions for themselves about how to protect against the virus and how to handle dinners in their own home.


The state is ramping up restrictions to combat a rise in cases. “We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom said. “California is experiencing the fastest increase in cases we have seen yet — faster than what we experienced at the outset of the pandemic or even this summer. The spread of COVID-19, if left unchecked, could quickly overwhelm our health care system and lead to catastrophic outcomes.”


The new restrictions will force many businesses to once again close as restaurants, movie theaters, and fitness facilities will not be allowed to have customers inside. Indoor worship services are also not allowed. Malls and stores are allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity.


Newsom’s Thanksgiving rules have gained the most attention for being particularly over the top and tyrannical. New rules mandate that Californians who want to host Thanksgiving gatherings at their residences must hold their dinners outdoors for no longer than two hours and use single-serve disposable containers. No self-serve buffet service is allowed. What’s more, attendees can’t be from more than three households, so if a couple has three adult children living on their own, they will have to disinvite one of them. Of course, everyone must wear masks (between bites), be socially distanced, and practice proper “hand hygiene.” Singing, hugging, use of wind instruments, and physical exertion are strongly discouraged.


The updated measures will affect 94 percent of California residents, with 41 of California’s 58 counties being placed in the most restrictive category (purple) of the state’s color-coded system.


Brad Pollock, associate dean of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, said that the new order will provide “a shock to the system” that makes people take the virus more seriously. “People kind of get the false idea that, ‘Hey, it’s not that big of a deal,’” he said. “If you don’t do this, and you continue on this path, everybody is going to get infected with this and we’re going to have deaths like you haven’t seen.”


Not everyone is on board with the new restrictions, however. “The governor and state bureaucrats can color code counties and change rules as they go, but the basics remain the same: We are all free people who can exercise our freedom responsibly,” said State Assemblyman James Gallagher (R). “The government can only take what you let them. I don’t think you should close your business, church, or school. I would encourage you to keep them open. I don’t think you need to cancel Thanksgiving.”


He continued, “You are all responsible adults and you can decide what risks are acceptable for you and your family. Be considerate. Recognize that we are seeing another increase in cases. It is not because some restaurants have been open, it’s because that is what viruses do. In order to limit the spread, do your best to keep up on washing your hands, keeping distanced, and wearing a facial covering when you can’t. We can and will overcome this as a free society.”


Gallagher has questioned Newsom’s actions before. Earlier this year, he sued the governor over an executive order that changed how the 2020 presidential election would operate because of the pandemic. In response, a Yuba County Superior Court judge ruled that Newsom had, in fact, overstepped his bounds and voided the order.


California Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove (R) also expressed her desire for keeping the state open, especially churches. She wrote on Facebook, “We desperately need the Church to stay open!!! Suicide, depression, child abuse, isolation, domestic violence, business closures, the Church is needed and essential, especially in this hour!!! May God raise up His people.”


Officials in other states are also standing up to the rules put in place for private Thanksgiving dinners. Tootie Smith, a Republican and the incoming chairwoman of the Clackamas County, Ore., Board of Commissioners, tweeted that she will have Thanksgiving dinner with her family and friends despite Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order that limits in-home gatherings to a maximum of six people and includes fines and jail time for anyone who violates it. And in New York, several upstate county sheriffs have announced that they will not enforce Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10-person limit on in-home dinners, with one writing on Facebook that sending his deputies into people’s homes to “see how many Turkey or Tofu eaters are present” isn’t a priority for his office.


It doesn’t help that Newsom and other high-profile officials haven’t kept the rules that they themselves have put in place and demand that others follow. Newsom, for example, last week attended a birthday dinner for an adviser at the French Laundry, an expensive restaurant in Napa’s wine country, along with several members of a medical lobbying group. The behavior at the event violated many of Newsom’s rules: The party included more than 10 people from numerous households, they didn’t wear masks, and they weren’t socially distanced.


Newsom addressed the issue by saying, “I want to apologize to you because I need to preach and practice, not just preach and not practice, and I’ve done my best to do that. We’re all human. We all fall short sometimes.”


State Sen. Melissa Melendez (R) tweeted, “Newsom is considering a statewide curfew. Unless you’re going to a birthday party for a lobbyist at an expensive restaurant like French Laundry. Then you can go and just say ‘I made a bad mistake’ and just like that, all is forgiven.”


San Diego State epidemiologist Eyal Oren said, “People might feel like these are draconian. But ultimately you have to remember what they’re trying to do. We can’t give everybody a drug right now. We can’t give everybody a vaccine right now.”


As Thanksgiving approaches, some politicians and health experts want people to avoid large and even small household gatherings, while others are encouraging them not to live in fear and enjoy time with family. Americans are tired of COVID-19 restrictions, but they are also concerned about health and safety. The holidays will test which mindset is stronger.

Check out the Falkirk Center Podcast with Representative Jena Powell on lockdowns: