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Governors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions

The Hill logo The Hill 11/25/2020 Reid Wilson
Gavin Newsom wearing a suit and tie: Governors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions © Getty Images Governors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions

Several top Democrats have come under criticism in recent days for violating the coronavirus restrictions they imposed on their own states and cities in hopes of curbing the spread of the pandemic.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was photographed attending a dinner party at the French Laundry, one of the nation's priciest restaurants, with a group of prominent lobbyists, including several who represent the California Medical Association. The photos show no one in the large party wearing a mask.

Newsom apologized a few days later.

"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," Newsom said.

Newsom is self-quarantining after a student at one of his children's schools tested positive for the coronavirus - another sore spot for critics who are frustrated that most California students are not learning in person.

"His kids can learn in person. But yours can't. He can celebrate birthday parties. But you can't," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R), a potential Newsom rival in 2022, wrote on Twitter.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Monday that his 89-year-old mother and two of his daughters would travel to his residence in Albany for Thanksgiving, after urging residents to avoid travel that might cause a spike in cases over the holiday.

"His arrogance and hypocrisy knows no bounds," Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter. "Do as I say, not as I do. Rules for thee, but not for me."

Richard Azzopardi, Cuomo's senior adviser, said in a statement to reporters just hours after his remarks that the family dinner had been canceled.

"As the governor said, he had been discussing seeing his mother with two of his daughters for a four person Thanksgiving in accordance with all state issued guidance, but as he also said the plans were still changing and given the current circumstances with COVID, he will have to work through Thanksgiving and will not be seeing them," Azzopardi said. "Don't tell his mom - she doesn't know yet."

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) also took criticism for attending an election night celebration for President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del. Washington's rules require anyone traveling to a potential hot spot to quarantine for two weeks when they return to the city. Delaware is included among those hot spots, but Bowser declined to quarantine, calling the trip essential travel.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) canceled a planned dinner for incoming first-term lawmakers after backlash against an event that would have crammed dozens of people into an indoor, poorly ventilated space.

Violating orders or even recommendations could have negative effects on a state's efforts to slow the spread of the virus, experts said, because most of those orders are not enforced by police. Instead, they require citizens to follow rules of their own volition.

"When leaders break their own rules, they send a message that people should not take those rules seriously," said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former top spokesman at the Republican National Committee. "That's always unfortunate. In this situation, it's dangerous. It enables people to rationalize risky behavior."

Some epidemiologists said the lapses are the most prominent examples of the pandemic fatigue that weighs so heavily after months of lockdown and isolation.

"We're human beings, we're going to screw up, and the best thing to do after you've screwed up is to admit that you've screwed up, apologize and explain why you messed up," said Christine Petersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa. "We all know that this is really hard and it sucks."

Fewer Republican governors have been caught violating their own orders - in large part because they have not implemented the same kinds of restrictions that public health experts say are critical to curbing the spread of a deadly virus.

Some, including Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R), have flouted expert advice against indoor dining and joining large crowds; both Stitt and Parson contracted the virus and recovered.

President Trump has routinely flouted even the most basic advice from his public health experts, holding large indoor rallies during the campaign and at least two events at the White House - his nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett and an election night party - that appear to have been super-spreader events. Trump himself was hospitalized for several days after contracting the virus.

American politicians are far from alone in lapsed judgement. Dominic Cummings, a top adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, broke a travel ban to visit family in May. New Zealand Health Minister David Clark called himself an "idiot" for leaving home in April. Top leaders in Scotland, Japan, South Africa, India and Spain have all faced criticism for bending the rules.

The coronavirus pandemic that has so far killed more than a quarter million Americans is surging toward its highest peak yet, as the United States records more than 100,000 new cases each day. Many governors, especially those who have enforced the strictest lockdowns, have seen their poll numbers skyrocket as constituents reward them for taking action.

But those who violate their own orders are almost certain to be reminded of their transgressions in campaigns ahead.

"People remember. It won't be the biggest issue in the next campaign, but it will be an issue," Pitney said. "Expect the French Laundry to show up in GOP attack ads."

-Updated at 11:43 a.m.

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