SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement was audacious: On a national news show, he said the state had just inked a deal to buy 200 million masks monthly, a massive haul amid the international scramble for protective gear needed in the fight against the coronavirus.
“As a nation-state, with the capacity to write a check for hundreds of millions, no billions, of dollars, we’re in a position to do something bold and big,” Newsom told reporters the next day.
The announcement surprised many state lawmakers, and California took the unusual step of paying half the cost up front. One week later, details of the $1 billion deal with Chinese company BYD are limited — the contract has not been made public, though Newsom's emergency services director said it would be soon.
The mask deal, and how Newsom announced it, illustrates the first-term governor’s tendency to make big pronouncements without all details in place, or before his administration is ready to share them.
Lawmakers will begin oversight hearings Thursday to learn more about the deal and Newsom's spending during the pandemic after they halted their session last month and gave him broad authority to spend. He's spent nearly $2 billion.
Democratic state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a budget committee member, said details of the BYD deal “are very murky."
“One thing that I am concerned about is the lack of dialogue between the administrative and legislative branches of government about emergency expenditures,” Bloom said in a statement.
Newsom “has moved swiftly and aggressively to protect human life and help Californians meet unprecedented challenges," his spokesman Nathan Click said in a statement. He added, "because of those efforts and the actions of millions of Californians who are staying home, California has begun to flatten the curve and has even been able to assist other states that are in much worse shape.”
In another big claim, Newsom last month praised a “heroic effort” by Tesla founder Elon Musk to donate at least 1,000 ventilators to California hospitals and said Musk would work with the state's hospital association and other groups to deliver them.
But on Wednesday, state spokesman Brian Ferguson said the state had not heard of any hospital systems receiving ventilators from Musk or Tesla. California Hospital Association spokeswoman Jan Emerson-Shea said the organization played no role in distributing ventilators. Tesla spokesman Kamran Mumtaz did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Newsom has also offered conflicting information on plans to house homeless Californians vulnerable to the virus. When he issued an executive order last month that he promoted as a 60-day eviction moratorium, advocacy groups said it didn’t adequately protect tenants. They won approval of a more iron-clad moratorium from the state’s Judicial Council
Newsom speaks daily about the state's response to the outbreak, giving hour-long presentations replete with numbers he recites with precision. He is dyslexic and memorizes most of his presentations.
“One of the downsides of speaking extemporaneously is you may get some of the details wrong, especially when you are speaking for an hour straight,” said Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at the California State University, Sacramento. But, she said, “he’s definitely projecting a sense of comprehending the situation and aggressively addressing the issues.”
California, the most populous U.S. state, has fewer infections and deaths than New York and several other states. More than 25,000 Californians have tested positive for the virus and nearly 800 have died. For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause life-threatening illness and death.
Karin Michels, chair of the epidemiology department at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health, said California has been aided in its virus fight by cultural factors like its low-density housing, younger population and residents' overall health. But she said the governor deserves “a lot of credit for being quick.”
Still, state lawmakers and advocacy groups are agitated by aspects of Newsom's approach.
Lawmakers want to know how the state is ensuring the quality of the masks Newsom ordered and how they'll be distributed.
BYD is an electric vehicle manufacturer that recently started making masks at its facilities in China and its North American headquarters is in Los Angeles. A 2018 Los Angeles Times investigation found BYD buses purchased by the county transit agency had mechanical and performance issues, though the county and other agencies continued contracting with the company. Congress, meanwhile, recently banned BYD and another Chinese company from winning federal transit contracts over national security concerns.
Newsom and Mark Ghilarducci, head of California’s Office of Emergency Services, said BYD was thoroughly vetted and that its bus business is separate from the mask deal.
Company spokesman Frank Girardot said BYD will “absolutely, 100%” comply with U.S. rules and certifications. The first masks are expected to arrive in late April or early May.
Newsom's initial claims on plans to house the homeless, meanwhile, haven't matched reality. He said in mid-March the state was “in real time, quite literally” negotiating with 901 hotels to house homeless Californians and later set a goal of finding 51,000 rooms. In reality, the state identified hotels that could be used but mostly let counties negotiate contracts.
Many hotels were wary about housing the homeless. Three weeks later, Newsom announced a revised goal of 15,000 rooms, mostly paid for by the federal government. Click said the initial goal represented a worst-case scenario and that California is doing more than other states to protect the homeless.
Newsom then announced another plan to defray costs for thousands of hotel rooms for health care workers.
Lynn Mohrfeld, president of the California Hotel and Lodging Association, said the industry “is 110% trying to help."
“But the ground keeps shifting under us and the priorities change on a regular basis,” he said.