California Governor Gavin Newsom discusses the next phase of the state’s comprehensive pandemic response, California’s SMARTER Plan, at a press conference in Fontana, California on February 17, 2022. The press conference took place in one of many warehouses where PPE supplies are stored. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

(CALMATTERS) – Californians hoping that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new COVID strategy would contain clear benchmarks for when the state might transition away from pandemic policies and precautions were likely disappointed Thursday.

That’s because the Newsom administration’s blueprint, dubbed the SMARTER Plan, does not include any such metrics.

Although it does set specific goals for the state in each of the subject areas represented by a letter in SMARTER — shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and Rx treatments — much of the rest of the 30-page plan is focused on flexibility, ensuring that California can respond quickly and precisely to new variants and constantly changing conditions, CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra and Kristen Hwang report.

  • That gives the state room to, for example, temporarily reinstate its mask order if hospitals become overwhelmed, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, said.
  • It also allows the state to respond to different situations differently, Ghaly said. For example, a deadly variant might prompt the state to focus on case numbers, as opposed to hospitalizations for a less virulent variant.

The central axiom of the state’s new plan: There is no such thing as a post-COVID world.

“We have all come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis — that there is no end date, that there is not a moment where we declare victory.”

Gavin Newsom

Despite the apparent fatalism of that statement, the governor struck a tone of cautious optimism, emphasizing that the plan marks the beginning of California’s transition from a “crisis mentality” and “reactive framework” to a “more settled approach” where people can feel “firm and confident” about where things are going.

Nevertheless, the plan’s lack of a clear timeline has reignited debate over when California might end the pandemic state of emergency that has endured for nearly two years — a policy the Newsom administration says has been essential in ensuring the state’s quick COVID response but has also given the governor special powers that have antagonized both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“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.”

Sen. Toni Atkins