A group of California lawmakers have come under fire for flying to Hawaii for a policy conference despite health officials warning against out-of-state travel amid an alarming spike in coronavirus cases.
At least seven assemblymembers and one state senator from districts around California are among the 75 people attending this week’s conference hosted by the Independent Voter Project (IVP) at the five-star Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel in Wailea, Maui, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Several of those legislators have now come out to defend their decision to ignore California’s travel warnings – arguing that their attending the conference was important because it includes discussions about pandemic policies.
It comes after Governor Gavin Newsom drew sharp criticism for attending a birthday dinner with at least 10 people at The French Laundry, a Michelin star restaurant in Napa Valley, just days before advising Californians not to host indoor Thanksgiving dinners.
The IVP conference began on Monday – the same day that Newsom announced 41 of California’s 58 counties would be moving into the state’s most restrictive purple COVID-19 reopening risk tier, up from 13 counties last week.
Newsom had urged residents not to travel out of state just three days earlier, and imposed a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the state.
IVP has declined to disclose which California legislators are attending the conference but eight names emerged anyway – with some identifying themselves and others staying silent.
The eight are: Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R – O’Neals), State Senator Andreas Borgeas (R – Modesto), Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D – Los Angeles), Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R – Pasa Robles), Assemblyman Heath Flora (R – Ripon), Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I – Rancho Mirage), Assemblyman Jose Medina (D – Riverside) and Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D – Baldwin Park).
A total of 75 people are in attendance at the conference hosted by the Independent Voter Project (IVP) at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel (pictured) in Wailea, Maui
The backlash over the Hawaii conference comes as California Governor Gavin Newsom continues to weather intense criticism for attending a birthday dinner with at least 10 people at The French Laundry, a Michelin star restaurant in Napa Valley, on November 6. Newsom is seen left without a mask in the indoor/outdoor dining room in a photo obtained by Fox 11
IVP President Dan Howle responded to the backlash about this year’s conference going forward amid the pandemic in an interview with the LA Times on Wednesday and insisted that strict safety precautions had been put in place.
He said all of the 75 attendees – which reportedly included about a dozen lawmakers from Washington and Texas – were required to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before participating and that the California lawmakers are ‘committed to honoring’ the state’s 14-day quarantine when they return home.
Howle also said there were strict rules for masks and social distancing at all meetings and events, noting that Maui County approved the plans.
The four-day conference features panels on a variety of issues, including, perhaps ironically, how to safely reopen states while COVID-19 remains a threat.
In previous years the conference has been the subject of controversy because many legislators have their travel expenses covered by IVP, with each receiving about $3,500 last year, the LA Times reported.
It’s unclear how many of the California lawmakers in attendance this year had IVP help pay their way. Assemblyman Bigelow is the only one who has said he did not in a statement defending his participation.
‘The blanket response to Covid-19 does not work for small businesses, schools, and working families in rural California,’ Bigelow said. ‘I am paying for myself to be here, following the strictest Covid-19 safety protocols, and tested negative to Covid-19 just prior to my arrival.’
Assemblyman Cunningham also defended himself on Wednesday, saying: ‘This event promotes intelligent public policy in our state. We paid for my family’s tickets and COVID tests with personal money — no state funds were used.’
Assembly Minority Leader Flora argued that California’s latest coronavirus-related restrictions made it even more important for lawmakers to attend the conference, because it gave them an opportunity to debate the best ways to combat the pandemic going forward.
‘Participants are discussing how to safely re-open larger sectors of the economy and the discussion suddenly became more urgent with Newsom’s announcement on Monday,’ she said. ‘Simply shutting down 95 percent of the state might’ve made sense back in April or May, but we understand so much more now than we did then. We’re way past blanket solutions.’
IVP President Dan Howle responded to the backlash about this year’s conference going forward amid the pandemic in an interview with the LA Times on Wednesday and insisted that strict safety precautions had been put in place at the resort (pictured) where rooms cost upwards of $500 per night
The lawmakers’ statements have done little to quell public outcry over the conference.
‘This is “do as I say, not as I do,”‘ Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn, told the LA Times.
‘This is one of the reasons there is a complete disconnect between ordinary citizens in California and the political leadership.’
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, also blasted the conference, calling it an excuse for lawmakers to cozy up to lobbyists away from public scrutiny.
‘In normal times it is an abuse of office to have oil, utility and other big companies that lobby in the Capitol paying for an Hawaiian getaway replete with golf, hula show and mai tais,’ Court told the LA Times.
‘In COVID times, it is an abomination that legislators would break quarantine to play in the sun at a four-star resort.’
Responding to the argument that the lawmakers are doing a public service by debating issues related to the pandemic, Court said: ‘You can have a discussion about opening safely on Zoom if you don’t care about the golf, the beach and the [cocktails].
‘This has and will always be a world-class junket. This year it’s also a lethal one that shows disrespect for the quarantine and those hunkering down to do the right thing.’
Governor Gavin Newsom plunged most of California back into the strictest reopening measures on Monday after a spike in cases, after chastising people for ‘letting their guard down’
The backlash over the IVP conference only added to public frustration with California officials’ handling of the pandemic, which exploded this week after photos emerged of Gov Newsom and his wife dining at The French Laundry on November 6.
It was a 50th birthday party for Jason Kinney, one of Newsom’s political advisers, and witnesses from the restaurant say that at one stage, the doors were closed so the group was completely inside.
Two top officials at the California Medical Association were also among those in attendance. The CMA represents 50,000 doctors in the nation’s most populous state and has recently tweeted messages including #StayHome and #WearAMask.
Dustin Corcoran, CMA’s chief executive officer and Janus Norman, a senior vice president, were also among the dozen people at the dinner, CMA spokesman Anthony York said on Tuesday.
‘The dinner was held in accordance with state and county guidelines,’ York told the Associated Press in an emailed statement.
Corcoran did not respond to a text message seeking comment.
The CMA is considered a lobbying powerhouse in Sacramento. Last year, the organization spent $2.1million lobbying state leaders.
This year, CMA successfully lobbied Newsom and the Democratic supermajority in the state legislature not to slash Medi-Cal reimbursement rates funded by a 2016 tax on tobacco, according to POLITICO.
Before the photos emerged, Newsom apologized for the outing, he should not have gone and should be setting a better example. He also claimed he did not know how many people would be there.
After the dinner, Newsom and his wife spoke with some friends. Witnesses say that the doors were open to begin with, meaning the group were somewhat indoors, but that staff closed them because the group was too loud
The dinner was held to mark the 50th birthday of Jason Kinney (seen left with his wife, Mary Gonsalves Kinney), an adviser to Newsom
Dustin Corcoran (left), the California Medical Association’s chief executive officer, and Janus Norman (right), a senior vice president, were also among the dozen people at the dinner, CMA spokesman Anthony York said on Tuesday
This is the dining room where Gavin Newsom ate on November 6 with at least ten others. None were wearing masks and witnesses say the restaurant shut french doors on the group because they were being so loud, turning it from a partially outdoor room into one that was completely indoors
Newsom (pictured during a lockdown announcement) was sitting in a private room with a glass door which was closed at one point because the group was being loud, the witness said
Example of the menu at the 3-star Michelin restaurant where Gov. Newsom dined with his 11 friends. The hand rolled ricotta dish with truffles carries a $175 supplement
‘I made a bad mistake. should have stood up and … drove back to my house. The spirit of what I’m preaching all the time was contradicted. I need to preach and practice, not just preach.
‘You have to own it, and you have to be forthright and I’m doing my best every single day in trying to model better behavior,’ he said.
A witness from his dinner told Fox11 Los Angeles: ‘There was a very loud party going on in a room 20 feet from us.
‘It got louder and louder and so [the staff] had some sliding glass doors that they were able to close, so then it was a closed-off room.’
NEWSOM’S THANKSGIVING RULES
- Three households mixing at a maximum
- No longer than 2 hours together
- All festivities must be outdoors; people ‘can go indoors to use the bathroom’
- Hosts must take information for contact tracing
‘I happened to look over and realized, hey is that Gavin Newsom? I did ask one of the waitresses and she confirmed it was.
‘Nobody was wearing a mask. It was a very large group of people shoulder to shoulder, something that he’s always telling us not to do so it was a bit annoying.’
Kinney’s spokesman previously said the dinner was outdoors.
‘This was a small, intimate, 12-person dinner held outdoors with family and a few close friends to celebrate a 50th birthday,’ said Molly Weedn, a spokeswoman for Kinney.
‘The restaurant was open for normal dining, consistent with state and county health guidance. All of the restaurant safety protocols were adhered to — and the guests followed those protocols.’
The room is closed on three sides and covered by a roof, with a large glass sliding door opening out into a courtyard at the front.
A door appears to have been pulled halfway across the room, and guests can be seen sitting in their coats.
Guests are clearly not wearing face masks – something that is recommended but not required while dining – and are sitting less than 6ft away from each-other.
California guidelines issued on October 9 and in place when the dinner took place on November 6 state: ‘Gatherings may occur in outdoor spaces… provided that at least three sides of the space (or 75%) are open to the outdoors.
‘Seating must provide at least 6 feet of distance (in all directions—front-to-back and side-to-side) between different households. Gatherings that include more than 3 households are prohibited.’
However, separate guidelines for restaurants in place at the same time say only that outdoor seating should be ‘prioritized’ and that guests can be seated within 6ft.
He claims he didn’t know there would be so many people there.
On the issue of households, the guidelines state only: ‘Limit the number of patrons at a single table to a household unit or patrons who have asked to be seated together.’
Newsom, who plunged the vast majority of California into the strictest tier of restrictions this week, had previously acknowledged the party was ‘a bad mistake’.
But his spokesman denied that any rules had been broken, saying the governor had ‘followed public health guidelines and the restaurant’s health protocols’.
Newsom’s office told Fox News that they would not be commenting on the specifics of the witness’s account, or details contained in the photographs.
News of the dinner emerged as case numbers in California rose and as Newsom chastised people for ‘letting their guard down’ during gatherings.
On Monday, that case rise prompted Newsom to shut down indoor activities for 94 percent of the state and pause the reopening plan.
Newsom said 41 of California’s 58 counties will move into the purple COVID-19 reopening risk tier starting Tuesday, saying he was hitting the ’emergency brake’.
California has now logged more than 1million cases of Covid and 18,000 deaths, with cases now rising at the fastest rate ever
Under the purple tier indoor operations for museums, houses of worship, gyms and restaurants are not allowed. Bars that don’t provide food, concert venues, schools, and theme parks are also closed.
Counties going under the purple tier include Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Napa – where the restaurant he attended is located – and Solano counties in the Bay Area as well as Los Angeles.
Newsom said cases are now rising at their fastest rate since the start of the pandemic.
On Monday, California had logged 1,029,235 cases, 18,263 deaths and had a positivity rate of 4.6 percent – up three percent from October 29.
In the past two weeks in California there has been a 48 percent increase in hospital beds used by COVID-19 patients and the number of ICU patients has also risen 38 percent over the same time period.
‘We are sounding the alarm. The spread of COVID-19, if left unchecked, could quickly overwhelm our health care system and lead to catastrophic outcomes,’ Newsom said.
‘Bottom line is, we’re moving from a marathon to a sprint,’ he said.
Newsom said that more tier announcements will be made as necessary and that counties can move back more than one tier at a time.
Furthermore, California is also requiring people to wear a mask whenever outside of their home, with a few exceptions. State officials are also debating placing a curfew.