For months, Gov. Gavin Newsom has pleaded with Californians to resist the temptation to socialize with friends and relatives outside their household. Turns out, he's the one who couldn't resist.
Newsom acknowledged Friday he attended a birthday party with a dozen friends on Nov. 6 at the posh French Laundry restaurant in wine country north of San Francisco.
“While our family followed the restaurant’s health protocols and took safety precautions, we should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner,” he said in a statement.
His choice to do so could harm his credibility and alter his messaging as the state of nearly 40 million enters a critical holiday stretch with virus cases surging and health officials blaming the increase on social gatherings.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California, noted people across the state have been canceling birthday parties, funerals and other important events to abide by the rules. Now, if Newsom tries to tighten the rules again, he may have lost some credibility.
“This was totally unnecessary, he didn’t have to do this,” she said.
Newsom and state and local health officials have urged people to stay within their own households. If people must visit others, they should meet outside, include no more than three households, wear masks, stay socially distant and limit their interaction to two hours.
The dinner, first reported Friday by the San Francisco Chronicle, included 12 people sitting outside at the famed restaurant in Napa County. It was in celebration of the 50th birthday of Jason Kinney, a Newsom friend and political adviser. Newsom's wife also attended.
According to the Chronicle, representatives for Kinney and Newsom declined to specify how many households the diners represented, but did not dispute that it was more than three.
Newsom’s spokesman, Nathan Click, did not answer questions from the Associated Press about whether Newsom was tested for the coronavirus after attending or if he wore a mask when he wasn’t eating or drinking, as he’s urged Californians to do.
Three days after the party, Newsom held his usual Monday news conference on the virus and spoke about how the state's cases were at their highest levels in months and attributed it to social gatherings, including at Halloween.
The next day, Dr. Mark Ghaly, head of the California Health and Human Services Agency, made similar remarks at his news conference. Click didn't answer a question about whether Ghaly was aware Newsom attended the party before it was reported.
At a media briefing Friday, Ghaly declined to discuss Newsom's behavior. But he said “high risk" activities include eating and drinking and gathering with people outside of a household.
State guidelines limit gatherings, defined as “social situations that bring together people from different households at the same time in a single space or place,” to no more than three households. It’s unclear if the rule applies to restaurants, however, which follow different guidance.
“Just because we're personally close to someone, a family member, a really close friend who we haven't seen in a while, that doesn't create comfort when it comes to COVID," Ghaly said.
Republicans quickly jumped on the news as evidence of hypocrisy as Newsom, a first-term Democrat, urges Californians to stay home. The California GOP said in a tweet that the governor “seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth.“
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican who has sued Newsom over his authority to implement coronavirus-related restrictions, said businesses have been asking Newsom for data to back up his decision to limit their seating. He's yet to answer.
“The best evidence we have to look to is his own personal conduct, which seems to be out of step in general with the policies that he’s putting in place,” Kiley said.
But the criticism extended beyond Newsom's partisan political opponents.
Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the news was embarrassing for the governor.
“People should practice what they preach,” Noymer said. But, he added, “I don’t know if we need to tar and feather him every day from now until the end of the pandemic for this.”
Rob Stutzman, who was communications director for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said it doesn't help that Newsom dined at one of the ritziest restaurants in the country at a time when many Californians are suffering economically. He said the governor should apologize for attending.
The three-star Michelin restaurant has maintained its $350 per person tasting menu, served in an outdoor dining room during the pandemic. It also added a number of other options, including a $450 per person menu for parties of up to 12 people, that can be served indoors or outside, and another for $850. The restaurant requires all reservations to be paid in advance.
“It’s really tone deaf and the fact that it is at one of the most elite restaurants in the world could really haunt him," he said, adding the issue is sure to feature in campaign ads when Newsom is up for reelection in 2022.
Newsom and his wife paid for their own meals, Click said.
Associated Press writers Brian Melley in Los Angeles, Janie Har in San Francisco and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco contributed.