Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first term in office has been defined by his response to the covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 65,400 Californians.

The Democratic governor issued the first statewide stay-at-home order in the nation, and his policies kept most public school students at home last year. But his own children attended private school in person and, in a move that has haunted him since, he dined with friends and lobbyists at the ritzy French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley in November — even though state guidelines discouraged people from mixing with others outside their household.

More recently, Newsom has required all health care workers to get fully vaccinated by the end of the month. But he has not ordered a new statewide mask mandate, despite the deadly spread of the virus’s delta variant.

Newsom has said his policies are driven by science, but they have helped land him in an unexpectedly competitive recall election. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday shows that about 58% of likely voters want to keep him in office. Voters, who have been mailed ballots, have until the Sept. 14 election date to return them.

Many of Newsom’s Republican rivals, including talk-radio host Larry Elder, businessman John Cox and former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, are focusing their opposition on Newsom’s mask and vaccine policies.

Just how much is the pandemic playing into voters’ decisions? KHN reporters fanned out across the Golden State — visiting a fire evacuee camp in Placerville, outdoor malls in the Silicon Valley, Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles and an urban park in Sacramento — to find out.

Placerville

7 Placerville Recall
The Walmart parking lot in the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Placerville is now temporary living quarters for dozens of families who have been forced to flee the Caldor Fire. The overwhelming sentiment at the evacuation site on Aug. 27 was that it’s time for Gov. Gavin Newsom to go. (Samantha Young / California Healthline)

8 Placerville Recall
Denise Byer helped collect signatures to get the recall election on the ballot. She’s still upset that her children and millions of other California kids spent nearly a year distance-learning while Newsom’s children attended private school in person. (Samantha Young / California Healthline)

In the Sierra Nevada foothills, many voters describe Newsom as a big-city elitist who issued pandemic mandates for the masses but played by his own rulebook.

“RECALL NEWSOM SAVE CALIFORNIA” signs line busy roads and plaster fences and storefronts in Placerville, home to about 11,000 people some 40 miles from California’s capital.

Even a few evacuees from the raging Caldor Fire — whose homes and livelihoods are at stake — display anti-Newsom signs on their RVs and vans at their temporary outpost in the Walmart parking lot.

The deep anger facing Newsom in El Dorado County isn’t unexpected. The area draws on Gold Rush-era independence: Several businesses flouted public health orders that required masks indoors.

“Whatever edict he put out there never applied to him,” said Denise Byer, 55, a volunteer at a wildfire evacuation site whose children missed nearly a year of in-person high school and competitive sports. “His own children went back to school. He’s an elite. He’s a hypocrite.”

That was the overwhelming sentiment at two Placerville evacuation sites, where several people commented but asked not to be identified, some for fear of workplace repercussions. Newsom “sat up on high,” said a county worker. The governor wants to impose broad mandates on Californians that should be up to the people, said an evacuee who, like other state workers, must be vaccinated or submit to weekly covid tests. Newsom “has ruled like a king,” chimed in an evacuee who didn’t know whether his home would survive the fires.

— Samantha Young

Silicon Valley

3 Palo Alto Recall
Meghan Purdy fears California may become more like Florida or Texas — whose governors she thinks mishandled the pandemic — if Newsom is recalled. She dropped her ballot off at the library as soon as she could. (Rachel Bluth / California Healthline)

On a sunny, late-August Sunday, Palo Alto’s luxe University Avenue and San Jose’s trendy Santana Row, an outdoor shopping mall, were jammed, and the broad streets have been taken over by shopping, outdoor dining and live music. Signs occasionally reminded patrons to mask up in stores, but there was little evidence of the pandemic, and even less of the impending recall election.

Both cities are in Santa Clara County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1.

4 San Jose Recall
Gov. Gavin Newsom has been the only “adult in the room” making hard decisions about business shutdowns and masks, says Michael Burrows. He believes the recall is just theatrics from anti-vaxxers and Republicans. (Rachel Bluth / California Healthline)

When it comes to the recall, there was only one answer: No. Obviously no. Have you seen who he’s running against?

“I’m really frustrated that the recall is even happening. The people who are running to replace him are going to undo a lot of his work and make it a lot riskier to be in California,” said Meghan Purdy, a 34-year-old product manager in Palo Alto. “I have friends in Texas, and I worry about them. I have a dad in Florida. They have horrible governors, and the fact that it could happen to us is scary.”

In a small but crowded park on Santana Row, Michael Burrows, a 56-year-old database administrator, listened to a band while a coffee line snaked around the musicians.

Newsom handled the pandemic as well as he could have, Burrows said. The recall is a waste of time, and anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are trying to tarnish Newsom’s reputation on a national stage, he said.

“Nobody likes to wear a mask — I don’t like to wear a mask — but it’s what you have to do,” Burrows said. “You have to have an adult in the room.”

— Rachel Bluth

Los Angeles

The sound of salsa music lingered in the air as people wandered the cobblestone paths along Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. The historical Mexican marketplace was a ghost town of shuttered shops during the height of the pandemic, but now bustles with customers— most of them Latino.

Some had no idea about the recall election. Others said they favored the governor but wouldn’t be able to vote because they are undocumented immigrants. Most expressed support for Newsom.

Antonio Ramos, 57, and Isabel Ceja, 48, a couple from Novato, California, were visiting family in Los Angeles on Saturday. Some of their relatives have had covid, and they said they know what it’s like to worry if they will survive.

“What he’s done for the community has been beneficial,” Ramos said in Spanish. “Like getting the vaccines out to everyone and the mask mandate. It’s for the safety of everyone.”

The couple plan to vote against the recall. “I like him because he’s Catholic and does everything with transparency,” Ceja added. “He isn’t two-faced.”

Veronica Ayón, 28, a Los Angeles mother of three, disagreed. “I think he says one thing and then does another,” she said in Spanish.

2 LA Newsom Recall
Veronica Ayón is unsure how she’ll vote on Sept. 14 but bristles at Newsom’s pro-vaccination policies. Ayón doesn’t want to vaccinate her daughter, who is turning 12 in November. “If I’m not vaccinated, why should she?” she asks. (Heidi de Marco / California Healthline)

Ayón isn’t vaccinated but said she always wears a mask. She is breastfeeding her baby girl and fears what a vaccine could do to her. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend pregnant and breastfeeding women get vaccinated.)

She said she will probably vote against Newsom. “He wants to make it mandatory for kids to get vaccinated at 12,” said Ayón, whose eldest child is about to turn 12. “She’s my daughter. It’s my decision.”

— Heidi de Marco

Sacramento

In Sacramento’s Oak Park, a largely African American, inner-city neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying, people don’t seem motivated to vote. Anti-recall signs backing Newsom pepper grassy lawns in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, but none were visible here, though there are Black Lives Matter signs on nearly every block — a couple of them praising Dolly Parton.

Many Oak Park residents said Newsom has failed them.

6 Oak Park Recall
Emma Patterson is more concerned about making a living than voting in the Sept. 14 recall election. Patterson lost housing for herself and her two grandkids, ages 6 and 10, in July after an apartment fire. “I have more important things on my mind,” she says. (Angela Hart / California Healthline)

5 Oak Park Recall
McClatchy Park in the heart of Sacramento’s Oak Park, a largely African American neighborhood, is a popular hangout on nights and weekends. About a dozen people surveyed on a late-August Sunday said they didn’t plan to vote or were unmotivated to cast a ballot, arguing that the governor has not prioritized their welfare in the pandemic. (Angela Hart / California Healthline)

“I tore up my ballot and threw it in the trash,” said 52-year-old Regina Davis, who gathered with friends at a park filled with people barbecuing and jamming to music — a Sunday tradition in the neighborhood. She backed Newsom in 2018 but said she doesn’t plan to vote, arguing that Newsom has prioritized wealthy Californians during the pandemic.

Others said they hadn’t decided whether to vote.

“He needs to step up,” said Cleo Brown, 39, who supported Newsom when he ran for governor but said she now feels let down because Newsom has not invested in day care and after-school programs that could help her and her two kids, ages 15 and 18.

Her message to Newsom: “Do something for our kids. They’re still hurting from the school shutdowns.”

Emma Patterson, 57, voted for Newsom in 2018 but said she has other things to worry about than the recall. “He needs us to show up for him, but Black families are struggling,” Patterson said.

Her apartment burned down in July, and she’s renting a room for herself and her two grandkids for $150 a week. “Voting isn’t even on my mind,” she said.

— Angela Hart