As Californians shelter at home, eagerly awaiting the eventual reopening of myriad businesses and hoping for the quick rehire of millions of the virally unemployed, at least they can be thankful state legislators had the good sense early this year to bury a proposed law called SB 50.
That was the effort by San Francisco’s Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener to make most of this state as densely populated as the Castro District he has long called home, filled with aged wooden walk-up apartment buildings.
It has taken the coronavirus pandemic to demonstrate just how dangerous Wiener’s concept could have been. The ultra-liberal former city official wanted to mandate construction of high-rise apartments and condominiums within a half-mile radius of light rail stops and three- to five-story structures all along frequent bus routes everywhere in California.
Never mind what that would have done to existing neighborhoods. Part of Wiener’s motive was his frequently-expressed scorn for single-family homes on separate lots, backyards and all.
Even before the pandemic, a Spanish research institute published research in the highly respected Science magazine showing that the denser a neighborhood and the more noise pollution its residents must endure, the greater likelihood of strokes and other cardiovascular episodes. This phenomenon is probably related to stress, the researchers reported.
Now the contrast between the toll COVID-19 has taken in California, with about 12 percent of America’s population, and New York City, with about one-fortieth of the national populace, demonstrates even more clearly how pernicious Wiener’s concept could have been.
Yes, in the absence of federal leadership, California reacted faster than almost any other state to the viral threat, ordering most businesses to close, shutting down virtually every venue where the public gathered and ordering the entire citizenry to shelter in place.
New York ordered the same measures only a few days later.
The results: New York City alone, with only a fraction as many residents as California, has seen about one-fifth of all American coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, California has had less than 5 percent of the nation’s virus toll.
The California numbers nevertheless number in the tens of thousands. But New York City had well over 100,000 cases at the same time California had 20,000.
Early action probably spared California a lot of misery. But the few days of additional open mixing in New York are not enough to explain the huge difference in caseload during the crisis.
Many epidemiologists have said dense populations act like petri dishes, allowing micro-organisms to survive and thrive. There is nowhere in America as dense as New York City, with its myriad skyscraper office and apartment buildings. There is also no place in America as reliant as New York City on densely-used subways and buses.
By contrast, California’s thousands of neighborhoods are far more loosely populated. Wiener and others call that urban sprawl. If there’s density in transport here, it’s on traffic laden freeways, where commutes of 15 miles can often take an hour for motorists alone in their cars. Except when most Californians are hunkered down in their homes, waiting out a quasi-quarantine. You won’t be infected if you’re alone and enclosed.
In general, the sprawling lifestyle that drew the majority of Californians or their parents here during the last century buffered the spread of the virus. “Physical distancing is working,” says the health director of Los Angeles County. “It has worked to date…it reduce(s)…the number of infections.”
It’s true that California has plenty of dense office towers and vast numbers of condos in areas zoned for multi-family occupancy. So it is likely no accident that those areas experienced the highest per-capita tolls in this pandemic. Caseloads in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego clearly demonstrate this.
So any future moves by Wiener or other lawmakers to mandate making California denser than it already is must be evaluated in the light of the series of frequent viral epidemics the world has seen over the last two decades.
Which means the current problem should serve as both a warning and an affirmation for California and the death knell for the concept of densifying this state.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.