People in face masks walk in Del Mar
People wear masks as they walk past a closed beach in Del Mar, last week. REUTERS/Mike Blake

If you lived in Denmark or Norway, your children would have been in school last week.

In the Czech Republic, you could go work out at the gym, followed by a trip to the library.

In Austria you could have visited local shops, and in Switzerland, gone to the hair salon.

What does California have in common with these five European countries? Their combined population is around 40 million, the same as California’s. Their 220 million square miles are comparable to California’s 164 million. Their health consequences from COVID-19 have been worse, but of similar magnitude: 71,000 confirmed cases and 3,300 deaths as of the weekend, versus 53,600 cases and 2,200 deaths for California.

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However, these European countries’ decisions to reopen schools and businesses are weeks and months ahead of California. The press has widely reported that Sweden did not institute stay-at-home orders, or even close schools or shops. Less widely reported is that an expanding group of European countries have followed Sweden.

Earlier this month Denmark and Norway reopened schools, and by mid-May, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland plan to do the same. All five countries have reopened many small businesses. Countries have taken precautions, such as staggering student arrivals to limit classroom sizes and requiring masks when entering shops, but they have aggressively tackled the difficult problem of reopening.

Why has California moved so slowly to reopen? Have European countries put the worst of COVID-19 behind them while California has not? No — numbers of deaths and cases are similar to California’s, which have peaked in the last few weeks. All five European countries enacted similar countermeasures as California, within a few days of California. As of now, Europe and California face similar circumstances when deciding how and when to reopen.

The answer might just be that Sweden’s example has been more salient to Europe than to California. While Sweden experienced more deaths per capita than most European countries, accepting these early fatalities allowed Sweden to avoid lockdown’s negative effects, both economic, social, and health-related. More importantly, Sweden’s approach has moved its population steadily toward herd immunity. Other European countries watched, initially cautiously but increasingly enviously, at Sweden’s experiment in normalcy, and now they are acting.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-phase plan to reopen moves in the right direction, but lacks the aggressive timelines that European countries have used to drive reopening. The Governor’s vague references to being weeks away from Phase 2 and months from Phase 3 puts California weeks or months behind Europe.

The Governor’s insistence that California is basing reopening decisions on “facts and data, not on ideology” seems pointedly directed at the groundswell of popular opinion that California act with urgency to reopen. Newsom may be able to dismiss that groundswell as misguided or irrelevant, but the move by so many European countries, to fall in-line with Sweden and rapidly reopen schools and businesses, will be much harder to ignore.

Jeff Holman lives in La Jolla, and has served as risk manager for some of the world’s largest hedge funds. He holds a Ph.D. in economics and an M.A. in statistics from UC Berkeley.