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Leading California’s reopening, Tom Steyer plans to reinvigorate the state’s economy in phases

June 1, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC

The economy of California is the largest in the United States. The Golden State is home to the largest tourism industry, entertainment industry, and state school system, and it produces the most food in the country. It’s also facing a $54 billion budget deficit and a nearly 25% unemployment rate owing to COVID-19. 

Reinvigorating the state and “reopening” its economy is an incredibly difficult undertaking, akin to reopening an entire country, and former 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer has been tasked with leading the way. As chair of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, Steyer is presiding over a group of 80 business, labor, and community leaders, former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and Walt Disney Co. executive chairman Bob Iger among them, who are advising the governor on how to best lift restrictions. 

Fortune sat down with the billionaire hedge fund founder and liberal activist to discuss how he is approaching the reopening of California and how he’s handling a state that defines what it means to contain multitudes, from the Redwood forest to Silicon Valley to farmland to Hollywood. 

On reopening Hollywood 

“California is the place where the film and television industry grew up. It’s an incredibly important part of our economy, and it’s something that everybody is focused on. But we need to make sure we reopen that in a way that’s safe and in a way that takes care of the safety of the working people involved, including the crew and performers. That’s something people are extremely focused on because it’s a huge part of the California economy and has been central to our history and to our future. 

“In every single industry when you talk about protocols, you’re talking about distancing, masking, and all of the conditions to make sure that the virus doesn’t spread. In the case of the film and television industry, it involves how many people are around at a given time, who is on the set at a given time. It will be run differently than it was before when there was an ability to have as many people as you wanted doing anything, including filming a TV show or a movie.”

On tourism 

“There’s the physical beauty of the state and people coming to go to the coastline or coming to go to Yosemite or coming to go to the Sierras, but there’s so much to do in California, too. This is where Disneyland started. This is where the first big theme parks started. People also come to California for the vibrant city life and all of the attractions. So not all of the things that people come to California for are opening at the same time, because of the protocols and timing: The phasing is being done based on health and safety. 

“And so some of those things will open fairly shortly, and some of those things will be the last to open. People are working on opening state parks right now, but some of the huge gatherings, the big stadiums and rock concerts and things like that are at the tail end of opening up.”

On reopening Napa 

“There are a lot of very small family vineyards where people have tasting rooms and where a lot of the sales are done by people coming around and tasting the wine and then ordering a couple of bottles or a case to bring home. That’s something that is being reviewed and something that is obviously subject to protocols, but that is something that will also be opening before, say, Coachella.”

On opening rural areas before cities 

“We have 58 counties in California. Some of the counties will open up sooner than other counties based on the statistics. So it may be possible to do certain things in counties where the virus is declining and at a very low level. It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all in terms of industry, but it’s also not going to be a one-size-fits-all in terms of county. It’s phasing, so it’s not that one day everything is opened up.”

On Tesla and Elon Musk

“I think that the story with Tesla is one that’s very much a reflection [of what’s happening in California]. I think [Elon Musk] was very upset. It turns out that Tesla worked through their issues with the health officials in Alameda County. They came to a mutual understanding of a safe way to reopen that plant. In fact, you haven’t heard anything negative from Elon Musk in a while.

“There’s always going to be tension between people operating businesses who are desperate to get their factories and workers back to work and health officials who are desperate to protect the safety and lives of California workers. And so that’s a normal thing. But we’ve had this positive leadership specifically from Governor Newsom and around the state. You work through those problems and come up with a solution that reflects what’s happening on the ground and protects the health and safety of workers and consumers foremost. That’s exactly what happened with Tesla.”

On using COVID-19 to address income inequality 

“Our task force specifically has a mission statement that includes working towards a just, equitable, sustainable, green California and making sure that we have the interest of those under-resourced communities, those black and brown communities at large, at the front of our minds as we move forward and think about what we can do to come out as fast and as safely as possible.

“I think that essential workers, who are by and large people who make less than the median wage in California state, have been more exposed to getting sick from the virus, and people who make less than the median wage are much more likely to have been laid off as a result of the pandemic. They’re also much less likely to be able to work from home. So I think that as we start to look for a response to the pandemic, and start to look at where we do testing, COVID has exposed that inequality and exacerbated that inequality in a lot of ways, and it’s absolutely critical that we think about the policies that reflect a pushback against that inequality.”

On bridging the digital divide 

“With the pandemic, the need to have schoolkids connected to the Internet has a new energy to it, because even though schools are scheduled to reopen, there’s a very high likelihood that it won’t be the same way it was in 2019. There may be some sort of blended learning that involves an online portion. So it’s urgent that all schoolkids be connected to high-speed Internet so they can participate in their own education.

“These are equity issues. If you think about how people are getting their medicine today in the time of COVID-19, I am seeing from our huge health care system in California that 80% of their doctor’s visits are over the phone or over Zoom. That means to feel the full extent of medicine, you’re going to have to be hooked up to high-speed Internet.”

On using COVID-19 to retrain the workforce 

“I think there’s going to be a huge effort on retraining, reskilling, and upskilling. And I think that will have a huge impact on people across California. Because when you think about infrastructure, people tend to think about the 1930s and building physical things. That’s certainly part of what’s got to happen, but changes also need to be made to human infrastructure and health infrastructure. That will involve bringing people along and training them to participate in more skilled, better paid jobs going forward, coming out of this economic slowdown.”

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