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Today is a day that millions of Californians have been anticipating with eagerness, dread and uncertainty: After three weeks of buildup, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is finally set to announce an update to the statewide school mask mandate.
But hanging over the announcement are a series of unspoken questions:
- How much will it actually change school mask policies? Although the California School Boards Association recently begged Newsom to give schools “a specific K-12 exit strategy,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, said earlier this month that local officials will still be able to implement stricter mask rules than the state’s. That suggests that California could retain its current patchwork of strategies, where some districts require face coverings at all times — even outdoors — and others refuse to enforce mask mandates, even at the risk of losing their insurance coverage or of teacher walkouts.
- How much will it alter California’s current school climate, where mask rules are dividing parents, students and educators and fracturing campus life? Any move the state makes seems unlikely to bridge the sizable chasm: A recent UC Berkeley poll found that 61% of parents with school-age kids approve of school mask mandates, while 37% oppose them.
- How will it align with new federal guidance? As CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reports, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated masking recommendations based on a three-tiered system ranking each county’s infection levels and its hospital admissions, staffing levels and bed occupancy. More than half of California’s 58 counties — or about 49% of the population — fall into the highest tier, where masks are recommended indoors, including in schools. The CDC doesn’t recommend universal school masking for communities in the medium or low tiers.
Still, Newsom seems to see the writing on the wall as Democratic-led states — including California — adopt long-term plans for dealing with COVID. On Sunday, for example, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to lift her state’s school mask mandate on Wednesday.
- Indeed, Newsom is under mounting pressure to end California’s pandemic state of emergency, which will celebrate its two-year anniversary on Friday. Last week, Democratic lawmakers agreed to consider on March 15 a Republican-led resolution to end the state of emergency.
- On Friday, Newsom signed an executive order to terminate 12 open states of emergency — mainly related to heat waves and wildfires — and another to phase out provisions of 52 COVID executive orders, though the pandemic emergency declaration itself will remain in place, CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports.
- At the end of June, just 30 of the original 561 COVID emergency orders will remain, Newsom administration officials said. They include provisions allowing pharmacies to administer COVID tests and vaccines and permitting hospitals to bring in out-of-state health care workers.
But critics argue that keeping the state of emergency also allows Newsom to keep what GOP Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin called “extraordinary powers” — including the ability to change state laws and sign no-bid contracts.
- One such contract: the state’s ill-fated $456.9 million mask deal with three-day-old company Blue Flame in March 2020. California clawed back the money within hours of wiring it, but the saga didn’t end there: On Thursday, JPMorgan Chase sued California for $5.9 million in legal fees resulting from its intervention in the transaction.
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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 8,361,704 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 83,992 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
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Other stories you should know
1. Medi-Cal proposal falls short of ‘universal access’
Newsom has touted his budget proposal to expand Medi-Cal — the state’s health insurance program for low-income residents — to all undocumented immigrants as “universal access to health care coverage.” But the plan would still leave roughly 450,000 undocumented Californians under 65 without coverage, CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra reports. That’s because they earn more than Medi-Cal’s annual income thresholds for most adults — $17,609 for individuals, $23,792 for a couple and $36,156 for a family of four — even though that falls short of what’s considered a living wage in the Golden State. Further limiting their options, federal law blocks undocumented people from buying health insurance through Covered California, the state’s marketplace.
- Lucia Marroquin, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Fresno County: “It’s very difficult to be without coverage. It doesn’t have to be free, just at a fair price. As my husband says, we can get car insurance, why can’t we buy health insurance?”
More health care news:
- California lawmakers’ failure to advance a state-funded single-payer health care proposal — and Newsom’s refusal to take a position on it — may have stalled similar efforts in other states, California Healthline reports.
- After a rocky start to the state’s new Medi-Cal prescription drug program — which left thousands of low-income patients unable to access their medications — state officials said Thursday the situation is improving. Nevertheless, California plans to withhold roughly two-thirds of its January payment to Magellan Health, the company running the program, according to California Healthline.
2. Key environmental updates
Friday brought with it a slew of environmental news, so let’s dive right in:
- Drought: California’s agriculture industry lost nearly 9,000 jobs and took a $1.2 billion financial hit last year as it left 395,000 acres of cropland — an area larger than Los Angeles — unplanted due to severe drought, according to a UC Merced Water Systems Management Lab report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. To make matters worse, the Central Valley — home to much of the state’s agriculture industry — is generally experiencing more severe drought than it did last year, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
- Fire: California business owners and homeowners who take steps to reduce their property’s wildfire risk would see lower insurance premiums under proposed regulations from California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. Meanwhile, PG&E unveiled plans to increase its wildfire safety budget from nearly $4.9 billion last year to nearly $6 billion this year. And new aerial survey data from the U.S. Forest Service suggests that hundreds of millions of trees in California’s forests perished last year due to fire, along with another 9.5 million that died from bugs, disease and dehydration.
- Water: A plan to tear down four huge dams on Northern California’s Klamath River — mainly to restore suffering salmon fisheries — took a big step forward when federal regulators unveiled a draft environmental impact statement highlighting the project’s benefits, the Associated Press reports.
- Electric cars: Newsom traveled to the Central Valley to visit Michael Macias, a Stockton resident who reportedly purchased the millionth electric vehicle sold in California with the help of rebates and tax credits. But, as the Mercury News reports, the Newsom administration later conceded “there’s some squishiness” to who actually bought the millionth electric car — raising questions as to whether the administration chose to highlight Macias to bolster support for Newsom’s budget proposal to increase electric-vehicle affordability for middle- and low-income Californians.
3. Californians rally for Ukraine
Hundreds of Californians held weekend rallies, demonstrations, vigils and prayer sessions in cities across the state to denounce the continued Russian invasion of Ukraine and call for stricter sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, Russia and Ukraine are scheduled to hold talks “without preconditions” — a move that comes a day after Putin placed his nuclear forces on high alert, Western countries increased sanctions against Russia and the European Union pledged to send weapons to Ukraine.
- Nina Bogdan, a former San Francisco resident and Russian American whose father was born in Ukraine: “The relatives that I have left are in Ukraine, they are now refugees. For me, I am personally devastated by it. I can’t believe it’s happening.”
- Chuck Olynyk, a 65-year-old Ukrainian American who lives in Los Angeles: “I’m heartbroken. I’ve had to step away from the TV and work in the garage.”
- Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of Livermore made waves Thursday for suggesting that the U.S. kick Russian students out of the country as punishment for the Ukraine invasion.
- Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a consumer alert warning Californians about fraudsters seeking to capitalize on people’s desire to help Ukrainians.
- And, due in part to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, gas prices in California set yet another record average price Sunday of $4.82 per gallon.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California sees itself as a land of abundance, but faces critical shortages of elements vital to a healthy society.
Vote to end the sale of flavored tobacco: We must protect kids from Big Tobacco preying on them with fruity cigars and vapes and safeguard future generations from suffering a lifetime of health problems, argue Malia Cohen, chair of the California State Board of Equalization, and Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.
Vote to increase funding for arts and music education: Help the next generation of public school students build the skills and experiences necessary to gain jobs in California’s vibrant creative economy, write Austin Beutner, former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, and Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education.
Other things worth your time
Should California voters control tax increases? // Los Angeles Times
Confidence in California public schools declines sharply, poll shows. // Los Angeles Times
California Bar investigates after confidential records published online. // Associated Press
Rob Bonta opposed Prop. 22, making ride-hailing drivers contractors. Now he must defend it in court. // San Francisco Chronicle
A new California law could make your next car rental more expensive. // New York Times
Tenderloin police will now help get drug users off the streets — and may arrest those who refuse. // San Francisco Chronicle
No guns, no badges, no sirens. County reimagines response to mental health calls. // San Diego Union-Tribune
How a single case challenged the LA prosecutor’s reform agenda. // The Guardian
California tech exec to run for Congress in Central Valley. // Sacramento Bee
Santa Clara City Council votes to fire city manager amid ongoing feuds with 49ers. // San Francisco Chronicle
Jury transcripts shed light on Santa Clara County sheriff corruption case. // Mercury News
San Jose politician accused of sharing nude photos. // San José Spotlight
Former California tribal leaders sentenced in casino fraud. // Sacramento Bee
In San Francisco, hundreds of homes for the homeless sit vacant. // ProPublica
Sen. Padilla bill would increase federal funding for housing — in one case by more than 6,500%. // San Francisco Chronicle
‘They’re trying to steal my house’: A Berkeley family’s $1.1 million city renovation nightmare. // San Francisco Chronicle
A wealthy family’s plans for a Napa vineyard have exploded into controversy. // San Francisco Chronicle
Sacramento threatens code violations over community fridges. // Sacramento Bee
Hollywood Burbank Airport files environmental lawsuit against California’s bullet train. // Los Angeles Times
Customs officials seize 1,300 pounds of meth disguised as onions. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Point Reyes seeks protection for its dark skies. // Mercury News
Rare daisy clings to existence near a California gold mine. // Los Angeles Times
See you tomorrow.
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