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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. 

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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.

California has administered 71,427,115 vaccine doses, and 73.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Medi-Cal proposal falls short of ‘universal access’

A physician’s assistant listens to a patient’s breathing at a clinic in Bieber on July 23, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

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.

More health care news:

2. Key environmental updates

A USDA field manager walks along the parched ground in a pomegranate orchard at Wolfskill Experimental Farm outside of Davis on Aug. 25, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
A field manager walks along a parched pomegranate orchard at Wolfskill Experimental Farm outside of Davis on Aug. 25, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

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

Demonstrators protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the California State Capitol in Sacramento on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, Sipa USA

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.

Other updates:

CalMatters commentary

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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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...