Pine trees dying from drought and pine beetle infestation. Image by thepicthing, via Thinkstock

In summary

Newsom weighs in on coronavirus. PG&E hit with record fine for wildfires. California faces prospect of new drought after dry February.

Good morning, California.

“It’s natural to feel concerned about the novel coronavirus, but I want Californians to know that we have rigorously planned for this public health event.”—Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health & Human Services secretary at a press conference Thursday detailing what’s known and not known about the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19 outbreak.

  • The state is monitoring 8,400 individuals.
  • 33 individuals tested positive for the virus, 28 of whom remain in California.
  • Authorities are tracing contacts of a Solano County woman who contracted Covid-19 but had not traveled or been in contact with people who had traveled. She remains hospitalized at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Newsom on coronavirus

Gov. Gavin Newsom, with Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci, Dr. Sonia Angell, an interpretor, and Dr. Mark Ghaly

Gov. Gavin Newsom, flanked by the physicians who oversee California’s health care system, soberly told reporters about the state’s public health response to the coronavirus known as Covid-19.

Newsom opened his press conference Thursday by recalling San Francisco’s response to the AIDS crisis and overseeing San Francisco’s public health office as mayor.

  • “We are meeting this moment. We have been in constant contact with federal agencies. We have history and expertise in this space. We are not overreacting, but nor are we underreacting.”

With him: 

  • Dr. Mark Ghaly, Health & Human Services secretary, said he had been in touch with the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will expedite delivery of Covid-19 test kits. California has only 200 kits.
  • Dr. Sonia Angell, California Department of Public Health director, said the state is expanding disease surveillance, and offered sage advice: cover your mouth when you cough, and wash your hands.

In his matter-of-fact recitation, Newsom urged calm, declined to declare a state of emergency for now, praised the feds for their help, and said President Trump’s “team” is taking it seriously.

  • “Politics has no place at this moment. We have to meet this moment with a sense of urgency and conviction that transcends politics.”

Newsom had a far different tone from Trump, who recently tweeted:

  • “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible.”

State seeks feds’ coronavirus aid

Illustration of the coronavirus. Rendering via CDC image library

Like all other states, California has a shortage of diagnostic kits for the coronavirus but expects to receive sufficient kits shortly from the federal government, CalMatters’ Ana Ibarra reports

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday that the state has only 200 kits for diagnosing Covid-19. 

Officials also said much of California’s stockpile of masks, many of them purchased in 2006 when the state was worried about avian flu, have expired. 

  • Apparently, elastic bands on the masks has a shelf live.

The state has stored the masks in temperature controlled warehouses. Officials believe they are functional and have asked the federal government to permit the state to distribute them, as needed. That request is pending.

Meanwhile: The Washington Post, citing a whistleblower, reports that U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans arriving in California from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear.

  • The whistleblower is seeking protection, and says she was reassigned after raising concerns.

PG&E faces record fine

The 2018 Camp Fire was sparked by PG&E equipment. (Photo by Bay Area News Group)

A California Public Utilities Commission judge has ordered PG&E to pay a record $2.14 billion fine for its role in devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 in the wine country and in Paradise.

The judge, Sophia Park, wrote:

  • “There is no question that the physical and economic harm resulting from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires is unprecedented. The 2017 and 2018 wildfires resulted in over 100 deaths, the destruction of over 25,000 structures, and the burning of hundreds of thousands of acres.”

PG&E could write off much of the settlement in state and federal taxes, Park noted. But she ordered that PG&E disclose any tax savings and offset it against a future rate increase.

  • “This will ensure that ratepayers, not PG&E shareholders, benefit from the tax savings associated with treating the penalty as an ordinary business expense.”

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo as saying the company is “disappointed,” and had “worked diligently over many months” to reach a settlement that “would allow for additional investments to further strengthen the company’s electric operations.”

What’s next: The ruling will become the Public Utilities Commission’s final decision, so long as PG&E agrees to the settlement, no party appeals, and no commissioner seeks review.

A new drought, perhaps

File photo. Image by thepicthing, via Thinkstock

February normally is one of the wettest months in Northern California. If the month ends as is likely with no rain, it will have been the first time the San Francisco Bay Area has experienced a dry February since 1864, 156 years ago.

Nearly a quarter of California is under drought conditions, The Mercury News’ Paul Rogers reports.

  • The Merc: “On Thursday, the [Sierra] snowpack, the source of one-third of California’s water supply, was 46% of its historical average, down from 92% on New Year’s Day, with no precipitation falling this month over key Sierra Nevada watersheds for the first time since records began in 1921.”

Meanwhile: Federal authorities have announced that farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, many of them almond farmers in the Westland Water District, can expect only 15% of their contracted allocation from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a visit to Bakersfield last week, President Trump was cheered when he promised to deliver a “magnificent” amount of water to irrigate those orchards.

Ernest Conant, of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as quoted in The Sacramento Bee:

  • “We are still constrained by the amount of water nature provides us.”

Freelancers may get a break

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is proposing to soften legislation she carried last year by offering a new bill that would lift a cap on the number of contributions that can come from freelance writers, photographers and editors, CalMatters’ Judy Lin tells us.

Freelance journalists have been among the most pointed critics of her Assembly Bill 5, which requires companies in many instances to hire workers as employees rather than use them as independent contractors.

In December, New York-based Vox Media ended contracts with freelance writers and editors in California who covered sports for SB Nation.

  • John Ness, of SB Nation, blogged: “This is a bittersweet note of thanks to our California independent contractors.”

Gonzalez said Thursday:

  • “Having heard additional feedback from a variety of freelance writers, photographers and journalists, we are making changes to Assembly Bill 5 that accommodate their needs and still provide protections from misclassification.”

The original legislation still will require newspapers to convert news carriers to employees. 

Jim Ewert, of the California News Publishers Association:

  • “We’re struggling to try to figure out how we’re going to be able to continue to deliver print newspapers.”

Meanwhile: The Democratic-controlled Assembly blocked Republican legislation Thursday that sought to place the measure on hold.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, Rocklin Republican who carried the bill:

  • “To all whose lives remain upended because of the choices made by CA lawmakers today, I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll keep fighting for relief from #AB5 in every way I can.”

Uber initiative motors ahead

Photo by Andrei Stanescu/iStock

Uber and Lyft’s proposed initiative to preserve their business model by allowing them to use independent contractors as drivers has received more than enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, the campaign said Thursday.

Remind me: The Protect App-Based Drivers & Services initiative is aimed at allowing Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Doordash and Instacart to continue using independent contractors rather than hiring workers as employees, as required by Assembly Bill 5.

  • CalMatters’ Judy Lin describes the issue in this piece.

The campaign said signature gatherers—who, ironically, are generally independent contractors—had gathered a million-plus signatures, more than the 623,212 valid signatures of registered voters required for qualification.

  • The five companies have placed $110 million into a campaign account for that campaign.

A note: In the past, initiative promoters had to sweat about the validity rate of signatures on their petitions. Not so much now. 

One consequence of changes in California law making it easier to register to vote is that 81% of eligible voters are registered, up from 69% in 2008. 

Deep look at Sanders’ voters

Sen. Bernie Sanders rally in Richmond earlu in February.

Bernie Sanders holds a commanding lead in virtually every California primary poll, but he can count on one voting bloc in particular: people who don’t make much money. 

CalMatters reporters Ben Christopher and Jackie Botts and La Opinión reporter Jacqueline García looked into the numbers:

  • 42% of likely Democratic voters in California living in households earning less than $40,000 a year said they would vote for Sanders, significantly higher than his overall level of support of 32% among Democrats.

The phenomenon is not California-specific, though Sanders’ working-class appeal does seem more pronounced out here.

So what is it about the Vermont senator? 

One obvious answer: His message of dramatically expanding public benefits and then sticking the rich with the bill is appealing if you don’t have much money.

Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California: 

  • “He’s speaking about wealth inequality, economic inequality. He’s talking about the 1% and the 99%.”

To read the story by Christopher, Botts and Garcia, please click here.

Commentary at CalMatters

Laura W. Brill, The Civics Center: Will young people vote in November? Here’s what must happen first.

Ace Smith, Democratic strategist: How Californians can make their Democratic votes count on Super Tuesday.

Garry South, Democratic strategist: What will happen in California’s Democratic primary? Who knows. But certain things are known. But, again, who knows?

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Dan Morain joined CalMatters in March 2018. He is the former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Morain also spent 27 years at The Los Angeles Times, and has covered the Capitol since 1992.