In summary

Coronavirus upends life in California. Swing district Republicans are caught in a pickle. Vacancy tax floated to address housing crisis.

Good morning, California. It’s Monday, March 16.

Newsom: “We need to meet this moment head-on”

Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference following the first COVID-19 death in California. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Millions of California children won’t be going to school today as the nation deals with the growing coronavirus pandemic, while yesterday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged a halt to gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks and California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced further restrictions to limit the spread of the deadly virus. His guidance directs:

  1. Californians over 65 years old and those with underlying health conditions to self-isolate in their homes.
  2. Bars, nightclubs, pubs and wineries to close their doors.
  3. And restaurants and movie theaters to cut their capacity in half and ensure customers are practicing “social distancing.”

Newsom: “We recognize that social isolation for millions of Californians is anxiety-inducing, but we recognize what all the science bears out. We need to meet this moment head-on.”

Newsom said there are 13 response teams working to get the state’s 108,000 homeless people out of encampments and into temporary housing.

He also announced a new web “portal” to answer questions for those with mild symptoms and guide them to testing if necessary. Starting today, a questionnaire on Project Baseline will prioritize who needs testing and, as a pilot expected to spread statewide, connect them to Bay Area testing sites.

The governor’s announcement Sunday comes on the heels of a mass school shutdown across California affecting more than 5.7 million students, including 95% of those in public schools.

  • What’s going on in your school district? Search CalMatters’ database to see the latest updates on every district in the state.

Other major California coronavirus updates:

  • The state Senate canceled hearings this week, although the Assembly will have some. Both will hold floor sessions. // The Sacramento Bee
  • San Francisco banned most hospital visitors through April. // The San Francisco Chronicle
  • UC Irvine canceled its graduation ceremony, the first UC campus to do so. // The Los Angeles Times
  • Six utility companies in California won’t be shutting down power for those who can’t pay. // CalMatters
  • Panicked shoppers are also buying mass quantities of alcohol, weed and guns. // The Los Angeles Times
  • The Grand Princess cruise ship left the Port of Oakland Sunday night to anchor in San Francisco Bay for two weeks with quarantined crew members and international passengers. // The Mercury News

The Bottom Line: As of 10:30 p.m. Sunday, there were 335 Californians who have tested positive for coronavirus and six people who died from the virus in California, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Other stories you should know

1. Swing-seat Republicans caught between a rock and a hard place

Illustration via iStock, additional elements by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

For the first time since California introduced its statewide top-two primary in 2012, it appears an incumbent state legislator vying for re-election will not reach the general election. Tyler Diep, a moderate Republican Assemblyman from a swing district in Orange County, is likely to finish third behind a more conservative Republican and a Democrat. CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher explains that the message to GOP candidates is “stray from the hard party line at [your] peril.” Yet Republicans in swing districts also have to appeal to California’s increasingly Democratic electorate. In two state Senate districts neighboring Diep, more than half of the primary votes went to Democrats, an ominous sign for the incumbent Republicans. 

2. Could a vacancy tax help solve California’s housing crisis?

A vacant home in Oakland. (Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group)

State Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley thinks so. Her recently introduced legislation would tax corporate-owned properties left vacant for more than 90 days and allow local governments to turn them into affordable housing — a proposal sure to anger property-rights defenders. Many questions remain about Skinner’s bill, including the number of corporate-owned vacant properties in California, how much tax revenue it would raise, and how many people could live in the homes. CalMatters’ Jakob Lazarro takes a look at Vancouver’s vacancy tax to see how it could play out in California.

3. Half of California is now in drought

The snowstorm that hit the Sierra Nevadas this weekend wasn’t enough — nearly half of California is in drought, up from 34% a week ago, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Scientists are concerned this predicts a summer with high fire danger and a potential drought crisis. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, the source of one-third of California’s water, was at 38% of its historical average on Wednesday, compared with 92% on Jan. 1.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Jerry Brown wanted to close the achievement gap by giving school districts more money to help high-risk students. But in Los Angeles high schools, it doesn’t seem to have had much effect.

Fear versus fact: To prevent mass school shootings, California should rely on facts and science, not for-profit fearmongers, argues El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson.

Putting waste to bed: State and local leaders and solid waste companies should expand free mattress recycling to businesses and residents, writes Mike O’Donnell of the Mattress Recycling Council.

Other things worth your time

Former Speaker of the California State Assembly Willie Brown: “I ran San Francisco after 9/11. This is worse.” // The San Francisco Chronicle

How the rich and famous are reacting to coronavirus. // The Los Angeles Times

How coronavirus is reshaping the political world. // The San Francisco Chronicle

This San Diego man set up a toilet paper exchange to build community in the wake of coronavirus. // The San Diego Union-Tribune

More Californians are moving to Arizona — and causing a political shift. // The New York Times

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See you tomorrow.

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