In summary

California enters recession, with budget cuts to come. First legislative hearing after COVID-19 shutdown marred by glitches. Coronavirus curve shifts.

Good morning, California. It’s Friday, April 17.

How bad? “We’ll get back to you”

Following social distancing guidelines, members and staff of the Senate budget committee stay six feet apart, during a hearing of the special subcommittee on COVID-19 on April 16, 2020. Lawmakers are looking into how Gov. Gavin Newsom has been spending money to address the new coronavirus crisis. Due to the unusual circumstances only Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, left, vice chair of the committee and Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, center, chair of the budget committee, attended the hearing in person while other committee members joined by video. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool
Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, left, and Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, center, at a special subcommittee hearing on COVID-19, April 16, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool

The good news: California has an $18 billion rainy day fund, the biggest in its history. The bad news: It’s likely gone, with cuts looming on the horizon.

“The pace of job losses that we are seeing in recent weeks … makes it clear that the economy has entered a recession, and possibly a quite severe one,” Legislative Analyst Gabe Petek said Thursday in the first legislative hearing since the coronavirus pandemic brought state government to a halt last month.

  • Petek: “It’s very likely that the state has gone from an anticipated surplus and is now likely facing a budget problem and potentially a significant one. Realistically, it will probably take several months for us to get a clear idea of the budget situation.”

Vivek Viswanathan, chief deputy director of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Department of Finance, reiterated the uncertainty.

  • Viswanathan: “The number of times in which we may reply to you with, ‘We’ll get back to you on that with more information’ — that might happen a little bit more in this hearing than the prior committee hearings.”

But Viswanathan made clear that the $15.3 billion California is getting from the federal government’s stimulus package won’t be enough to patch the state’s financial hole — nor, for that matter, would the $1 trillion Newsom requested from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for all state and local governments.

  • Viswanathan: “Even $1 trillion won’t be enough to avoid the hole we’re in, but it will help us minimize the most devastating cuts.”

Legislators have supported the governor’s rapid response to the crisis but are seeking some accountability through this hearing and another scheduled next week for the billions of dollars being rapidly spent.

Many answers remained elusive, including lawmakers’ demand for more information about Newsom’s nearly $1 billion deal for a monthly shipment of medical-grade masks. They demanded full details of the contract with a China-based vendor and requested a state website documenting California’s inventory of medical equipment but found themselves running up against a wall.

  • Christina Curry, chief deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services: “The concern with providing all of that information publicly is… (personal protective equipment) is very high value, highly desired, and it could potentially open up issues with questioning decisions or creating a process outside of what we have.”


The Bottom Line: As of 11 p.m. Thursday night, California had 28,156 confirmed coronavirus cases and 973 deaths from the virus, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker. (These numbers are different from those of the state Department of Public Health, which are updated less often.)

Also: CalMatters is tracking, by county, positive and suspected cases of COVID-19 patients hospitalized throughout the state. We’re also tracking the state’s daily actions. And we have an explainer for everything you need to know about California’s response to coronavirus.

Temperature and tech glitches: Behind the scenes of the hearing

Signs remind members of the media “press pool” to practice social distancing during a hearing of the state Senate budget special subcommittee on COVID-19, at the Capitol on April 16, 2020. Lawmakers are looking into how Gov. Gavin Newsom has been spending money to address the new coronavirus crisis. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool
Signs remind everyone to practice social distancing during a state Senate budget special subcommittee hearing on COVID-19 at the Capitol on April 16, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo/Pool

Here’s what it was like behind the scenes of California’s first legislative hearing since the coronavirus shut down the government a month ago.  

The Senate web server crashed because of the number of people trying to watch a livestream of the 2 p.m. hearing. It took nearly an hour to reboot — but that wasn’t the only technical difficulty. Only two senators were physically present in the Capitol hearing room — Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, and Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Gerber Republican. Another seven participated via Zoom, but there were a few glitches: One senator’s Zoom username wasn’t the person’s real name, blocking access to the call. And other senators didn’t have their devices oriented correctly.

It’s a good thing I showed up at the Capitol half an hour early, because it was quite a process to get to the hearing room. At the Capitol entrance, I was asked if I had any COVID-19 symptoms, and my temperature was taken. After going through security, I waited on a bench for a masked and gloved sergeant-at-arms to escort me to an elevator with a sign reading “Only one person on elevator at a time.” Another sergeant took me to the hearing room, and yet another showed me to my seat. Only six seats were available for use on the upper balcony and 18 in the lower balcony. The majority of seats were covered with signs reading “SOCIAL DISTANCING.”

At 2:53 p.m., the hearing started. “Ten thousand people beyond what we anticipated attempted to sign on, which complicated our situation with the server, but we’re working hard to make sure people still have access,” said Mitchell, through a colorful mask. “I hope you’ll understand the unique circumstances under which we are trying to do the people’s work and be patient as we proceed ahead.”

Other stories you should know

1. How CA’s coronavirus curve went from doomsday to guardedly optimistic

A rainbow taped to a window in the Richmond district of San Francisco on April 7, 2020. People across the globe have been posting rainbows in their windows as a sign of solidarity and hope during social distancing. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A rainbow taped to a window in the Richmond district of San Francisco on April 7. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

In March, Newsom predicted that half of all Californians would be infected by COVID-19 within two months. But as of Tuesday, only 5,065 Californians were hospitalized, compared with a state projection of 11,428, the Los Angeles Times reports. In late March, Newsom said he hoped to procure 10,000 ventilators; on April 7, he gave 500 away. And now, a variety of models predict that California has already crested its peak of new cases, with a peak in deaths not far behind. Now it’s just a question of how steep the downward curve will be. If it slopes down sharply, fewer people will die after the peak than before — but if it slopes down slowly, the opposite is true.

2. Trump is considering cutting farmworker pay. CA growers disagree

Norcal harvesting fieldworkers pick strawberries early morning on March 31, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian
Harvesting fieldworkers pick strawberries on March 31, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

The Trump administration is considering cutting the pay of guest visa farmworkers to help the farm industry weather the coronavirus pandemic, but California growers say such a move would bring more harm than good, the Salinas Californian’s Kate Cimini reports. First of all, it would create more uncertainty in an already unstable time. Second, it doesn’t address the food left rotting in the fields due to decreased restaurant demand. The administration should focus on pumping money into purchasers still buying food, like food banks, which are seeing a huge uptick in demand, California farmers say.

  • Chris Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California: “We have to keep our system moving. Afterwards, we can have our debates and our cuts. But we have to keep the system moving.”

3. Acts of grace and kindness help Californians get through pandemic

Patti Wang-Cross plays the ukulele as neighbors sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ ‘Happy Birthday,’ and songs by Bruno Mars during their weekly sing-along. The neighbors began the Wednesday night tradition in response to social distancing rules in light of concerns over the coronavirus in California. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Patti Wang-Cross plays the ukulele during her Berkeley neighborhood’s weekly singalong. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

If you’re in need of a smile or positive vibes, check out this piece from CalMatters’ Jocelyn Wiener on how communities are coming together during the coronavirus pandemic. For example: The caretaker of swans that live on the grounds of the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts had to self-quarantine and didn’t have enough canned corn to feed them. She posted about it on Nextdoor, and next thing she knew there were 200 cans of corn outside the palace. Meanwhile, other Californians are gifting neighbors with toilet paper, drawing inspirational chalk messages on sidewalks, delivering free groceries for vulnerable seniors, donating masks to health care workers, and holding neighborhood singalongs from their porches.

  • Patti Wang-Cross, a Berkeley resident who plays the ukulele at neighborhood singalongs: “Overall, I feel like this crisis has brought out the best in people. It’s been a really beautiful thing.”

CalMatters commentary

Don’t ban biking: Spain, Italy and France have banned recreational cycling because of the coronavirus pandemic. From a public health standpoint, this is a bad idea for California, argues Paul Steinberg, a professor of political science and environmental policy at Harvey Mudd College.

California water policies hurt Valley farmers: With empty grocery store shelves, the coronavirus epidemic proves we should never rely on foreign countries for food that can be produced in the United States — which is why it’s time to rethink prior water policy decisions that put San Joaquin Valley farms at risk, writes William Bourdeau, executive vice president of Harris Farms and director of the Westlands Water District.

Other things worth your time

Why Newsom’s insistence on “herd immunity” could paint a very bleak picture for Californians. // The Mercury News

Home is a perilous place for some Californians during the coronavirus pandemic. // CalMatters

San Francisco deploys “coronavirus detectives” to trace spread of virus in Bay Area. // The Los Angeles Times

Nancy Pelosi is countering Trump’s media blitz with her own. // The New York Times

Sen. Kamala Harris calls for investigation of a San Diego detention center following reports detainees had to sign contracts to get face masks. // The San Diego Union-Tribune

California’s famed gray wolf, its first in nearly a century, presumed dead. // The San Francisco Chronicle


See you Monday.

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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...