School reopenings will likely take center stage in 2021 as one of California’s biggest political battles.

It’s a battle all the more noteworthy because it pits two groups that are often allies — unions and Democratic lawmakers — against each other. This week, the state’s two largest teachers unions — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers — publicly opposed a bill introduced by eight Democratic lawmakers that could force schools to reopen in March. The unions’ decision to come out against the bill in December, several weeks before legislators return to Sacramento, was unusual — and an indication of their intent to halt it in its tracks.

It’s also a thorny political situation for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is under increasing pressure to get students back into the classroom as he faces a make-or-break point in his career and fends off a growing recall movement. Newsom is apparently amenable to working with lawmakers on the bill, though he risks alienating two powerful unions that spent nearly $1.5 million to help elect him in 2018.

Next year will also be pivotal in determining the direction of the state’s pandemic response. Several recent rulings have called into question the legality of Newsom’s shelter-in-place restrictions, raising the possibility that limitations on outdoor dining and other businesses may not survive. But some labor groups are calling for even stricter shutdowns, pointing to a sustained surge in hospitalizations that has overwhelmed ICUs and resulted in a record number of deaths for four straight days.

On a more personal note, I want to thank all of you for sticking it out with me through such a crazy year. I sent my first newsletter on March 9, less than two weeks before California shut down. To say the least, it’s been a roller coaster. But interacting with you — through emails, phone calls, Zoom, Twitter — has made my year so much brighter. Thank you for reading, and for making CalMatters part of your morning routine. I’ll see you in 2021.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of 9 p.m. Thursday night, California had 1,723,362 confirmed coronavirus cases and 21,860 deaths from the virus, according to a CalMatters tracker.

Also: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. And we’re tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county.


1. California vaccine update

Pharmacy technician Joel Miyake and pharmacist Erin St. Angelo transfer 50 bottles of the Pfizer-BioNTech from the main pharmacy to the room where they will be administered to the most at-risk employees at the UC Davis Medical Center on Dec. 15, 2020. Photo courtesy of UC Davis Health
Pharmacy technician Joel Miyake and pharmacist Erin St. Angelo move vaccine doses at the UC Davis Medical Center on Dec. 15, 2020. Photo courtesy of UC Davis Health

Teachers, child care providers, first responders and food and agriculture workers will likely be prioritized for the next round of coronavirus vaccines, according to recommendations made Wednesday by a panel of state experts. But the jockeying for position is far from over: Those groups comprise nearly 6 million Californians, but the state will likely receive only 4 million doses by the end of January — more than 2 million of which are slated for health care workers and nursing home residents.

  • Dr. Robert Schechter, co-chair of the panel: “We’ll be grappling with trying to determine criteria … to sort between worthy recipients of scarce vaccine, whether that’s using age or medical condition or other factors.”

Meanwhile, the vaccine distribution appears to have hit some snags. California’s second shipment will contain 160,000 fewer doses than anticipated due to the federal government reducing allocations, Newsom’s administration said Thursday. The Trump administration denied changing shipment numbers. Logistical complications also delayed the delivery of doses to three California medical facilities Wednesday.

2. Unemployment fraud update

Image via iStock

California’s unemployment department paid $21,000 in fraudulent claims for federal benefits filed under the name of Sen. Dianne Feinstein — the latest in a long list of suspicious names, including Poopy Britches, that have successfully garnered money from a department besieged by fraud. The woman who filed the claim under Feinstein’s name was a former employee of the Employment Development Department who allegedly filed more than 100 fraudulent claims worth at least $2 million, federal authorities said Thursday. Prosecutors on Thursday also unveiled two more conspiracies to scam EDD, the Los Angeles Times reports:  

  • A former EDD contract worker was charged with allegedly conspiring with her boyfriend, who is in prison for murder, to fraudulently obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits. 
  • A woman on parole from state prison was charged with allegedly conspiring with another female inmate to file fraudulent claims totaling more than $200,000. 

The news comes about a week after Bank of America, which distributes California’s unemployment benefits via debit card, estimated it had paid at least $2 billion in fraudulent claims. Meanwhile, more than 683,000 unemployment claims remain backlogged.

3. PG&E’s tree toppling creates hazards

A timber deck of dead trees cut down by PG&E following the CZU Lightening complex fires in Bonny Doon on Dec. 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A timber deck of dead trees cut down by PG&E in Bonny Doon on Dec. 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Despite California’s attempts to force PG&E to improve its fire mitigation practices, the utility is facing potentially millions of dollars in fines for its hazardous approach to clearing vegetation in Santa Cruz County, the site of this summer’s destructive CZU Lightning Complex fires, CalMatters’ Julie Cart reports. The method, known as “Whack and Stack,” entails chopping down trees around power lines and piling them up on residents’ property — increasing fire risk while leaving homeowners with cleanup bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. And in some cases, PG&E haphazardly whacked the tops off beloved old-growth redwoods, further incensing residents.


CalMatters commentary

The danger of surging gun sales: First-time gun buyers think they are protecting themselves and their families, but they are increasing the risk of death, injury and trauma, argues Brian Malte of the Hope and Heal Fund.

Helping the helpers: To relieve some of the burden on immigrant students helping their younger siblings with remote learning, schools should provide laptops, hot spots, translators and compassion, writes Vanessa Delgado of UC Irvine.

Other things worth your time

Newsom’s lobbying ban won’t immediately affect French Laundry dining partner Jason Kinney. // San Francisco Chronicle

French Laundry received over $2.4 million in PPP loans. // Fox Business

Environmental justice groups block Mary Nichols’ path to the EPA. // Los Angeles Times

Mayor Garcetti to stay in Los Angeles, ending speculation over joining Biden cabinet. // Los Angeles Times

Sacramento supervisors try to calm nerves over ‘diversion’ of COVID health funds. // Sacramento Bee

This former California mayor could add millions to his pension with a six-month job. // Mercury News

A California bus crash killed 11. Was the driver’s prison sentence a ‘miscarriage of justice’? // Sacramento Bee

Homebuying binge doubles million-dollar ZIP codes in Orange County. // Orange County Register

Women shatter glass ceiling on California redistricting commission. // Capitol Weekly

Photo gallery: 2020 in review. // San Francisco Chronicle

See you in 2021. Have a happy and safe holiday season!

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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...