Good morning, California. It’s Tuesday, January 26.

Data remains murky

Monday was a day of coronavirus whiplash for many Californians as state health officials abruptly lifted the regional stay-at-home order and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a major shift in the state’s vaccine plan.

All but four counties are now in the purple tier of California’s color-coded system, permitting restaurants and gyms to reopen outdoors and hair and nail salons to reopen indoors with modifications, CalMatters’ Lauren Hepler reports. Meanwhile, California will transition to an age-based vaccine priority system after it completes its current phase — raising questions about when people with underlying health conditions will be able to access the vaccine, CalMatters’ Ana Ibarra reports. Officials will release more information about the new “single statewide standard” today.

Although Newsom emphasized Monday that the decision to lift the stay-at-home order was “data driven, scientifically based, not arbitrary,” confusion around the data remains. On Sunday, the state Department of Public Health said the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions would remain under the order because their projected ICU capacity in four weeks remained below 15%. But at 8 a.m. Monday, the department reversed course, predicting the three regions would by Feb. 21 have ICU capacities of 25%, 22.3% and 33.3%, respectively. How exactly these figures are calculated remains murky.

Adding to the back-and-forth, Newsom’s messaging was at times contradictory.

  • Newsom: “We’re seeing a flattening of the curve — everything that should be up is up and everything that should be down is down.”

But when citing California’s 7-day average of 504 deaths, Newsom said, “This is a sober reminder of how deadly this pandemic remains, more so now than ever.”

Though there are signs the winter surge is beginning to plateau, conditions in California are significantly worse than they were on Dec. 3, when Newsom first implemented the stay-at-home order. The state also predicts that Northern California’s 47.9% ICU capacity will fall dramatically to 18.9% by Feb. 21.

  • The California Nurses Association in a Monday statement: “There is a human cost to lifting stay-at-home orders too soon. Let’s be clear that even if numbers are ‘trending downward,’ we are still in the midst of the most deadly surge of COVID-19 yet.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 3,136,158 confirmed cases (+0.9% from previous day) and 37,118 deaths (+0.9% from previous day), 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. A tale of two moratoriums

Deborah Bell-Holt stands outside her home near downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Newsom and legislative leaders announced a deal Monday to extend California’s eviction moratorium through June 30 while leveraging $2.6 billion in federal funds to pay landlords 80% of back rent if they agree to forgive the remaining 20% owed, CalMatters’ Nigel Duara reports. Lawmakers are expected to vote formally on the proposal Thursday, though some say additional relief and protections are needed.

Statewide rental debt is pegged at $400 million, a number that pales beside the estimated $1 billion Californians have racked up in water debt, according to new data from the State Water Resources Control Board. At least 1.6 million California households — one in eight — could see their water shut off once Newsom lifts the pandemic moratorium on disconnections, CalMatters’ Jackie Botts reports. Low-income communities of color are particularly at risk of shutoffs: They have more widespread and higher average debt.

2. Su headed to Biden’s Cabinet

California Labor Secretary Julie Su in Sacramento on Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Yet another Californian is on track to join President Joe Biden’s administration: Labor Secretary Julie Su has accepted Biden’s offer of the No. 2 position at the U.S. Labor Department, Bloomberg reports. If she’s confirmed by the Senate, Newsom will get to make yet another high-profile appointment. But Su will likely face scrutiny for her oversight of the beleaguered Employment Development Department, which on Monday confirmed that nearly 10% of all unemployment claims it’s paid so far have been fraudulent. That amounts to nearly $11.4 billion — more than California spends annually on community colleges, workforce development and homelessness. EDD also said that another 17% of payments, or $19.4 billion, may have gone to fraudulent claimants. More details could be revealed this morning, when the state auditor is expected to release the first report in a series of investigations into EDD.

3. Weather whiplash

A hillside at risk of erosion in Santa Cruz County on Dec. 15, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Around 5,000 Santa Cruz County residents were forced to evacuate Monday due to the threat of mudslides — a week after they evacuated amid a group of wildfires fanned by powerful winds and exacerbated by pervasive drought. On Monday night, San Mateo became the second county to begin emergency preparations, issuing evacuation warnings expected to become orders. The heavy rain and wind expected to sweep across California this week could trigger mudslides in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which lost the vegetation needed to absorb water in last year’s CZU Lightning Complex blaze.

Meanwhile, the iconic Grapevine portion of California’s I-5 freeway in Southern California shut down Monday amid heavy snow. The National Weather Service predicts the northern Sierra could see at least 7 feet of snow this week, good news for California’s dwindling snowpack. However, the wind and snow could also damage trees and cause power outages. Parts of San Diego County were without power Monday, and high winds forced its mass vaccination site to close at least through this morning.


CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California has a tortured history of conflict over immigration, giving it a huge stake in President Joe Biden’s reform package.

Why Becerra should be Health and Human Services Secretary: Three cases show his range of expertise with health policy and commitment to affordable care, argue Richard Scheffler and Surina Khurana of UC Berkeley.

New climate leaders face big challenges: California’s progress on climate change is slipping — and it will take bold leadership to put the state back on track, write F. Noel Perry of Next 10 and Hoyu Chong of Beacon Economics.

A blueprint to reopen gyms: The California Safe Fitness Plan to reopen indoor gyms would represent the most stringent requirements in the country, writes former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.

An alternative to Newsom’s textbook plan: Before California uses taxpayer funds to develop “free” online textbooks, lawmakers should consider another possibility, argues former UC Berkeley educational technologist Fred Beshears.


Other things worth your time

Some Silicon Valley donors’ next political fight? Trying to oust Newsom. // Recode

Critics of San Diego superintendent call on Biden to rescind her nomination to Education post. // Los Angeles Times

Ex-Councilman Mitch Englander sentenced to prison in L.A. City Hall corruption case. // Los Angeles Times

New study ranks the riskiest jobs in California during the pandemic. // San Francisco Chronicle

How UC San Diego has avoided COVID-19 outbreaks while housing thousands of students. // EdSource

California banned indiscriminate fishing nets. Now these porpoises are on the rebound. // Los Angeles Times

Safari Park gorillas close to full recovery from COVID-19. // San Diego Union-Tribune


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...