Good morning, California. It’s Tuesday, February 23.

School reopenings stubborn

Every piece of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s high-priority pandemic proposals has fallen into place — except for reopening schools.

Lawmakers on Monday sent a $7.6 billion relief package to Newsom’s desk, which includes $600 stimulus payments for 5.7 million low-income Californians, $2 billion in small-business relief grants, $400 million in federal funds for child care providers, $35 million in retroactive pay for a controversial voter education contract and $1.4 million to address an uptick in violence against Asian Americans. Newsom said Monday he will sign the package into law today. Another $2 billion in tax breaks for businesses is expected to follow soon, bringing the total relief to $9.6 billion.

The stimulus package, along with the extended eviction moratorium passed in January, make up two of the three main items on which Newsom wanted lawmakers to act immediately. The third — reopening schools — remains stubborn, as evidenced by an Assembly hearing Monday in which lawmakers expressed both confusion and frustration at ongoing efforts to bring kids back to campus.

One major point of uncertainty was whether the school reopening plan three Democratic assemblymembers introduced Thursday — in opposition to the governor’s — would actually require staff to be vaccinated before returning to campus. Assembly budget committee consultant Erin Gabel said that it would not — a position that, ironically, is not dissimilar from Newsom’s.

Lawmakers also expressed frustration at local districts controlling campus reopening — although both their plan and Newsom’s would preserve local control by allowing districts to opt out of reopening deadlines.

  • Assemblymember Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat: “This year, local control has been a complete failure. We have seen the whole ‘trust us’ model from the districts fail.”

Nevertheless, several districts are moving to reopen as pressure mounts to get kids back in the classroom. Los Angeles Unified announced plans Monday to resume some in-person services next week for students with special needs, and Sacramento City Unified said Monday it plans to bring kids back to campus in early April. And the San Francisco school board is pausing its effort to rename 44 schools to focus on reopening campuses.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 3,446,611 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 49,338 deaths (+0.5% 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.


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1. Newsom focuses on vaccine equity

Martha Ortiz gets inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles on Feb. 9, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Newsom appears to be taking his statewide vaccine tour up a notch, visiting two vaccination sites on both Sunday and Monday — double the one-site-per-day rate he averaged last week. The theme of his recent press conferences — at two mobile clinics in Los Angeles on Sunday and sites in Long Beach and Arvin, Kern County on Monday — has been equity.

  • Newsom on Monday: “The issue of equity needs to be front and center. … It’s been the cause that has brought me to almost every part of the state. … I’m not some guy from San Francisco that doesn’t give a damn about the (Central) Valley.”

The governor said the state will this week launch 11 mobile vaccination clinics in the Central Valley and increase the region’s allotment of vaccine doses by 58%. Newsom also said the state would redirect 34,000 doses from “a large pharmacy” to the Central Valley.

The focus on equity comes as the state’s new vaccine distribution system, helmed by Blue Shield, launches this week in 10 counties: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Imperial, Madera, Merced, Riverside, San Joaquin and Stanislaus. Yet state officials say they still don’t know how the new system will measure equity. And glitches have already emerged in the state’s new vaccine appointment system.

2. Serious problems at state COVID lab

Technicians conduct COVID-19 tests at the state’s new facility on Oct. 30, 2020, in Valencia. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo/Pool

California’s $1.7 billion COVID-19 testing lab in Valencia has “significant deficiencies” that could potentially impact its license and maybe even lead to its closure, the state Department of Public Health revealed Monday. The deficiencies were discovered during an initial inspection in December, and global diagnostics firm PerkinElmer — which operates the lab in conjunction with the state health department — must submit an action plan to correct the problems by March 1. The firm said it believes the lab isn’t in danger of closing.

The announcement comes on the heels of whistleblower reports alleging, among other things, that lab techs were caught sleeping while processing COVID samples, test swabs were found in bathrooms, and staff were inadequately trained. The lab has also grappled with a high number of inconclusive test results and struggled to meet the 24- to 48-hour testing turnaround mandated in its contract — in November, nearly a third of its tests took three or more days to turn around. And although it was supposed to process 150,000 tests daily by March, it’s processing an average of less than 20,000 daily.

3. Becerra confirmation hearings start

Attorney General Xavier Becerra gives a press conference on Sept. 25, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Today, the U.S. Senate is set to begin hearings on whether to confirm California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department — and given that Becerra is a top target for Senate Republicans, they’re likely to be contentious. CalMatters’ Ben Christopher takes a look at the four versions of Becerra likely to come up:

  • The Partisan Pugilist. Republicans will point to Becerra’s 110 lawsuits against the Trump administration, his support of abortion rights and his lawsuits against employers who exclude contraception from health insurance plans — including a group of nuns.
  • The Secretive Top Cop. Many advocates of police accountability and government transparency have accused Becerra of coddling bad cops.
  • The Health Care Wonk. Becerra led the defense of the Affordable Care Act. He’s also known for using antitrust laws to go after big hospital chains and pharmaceutical giants.
  • The Rising Star. People around Becerra have always said big things were in his future.

In what will likely be a much less controversial hearing, the Senate will consider California small business advocate Isabel Guzman on Wednesday to lead the Small Business Administration.

4. Will Dems delay Newsom recall?

Recall Newsom volunteer Pat Miller holds up a sign at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Although California Democrats can’t control whether the recall against Newsom qualifies for the ballot, they have some control over when the election happens — which could influence the outcome, the Sacramento Bee reports. For example, when Sen. Josh Newman faced a recall in 2018, Democrats passed a bill that added a 30-day period for petition-signers to withdraw their signatures, a 30-day period for the Department of Finance to develop a cost estimate and a 30-day period for the Legislature to review it. This effectively delayed the election until the next regularly scheduled primary — in which Democrats are more likely to vote. But Newman was still recalled — and it’s unlikely lawmakers will be able to push the Newsom recall until the June 2022 primary, given U.S. Census delays that will slow down California’s redistricting process ahead of the 2022 elections.

Democratic State Sen. Ben Allen in December introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow a California officer facing a recall to be chosen as his or her own replacement on the recall ballot, allowing that person to remain in office. But voters would have to approve the amendment — an impossibility before the Newsom recall.


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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the expanded version of Newsom’s Golden State Stimulus could have adverse long-term consequences.

What people don’t understand about reopening schools: By the time safety recommendations are implemented and running smoothly, the school year will be over, argues Los Angeles Unified teacher Glenn Sacks.

An unhealthy distinction: California is the only state in America that hasn’t allowed indoor fitness to resume. Why won’t Newsom reopen gyms? asks Scott Street, an attorney representing the California Fitness Alliance.


Other things worth your time

‘Low-cost plan’ for bullet train has resulted in $800 million cost hike, massive delays. // Los Angeles Times

Unemployed Californians face months of delays when appealing denial of jobless benefits. // Los Angeles Times

Financial aid applications lag among California high school seniors. // EdSource

California coronavirus variant possibly more infectious, could cause more serious illness, studies show. // San Francisco Chronicle

Cheaper rent in San Francisco? For some Oakland tenants, moving across the Bay is more affordable now. // Los Angeles Times

Berkeley considers ending single-family zoning by December 2022. // San Francisco Chronicle

California explores plan for wind energy along coast to combat climate change. // CapRadio

California seeks to save redwoods from wildfires. // Wall Street Journal


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...