Good morning, California. It’s Thursday, February 4.

SF sues itself

New lines have been drawn in the sand of California’s school reopening battle.

Gov. Gavin Newsom at a Wednesday press conference said he believes schools can safely reopen before all teachers have received the COVID-19 vaccine — a stance that puts him at odds with the powerful California Teachers Association and signals intensified negotiations to come. And in an indication of how difficult it’s been for unions and elected officials to reach a consensus, San Francisco on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of suing its own school district and board of education to force campuses to reopen.

  • San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera: “The Board of Education and the school district have had more than 10 months to roll out a concrete plan to get these kids back in school. So far they have earned an F. Having a plan to make a plan doesn’t cut it.”
  • United Educators of San Francisco: We’ve “been calling for the city to help with resources, such as COVID testing and vaccines, but this has not happened.”

The news came the same day that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools” — though the White House later said Walensky’s comments don’t represent official CDC guidance.

With Newsom’s $2 billion school reopening plan indefinitely stalled, the state is running out of time to get its 6.1 million public school students back on campus before the academic year draws to a close. A group of Democratic lawmakers in January introduced a bill that would require schools to reopen once they exit the purple tier, but is also working with the governor’s office to develop a joint solution.

Meanwhile, the battle rages on: A middle and high school in San Diego County reopened this week, prompting the California Teachers Association to accuse them of violating state rules that prohibit schools in purple-tier counties from reopening. County and district officials say they aren’t breaking the rules.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 3,281,271 confirmed cases (+0.3% from previous day) and 41,811 deaths (+1.2% 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. Vaccine update

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference at Oakland Coliseum announcing a partnership with President Biden to open two new mass vaccination sites on Feb. 3, 2021. Photo courtesy of Governor's office
Newsom speaks at a press conference at Oakland Coliseum announcing two new mass vaccination sites on Feb. 3, 2021. Photo courtesy of Governor’s office

California health experts decided Wednesday to keep age the primary criteria for getting the COVID-19 vaccine — dismaying advocates who hoped the group would recommend moving disabled people and those with chronic medical conditions to the front of the line, CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov reports. The experts’ decision was based on research showing age is a bigger predictor of death than disabilities. However, the state is creating another working group to figure out how to prioritize people with disabilities once vaccines become more widely available.

Also Wednesday, Newsom and the federal government announced plans to open mass vaccination sites at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum and CSU Los Angeles as part of President Joe Biden’s effort to open 100 such sites in his first 100 days in office. The sites are expected to open Feb. 16 with the capacity to vaccinate 6,000 people daily, and both will have mobile clinics to help reach vulnerable communities and those with limited access to transportation, Newsom said. But vaccine supply remains a huge hurdle. Los Angeles County’s vaccine shipment has decreased over the past few weeks, and Kaiser Permanente this week canceled appointments for more than 5,000 seniors due to limited doses. Still, California has ramped up its vaccination rate and now ranks 34th nationally, compared to 45th a few weeks ago.

2. EDD earns millions from unemployment

Image via iStock

California’s unemployment department earned $22.5 million from March to October via its agreement with debit card contractor Bank of America, even as millions of Californians remain unable to access their benefits, CalMatters’ Lauren Hepler reports. Each time a claimant swipes a debit card, the Employment Development Department and Bank of America share the revenue from merchant transaction fees — but it’s unclear how much money the bank has made. EDD says it doesn’t know, and the bank won’t say, despite a contract requirement to report debit card fees and revenue each month. At a Wednesday oversight hearing, Nancy Farias, EDD’s deputy director of external affairs, told lawmakers, “I am not aware of the exact split” of revenue between EDD and Bank of America, adding, “I am not 100% sure on how the contract is structured.”

3. Workplace outbreak data incomplete

A fieldworker wearing a hat with the golden eagle, the official bird of Mexico, as he uses it to shield his face from the sun while he picks strawberries on April 25, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian
A fieldworker picks strawberries on April 25, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

The coronavirus outbreak data maintained by California’s workplace safety agency is so incomplete that a chain of Sacramento car dealerships and Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office come up as some of the state’s biggest hot spots, a Sacramento Bee and Fresno Bee investigation found. Yet cases and deaths from major outbreaks — such as those at a Foster Farms poultry plant in Fresno and a pistachio processing plant in Kern County — barely show up on the state’s list, if they’re counted at all. Cal/OSHA’s database consists only of serious cases and deaths self-reported by businesses — a model that workplace researchers, health experts and lawmakers say likely excludes swaths of essential workers seriously sickened at work.

Cal/OSHA is also severely understaffed — the agency had 107 job openings last week — further hampering its ability to inspect and fine workplaces that violate health rules. This issue appears especially pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley, where many farmworkers say they aren’t given adequate worker protections.


CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Two polls offer different interpretations of whether Newsom’s popularity has plummeted or held up well amid the pandemic.

What’s the plan for equity? California must ensure that hard-hit communities of color do not get lost in the vaccine prioritization process, writes Richard Seidman, chief medical officer of the L.A. Care Health Plan.

Another reason to move to renewables: It isn’t just about fighting climate change — it’s about stopping energy pollution in low-income communities, argues Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez.

Other things worth your time

California Supreme Court throws out challenge to Prop. 22. // Los Angeles Times

California union freezes assets of largest chapter after embezzlement allegation. // Sacramento Bee

Newsom recall backers report raising more than $2.5 million. // Los Angeles Times

Billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya says he isn’t running for California governor. // CNBC

Former GOP congressman Doug Ose eyes run for California governor. // Associated Press

San Francisco has taken more than a year to open 30 beds for homeless and mentally ill. // San Francisco Chronicle

Sexual assault survivors in California could track rape kit online under new bill. // CapRadio

What Congress can learn from California’s minimum wage debate. // KQED

A TV interview backfired for Kamala Harris. It was a small stumble with a big lesson. // Los Angeles Times

California’s Sierra snowpack lags despite recent big storms. // Associated Press

See you tomorrow.

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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...