Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration announced changes late Wednesday night to California’s tiered reopening system that will make it easier for businesses to reopen and increase pressure on school districts to bring kids back to campus.

Under the new system, California will earmark 40% of its COVID-19 vaccine doses for low-income communities spread out across 400 of the state’s ZIP codes, largely in Los Angeles County, the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. Once 2 million of the roughly 8 million eligible residents in those communities are vaccinated, the state will adjust the coronavirus case rate needed for counties to move from the most restrictive purple tier to the red tier. Instead of 7 cases per 100,000, it will be raised to 10 cases per 100,000 — easing the way for restaurants, gyms, museums, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen indoors at limited capacity, CalMatters’ Barbara Feder Ostrov, Ana Ibarra, Lauren Hepler and I report.

Once 4 million residents are vaccinated in those low-income communities — defined as those with low scores on the state’s Healthy Places Index, which measures criteria including income, education, park access, air pollution and housing — the state will adjust the threshold to enter the orange and yellow tiers.

Administration officials said that 1.6 million doses have already been administered in those low-income communities, and it could take around two weeks to reach the 2 million mark necessary to adjust case rates. Currently, 87% of the state’s population lives in purple-tier counties.

Officials said they also may change the sector-by-sector business reopening guidelines in the coming weeks. Recent lawsuits by restaurateurs, salon owners and craft brewers have alleged unfair treatment.

The new vaccine strategy follows weeks of Newsom’s emphasis on developing an “equity frame.” African American and Latino Californians have been the hardest hit throughout the pandemic, with the highest levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. They’ve also been vaccinated at lower rates.

The announcement also came hours before the one-year anniversary of Newsom declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19. With the governor facing a recall all but certain to qualify for the ballot, his challenge is to move the state forward quickly enough that people see improvement, but not fast enough to jeopardize its progress as new virus strains emerge. What the governor likely hopes to avoid at all costs: having things spiral out of control as as they did in July and December, prompting him to shut down the state for the second and third time.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 3,484,963 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 52,775 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. Analyzing the State of the State

Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers the 2020 State of the State address in Sacramento. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Newsom’s administration also announced Wednesday that the governor will deliver the annual State of the State speech on March 9. That’s the latest date in California history — never before has a governor delivered the State of State address after February, according to records maintained by the California State Library. It will also be unusual in that Newsom will deliver it remotely from Los Angeles County in the evening, rather than in front of the state Legislature in Sacramento during the day. I talked with CalMatters political columnist Dan Walters, who’s been covering state politics for nearly 60 years, about the significance of these changes.

Me: “What do you think about the timing?”

Dan: “Prime time television, prime time television! Since the Legislature can’t convene anyway, you might as well get the maximum TV exposure out of the thing by doing it in LA.”

Me: “I wonder if he was waiting to have the speech until more schools announced they’re going to be reopening.”

Dan: “He could not really deliver a State of the State message with the whole school issue still unsettled. … He needs to have the indicators pointing upward: COVID infections down. Schools are reopening. The economy’s good. Bright future’s ahead. And you can give me all the credit … and not vote for the recall.”

2. Where is CA’s schools chief?

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond speaks at a press conference on Oct. 31, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Where is Tony Thurmond? The state’s top education official has been conspicuously absent at events touting California’s plan to reopen public schools — which lawmakers will formally vote on today — and has had a limited role in negotiations, raising questions about how effectively he’s using the power of the office, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. In other states, education leaders have more visibly guided schools through the pandemic: In Connecticut, for example, education commissioner Miguel Cardona played a hands-on role negotiating with unions to reopen schools before President Joe Biden tapped him as the new U.S. education secretary. But Thurmond maintains he’s been working doggedly behind the scenes to help schools.

  • Thurmond: “I recognize the limitations of my office, but I pretend like there aren’t any and I just put myself in the conversation. … I feel like I’ve done everything that I could, and more. I feel like I’ve exceeded what my position allows me to do.”

3. Is the California Exodus real?

A moving truck outside of an apartment building in Oakland on Nov. 7, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

You’ve heard about the California Exodus by now. But fears that Californians — especially wealthy ones — are leaving the state in droves may be largely overblown, according to data released Thursday by the California Policy Lab, a research arm of the University of the California. The lab found that “the pandemic has not so much propelled people out of California as it has shifted them around within it.” Although the number of people leaving San Francisco in 2020 shot up an eye-popping 649% compared to the year before, around 80% of those roughly 38,000 people stayed in the state, CalMatters’ Lauren Hepler reports. And because so many things are happening at once during the pandemic, it’s hard to gauge the full extent to which the transitions are permanent. As Lauren points out, the remote work crowd is just beginning to confront the prospect of salary cuts that accompany moves to lower-cost locales.

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CalMatters commentary

Diversifying California’s physicians: Research shows we need to build a broader pool of competitive medical school applicants who reflect the diversity of the state, write Janet Coffman and Dr. Alicia Fernández of USCF.

Other things worth your time

Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager declares victory in state Senate seat race. // Los Angeles Times

San Francisco is high up the list of cities donating money to Newsom’s recall. // San Francisco Chronicle

San Diego County quietly allows court workers, judges, lawyers to get vaccine. // San Diego Union-Tribune

30,000 on waitlist to get vaccinated in Contra Costa County. // East Bay Times

Feds indict inmate, Fresno man in latest California unemployment fraud prosecution. // Sacramento Bee

Majority white areas got more PPP business loan money than Latino areas, UCLA study says. // Los Angeles Times

After Nancy Pelosi, who? San Francisco plays guessing game. // Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles is entitled to federal aid to put homeless people in hotels. But it hasn’t asked for any. // Los Angeles Times

Fresno has the most people per household of any large U.S. city. // Fresno Bee

San Francisco has struggled to stem the fentanyl epidemic. Can new behavioral health czar change that? // San Francisco Chronicle

Lady Gaga’s French bulldog was stolen. The dogs are getting targeted by thieves in the Bay Area, too. // San Francisco Chronicle

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...