Good morning, California. It’s Wednesday, March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! 🍀

Desk spacing major issue

One of the biggest fronts in California’s school reopening battle comes down, quite literally, to a few feet.

But the fight over how far apart students’ desks should be spaced is really a fight over what constitutes school “reopening.” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that 9,000 of the state’s 11,000 schools have already reopened or will soon — but the Alameda County elementary school at which he spoke will only have kids on campus for two days a week, 2.5 hours at a time. The hybrid model most districts are using doesn’t count as “reopening” for many parents — who secured a big win Monday, when a San Diego County judge issued a restraining order temporarily blocking California from enforcing reopening rules that require schools to keep at least 4 feet of space between desks and make a “good-faith effort” to maintain 6 feet of distance.

  • San Diego Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland: The state framework “has had and will continue to have a real and appreciable impact on the affected students’ fundamental California right to basic educational equality.”
  • Rodger Butler, spokesman for the California Health and Human Services Agency: “We will continue to lead with science and health as we review this order and assess our legal options with a focus on the health and safety of California’s children and schools.”

Because the state’s spacing requirements limit the number of students in a classroom at one time, they could effectively prevent schools from returning to full-time in-person instruction this spring and fall, CalMatters’ Ricardo Cano reports. Newsom said Tuesday the state will revisit its spacing rules if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates its own guidance, which currently recommends desks sit 6 feet apart. Recent studies have suggested schools can safely operate with 3 feet of distancing.


The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 3,530,055 confirmed cases (+0.03% from previous day) and 55,372 deaths (+0.08% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 12,637,197 vaccine doses.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.

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1. California’s COVID year in 9 charts

The coronavirus pandemic has changed Californians in hundreds of ways in the past year. Many of those changes left data trails. Illustration by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters; iStock

How things have changed since Newsom issued the nation’s first statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19, 2020. In recognition of the one-year anniversary of this life-changing announcement — which California will hit Friday — CalMatters reporters Ben Christopher and Jeremia Kimmelman put together nine charts tracing the Golden State’s surreal last 365 days. Among their findings:

  • Bars, florists, and shoe stores lost money, while home furnishings stores and beer, wine and liquor stores raked in cash.
  • California notched a record high number of deaths and a record low number of births, while wedding licenses dropped 35%. (Hence the drop in florist sales.)
  • The number of cars on the road dropped steeply, even as crashes were more likely to be fatal.
  • As the number of Newsom’s executive orders rose, so did the number of lawsuits filed against him.

2. Newsom in national spotlight

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the press during a visit to Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda on March 16, 2021. "We will fight it. We will defeat it," Newsom said of the recall effort. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom visits Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda on March 16, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Today is the deadline for organizers to submit the final batch of signatures needed to trigger a recall election — and Newsom acknowledged in a Tuesday press conference “the reality is, it looks like it’s going on the ballot.” (For more information on how signatures will be counted and verified, check out this explainer from CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall.) Meanwhile, the governor continued his national media circuit with appearances on “The View” and CNN, denouncing the recall as “a waste of time and, yes, money.” He also walked back comments, made Monday on MSNBC, that he would appoint a Black woman to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat should she retire before her term ends in 2024. Newsom’s pledge, perhaps made to appeal to Black women voters or to underscore the implications of California electing a Republican governor, politically backfired among some Democrats.

  • Newsom: “I have zero expectation the senator is going anywhere. … Her reputation nationally is second to none.”

Also Tuesday, Newsom said California’s coronavirus positivity rate has dropped to 1.8%, the fourth-lowest in the country. Another 10 counties — including San Diego, Riverside and Sacramento — moved into the red tier Tuesday, meaning nearly 88% of the state’s population can now dine, watch a movie, or work out indoors. San Mateo also became the first Bay Area county to move into the orange tier, a year to the day the region ordered residents to shelter in place.

3. California state parks under siege

Powerful seas and cliff erosion threaten the beach at South Carlsbad State Beach on March 3, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
Powerful seas and cliff erosion threaten the beach at South Carlsbad State Beach on March 3, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

When does a park stop being a park? When nearly all of it is destroyed by wildfire or its land washes away into the sea?

Those are the thorny questions facing California state park officials as they rush to develop a comprehensive plan to make parks more resilient to climate change-induced fire, sea level rise, extreme weather and drought, CalMatters’ Julie Cart reports. The climate alarm was tripped after last summer’s CZU Complex wildfire swept through Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, charring 97% of the park’s iconic trees — the tallest living things on Earth. Elsewhere, the chronically cash-strapped agency, which operates the nation’s largest park system, is defending coastal beaches from encroaching waves and moving parking lots, camping sites and vulnerable infrastructure away from inexorably rising seas.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The severe economic impacts of California’s pandemic closures will be a key factor in the Newsom recall election.

The promise of ethnic studies: I encourage schools to adopt the draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum the California Board of Education is voting on this week, writes Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute.

Time to transform school meals: California lawmakers should provide universal access to school meals and incentivize healthier, plant-based foods to help students, farmers and the climate, argue Kari Hamerschlag and Christopher Cook of Friends of the Earth.

Other things worth your time

Former GOP congressman Doug Ose announces California recall bid. // Politico

French Laundry friend now banned from lobbying Newsom. // Sacramento Bee

California mulls relaxing rules about ballot signatures. // Associated Press

California records reveal Maui lawmakers, other pandemic travel. // Politico

Democrats loved Orange County Rep. Katie Porter when she bashed Trump. Now she’s making them squirm. // Los Angeles Times

No screaming on California roller coasters and thrill rides, theme park association recommends. // Mercury News

San Quentin inmate’s COVID-19 death sparks state lawsuit. // Sacramento Bee

Sacramento man was freed after 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Then came the COVID lockdown. // San Francisco Chronicle

Over 1,600 Asians reported hate-related incidents in California in a year. // Sacramento Bee

UC Merced guarantees admission to eligible local students. // Los Angeles Times

Debate begins over updating California’s rooftop solar rules. // San Diego Union-Tribune

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...