Good morning, California. It’s Thursday, July 29.

Virus, fire, infected birds

Just when it seemed like it was getting safe to go out in public again, California’s summer started to resemble scenes from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

With COVID-19 rates surging, the state Department of Public Health on Wednesday recommended that all Californians wear face masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The department also warned that birds infected by West Nile virus could end up dead in residents’ yards, two weeks after confirming the first human death caused by the virus. Meanwhile, clouds of smoke from the monstrous Dixie Fire — the 14th-largest in state history, and which has already scorched an area bigger than New York City — descended on Sacramento, pushing air quality into unhealthy territory.

Also Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak toured the site of the Tamarack Fire, which is 59% contained and has destroyed at least 23 buildings. The governors called for more firefighting assistance from the federal government, and Newsom emphasized the importance of understanding the West’s prolonged fire season as a product of climate change.

  • Newsom: “We have a historic framework that has to be thrown out. You can’t look back a decade or two. The world is radically changing as the climate changes. You may not believe in science, you got it with your own damn eyes.”

So far this year, wildfires have charred 228,066 acres in California — more than double the 104,711 acres burned during the same period last year, which was the state’s worst fire season on record. That’s especially sobering when one takes into account recently released statistics from last year’s fire season, as compiled by CalMatters’ Julie Cart: 4.2 million acres burned, 112 million tons of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere, 11 million gallons of fire retardant released on the flames, $1 billion spent in emergency funding and 31 lives lost.

Then there’s the drought of historic proportions — which Californians are most likely to identify as the most important environmental issue facing the state, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released late Wednesday night. Last year, residents named climate change as the top issue.

And then there’s the heat. Californians spent Wednesday under a Flex Alert as demand for air conditioning strained the state’s electric grid. The rapidly rising temperatures also posed a threat to workers both outdoors and indoors — but while the state’s workplace safety agency protects the former under a heat illness prevention standard, it still doesn’t cover the latter despite a state law requiring it to do so by 2019.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 3,822,551 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 63,849 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 43,663,282 vaccine doses, and 62.3% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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. Inside Newsom’s campaign war chest

Illustration by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters; Shae Hammond for CalMatters; iStock

Newsom’s biggest hurdle to defeating the recall may be turning out voters, but he isn’t having any trouble turning out rich donors. The main committee tasked with defending him against the recall has so far raised $39 million and counting — more than double the amount raised by the committees campaigning to remove him from office and to support the 46 candidates seeking to replace him, combined. A new analysis from CalMatters’ Ben Christopher shows that Newsom’s largest financial lifeline has come from organized labor, which contributed a whopping 45% of the total sum — including $1.8 million from the teachers’ union and $1.75 million from the prison guards’ union this week. Dan Schnur, a former chairperson of California’s campaign finance watchdog and past strategist for Republican politicians, offers one reason why labor groups might be motivated to give big:

  • Schnur: “This is a relatively painless way to strengthen your relationship with an incumbent governor.”

The prison guards’ contribution, for example, could be interpreted as a sort of thank-you gift. Although the guards aren’t reliable Democratic allies, they recently scored a major pay hike from Newsom and lawmakers over objections from the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

2. LA cracks down on homelessness

Men sleep in Circle Park next to Los Angeles City Hall on August 7, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Men sleep in Circle Park next to Los Angeles City Hall on Aug. 7, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday passed a controversial ordinance outlawing homeless people from sitting, camping, sleeping or storing personal property near schools, day care centers, libraries, parks, homeless shelters, tunnels, bridges, freeway overpasses and other key public areas. If signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, the rule could effectively make nearly half of the city’s land off-limits to the homeless — an abrupt shift in policy that underscores the increasing pressure on politicians to solve a crisis whose proportions only seem to keep growing. Whether the ordinance will actually make a difference remains to be seen: Before enforcement can proceed at a specific location, the city council will have to give its approval — a process that could drag on for months. It’s also unclear if the city has enough shelter or services for all the homeless people in question, or how it will handle those who refuse aid. Further complicating matters, each city council member is likely to apply the ordinance differently — creating a complex and contradictory patchwork of policies.

  • City councilwoman Nithya Raman: “This takes us back to what we’ve been doing in Los Angeles for a very long time, which is 15 council members responding to homelessness in 15 different ways, in a really ad hoc manner.”

3. Will drop in payday loan use last?

A customer inside a payday loan agency, ACE Cash Express, in Wilmington on July 28, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
A customer inside a payday loan agency, ACE Cash Express, in Wilmington on July 28, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

Pandemic government assistance — including unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, rent relief and eviction moratoriums — may have helped Californians avoid using expensive payday loans last year, though use is expected to rebound as relief programs peter out, according to a new report from the state Department of Financial Protection and Innovation. The Golden State saw 40% less payday loans taken out and nearly half a million fewer people rely on the short-term, high-interest loans in 2020 than in 2019, CalMatters’ Erika Paz reports. But experts say the drop in payday loan use doesn’t necessarily mean Californians are doing better financially.

Meanwhile, the payday loan industry — despite offering consumers what experts say are some of the most expensive and financially dangerous loans — remains largely unregulated in California. Interest rates, for example, aren’t capped — and last year they averaged a whopping 361%. 

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Newsom and lawmakers’ decision to move up the date of his recall election could backfire.

Redistricting matters more than recall: Whose voices will be heard in the halls of power for the next 10 years is of paramount importance. The name of the game between now and the 2022 elections is redistricting, writes Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book.

Other things worth your time

California’s biggest state worker union challenges Newsom vaccine order. // Sacramento Bee

Stockton restaurant’s robotic helper offers hand while owner seeks new staff. // KCRA

Cal/OSHA board members call for transparency around California’s workplace outbreaks. // East Bay Times

Activision Blizzard lawsuit and its potential impact on California labor law. // Washington Post

State fines El Super grocery chain $447,000 for failing to provide COVID sick leave. // Los Angeles Times

Thieves target Newsom-owned wine shop in break-in attempt. // San Francisco Chronicle

Felon Contra Costa elections chief keeps pension, serves time in Hawaii. // Mercury News

State task force recommends public archive for digital campaign ads. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Marin births rebound after pandemic slump. // Mercury News

California health exchange rates to increase 1.8% in 2022. // Associated Press

As climate changes, alternative energy systems get closer look in California. // Capitol Weekly

More ‘good fires’ could help California control future catastrophes. // National Geographic

Who will pay to protect Silicon Valley’s tech giants from rising seas? // KQED

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...