In summary

About five weeks after Gov. Newsom reopened California, COVID-19 is surging again, with the Sept. 14 recall election looming.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is confronting yet another COVID-19 conundrum.

A little more than a month after California fully reopened, the state’s coronavirus positivity rate has skyrocketed from 0.7% to 5.2% — a figure not seen since early February. The highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for nearly 83% of California’s sequenced coronavirus cases — up from 53% in late June and just 6% in late May. The color-coded reopening system is gone, but if it were still in place, at least 12 counties would be in the most restrictive purple tier. And California’s mask mandate is over, but local health officials are either requiring or recommending around 50% of the state’s population wear face coverings indoors.

With the Sept. 14 recall election hanging over his head, Newsom has avoided commenting directly on whether he would reinstate mask requirements or lockdown measures, instead emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated. The coronavirus case rate among vaccinated Californians was 2 per 100,000 during the week of July 7-14, compared to 13 per 100,000 among unvaccinated Californians, the state Department of Public Health said Friday. The department also noted that Newsom’s vaccine lottery program slowed the rate at which California’s inoculation rates were declining.

Still, COVID is spreading fast even in counties with high inoculation rates — a trend experts attribute to high-density urban settings that bring people into contact with both unvaccinated residents and fully vaccinated people who may be asymptomatically passing the disease.

  • Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a UCSF epidemiology professor: “The challenge in public health communication is we ultimately do want more people to be vaccinated. And the concern is communicating that we also need to wear a mask right now … (which may) dilute the message that we need to be vaccinated. The challenge is that both things are true.”

Perhaps the ultimate challenge facing California’s leaders: charting a long-term response to a virus that “will be with us chronically,” in the words of Solano County Public Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas.

The first hurdle on the horizon: fall school reopenings. California parent groups last week sued Newsom over a requirement issued last week that all students wear masks to school, and a federal appeals court ruled Friday that California violated parents’ rights by keeping private schools closed amid the pandemic.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 3,786,031 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 63,741 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 43,464,658 vaccine doses, and 62% 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. GOP approves endorsement process

Image via iStock

California Republican Party delegates will decide on Aug. 7 whether to endorse one of the 24 GOP candidates running in the Newsom recall, the result of the party’s executive committee voting Saturday to create an endorsement process. The move was not without controversy: Some candidates and delegates argued that an endorsement — which comes with campaign funds and party resources — would divide the GOP and squelch voter turnout. However, it’s possible the party won’t formally back anyone: Delegates can vote “no endorsement,” and a candidate would need to garner support from 60% of delegates in order to secure the endorsement — a high bar. The vote is scheduled to take place three days after five prominent Republican candidates — businessman John Cox, talk show host Larry Elder, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Assemblymember Kevin Kiley and former Congressman Doug Ose — are set to debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda.

Newsom, who hasn’t yet indicated if he will participate in the debate, sent a fundraising email on Saturday that appeared to respond to a recent statewide poll showing weakness in his approval rating. “One of the great struggles we face is far too many people think there’s no chance he’ll get recalled,” Newsom’s campaign team wrote. “And we are here to say that is not the case.”

2. Key bills in limbo

Construction worker Edgar Ortega works an affordable housing construction site in Long Beach on July 22, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

With state lawmakers on summer recess until mid-August and the legislative session ending in mid-September, there isn’t much time left to pass key bills — and some high-profile proposals seem to be stuck in limbo. Among them are two pieces of an ambitious package championed by Senate leader Toni Atkins that would allow housing to be built in commercial zones and make it easier to build student housing near community colleges, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias reports. Despite California’s ever-worsening housing crisis, the bills appear to be dead in the water — and the holdup seems to be a requirement that a portion of the construction workforce be graduates of mostly union-run apprenticeship programs. That same union labor requirement has already proved itself to be make-or-break for other housing bills.

Another proposal facing an uncertain future: one that would allow police officers to be decertified for misconduct. California is one of only four states in the country without such power, and although police associations say they support kicking bad cops out of the profession, they oppose the bill as written — even though it’s already been revised to address some of their concerns, CalMatters’ Robert Lewis reports.

3. A fiery, hot, dry summer

The Dixie Fire, visible from Highway 70, along the Feather River on July 20, 2021. Photo by Andrew Nixon, CapRadio

Wildfires, drought and heat are once again on a collision course in California. The monstrous Dixie Fire — the largest so far this year — swelled to nearly 191,000 acres over the weekend and remained just 21% contained as it merged with the Fly Fire, forcing nearly 8,000 evacuations, destroying 16 structures and threatening at least another 10,000. Newsom on Friday declared a state of emergency in Plumas, Butte and Lassen counties due to the Dixie Fire and in Alpine County due to the Tamarack Fire, which was 27% contained as of Sunday. Newsom also secured 12 additional firefighting aircraft to extinguish blazes popping up across the state.

Meanwhile, California’s drought crisis is worsening. On Aug. 3, the state water board will decide whether to cut thousands of Central Valley farmers off from rivers and streams in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds — an extreme step it didn’t even take during the last drought. And with another heat wave expected to blanket California midweek, the state’s electric grid will likely be strained — reviving the threat of rolling blackouts, especially considering that Californians largely ignored repeated calls for conservation during a brutal heat wave earlier this month.

In other environmental news, Attorney General Rob Bonta on Friday sued the city of Fontana for approving a massive warehouse that would share a border with a public high school, arguing the city failed to appropriately consider the project’s environmental impact. As CalMatters has reported, the proliferation of warehouses in the Inland Empire has alarmed residents, many of whom are Latino, low-income and already breathe some of the unhealthiest air in California.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Will California’s crime surge fuel the Newsom recall?

Reforming California’s recall process: State lawmakers must change how recall elections are managed to discourage misuse of a popular tool, argues veteran Democratic consultant Garry South.

Changing California’s climate approach: To correct gender, race and regional inequities in the Legislature’s climate resilience blueprint, more funds must be directed toward heat and wildfire protection, writes Nancy Cohen of the Gender Equity Policy Institute.

Other things worth your time

How UC students turned ‘forever’ tuition hike into five-year hike. // CalMatters

Political infighting plagued city’s pandemic hubs for vulnerable students, report says. // San Francisco Chronicle

California inks contract with new 40,000-member child care union. // Associated Press

Austin Beutner’s tenure as Los Angeles schools chief marked more by crisis than academic gains. // Los Angeles Times

Audit finds Kevin Faulconer and staff misrepresented Ash Street facts, withheld key details from City Council. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Anne Marie Schubert sounds like a Republican, but is trying become California attorney general as an independent. // San Francisco Chronicle

Republican challenger raises more money than Rep. John Garamendi — a first in seven years. // Sacramento Bee

As cargo waits and costs climb, Port of Oakland seeks shipping solutions. // Mercury News

After 18 months, Sutter antitrust settlement finally poised for formal approval. // Kaiser Health News

Newsom signs bill stopping police from posting some mug shots. // Sacramento Bee

Bay Area family: How to raise a happy family when homeless. // New York Times

Without enough water to go around, farmers in California are exhausting aquifers. // Jefferson Public Radio

Unvaccinated snow leopard at San Diego Zoo catches COVID-19. // Bloomberg

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...