In summary

Local election offices must send ballots for the Newsom recall election to every active registered voter as the campaign starts its final sprint.

Today is a big day for California.

First, it’s the deadline for local elections offices to start sending mail-in ballots for the Sept. 14 recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Ballots have already started hitting mailboxes in many parts of the state, prompting Newsom and his leading challengers to turbocharge their campaigns over the weekend. The governor, attempting to rally apathetic Democratic voters who appear largely unaffected by his blitz of TV ads, pivoted to in-person events in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. He appealed to organized labor and Latino voters while pinpointing conservative talk show host Larry Elder, whom he described as “more extreme” than former President Donald Trump, as his biggest threat.

Elder, who has consistently led other recall candidates in the polls — including one from CBS/You Gov released Sunday — hosted his campaign’s first virtual press conference on Friday, focusing on state policies that he said adversely impacted Asian Americans. Meanwhile, the California Democratic Party on Saturday filed an ethics complaint against Elder, citing a Los Angeles Times investigation that found he appeared to have not properly disclosed his business holdings — obscuring potential conflicts of interest.

Also today, students in San Francisco and Los Angeles Unified will return to campus for full-time in-person instruction — a milestone complicated by the challenges and uncertainties ahead. Los Angeles is scrambling to fill thousands of vacancies for teachers, counselors, special education instructors, nurses and mental health specialists. The district, which on Friday mandated vaccines for all staff — a stricter stance than the state’s — also said more than 12,500 students plan to pursue online independent study, up from around 1,300 before the pandemic. In San Francisco, there aren’t enough spots for all the families who want to enroll their kids in independent study.

  • San Francisco parent Shurrin Ho: “I’d rather have my kids be stupid, without an education, rather than die. That represents what many, many parents are saying.”

If California had kept its color-coded reopening system governed by COVID rates, 19 counties — including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento — would be blocked from reopening schools. But coronavirus isn’t the only challenge: Some Northern California rural schools have delayed their reopening plans as wildfires ravage the region.

Finally, state lawmakers return to Sacramento today after their summer recess. To prevent further Capitol coronavirus outbreaks, lawmakers, key legislative staff and journalists must submit to a strict testing regimen, regardless of vaccination status.

Lawmakers have until Sept. 10 to pass or kill hundreds of bills and decide the final details of California’s $263 billion budget — meaning we’re in for a frenzied four weeks.  

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 4,022,222 confirmed cases (+0.3% from previous day) and 64,183 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data.

California has administered 45,332,525 vaccine doses, and 64.4% 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. Vaccine fight heats up; hospitals stretched

Image via iStock

Among the bills that will likely face intense scrutiny: one that would block protesters from getting within 30 feet of people entering vaccination sites, which some First Amendment experts are already declaring unconstitutional. It’s the latest chapter in the Golden State’s fierce vaccine wars, which took a violent turn on Saturday when a man was stabbed and a reporter attacked during an anti-vaccination rally in front of Los Angeles City Hall. Meanwhile, state worker unions representing firefighters and maintenance employees filed unfair labor practice charges against Newsom’s recent directive that they either get vaccinated or tested weekly, just days after California’s largest state worker union did the same. The state’s correctional officer union on Friday pledged to fight an order that it says would mandate vaccinations for health care workers in its prisons. And hundreds of San Francisco employees are seeking exemptions from a city vaccination mandate, with some sheriff’s deputies threatening to resign over the policy.

Amid this pushback, the successes of Imperial County are all the more impressive. Despite the county’s remoteness and high poverty, 86% of its eligible residents have received at least one dose — one of the highest vaccination rates in California, CalMatters’ Ana Ibarra reports.

But, health officials warn, the battle isn’t over yet. COVID patients have doubled in California hospitals, prompting some facilities to postpone elective procedures. At the same time, emergency rooms are seeing an unprecedented surge in non-COVID patients, stretching space and staff to their limits.

2. A complex unemployment picture

Image via iStock

California’s unemployment situation is looking iffy. Even as desperate businesses beef up benefits to attract workers — offering everything from yoga classes to therapy to 401(k)s — nearly 69,000 Californians filed new jobless claims for the week ending Aug. 7, federal data show. That’s an increase of more than 6,000 from the week before and the state’s highest total in nearly three months — a stark contrast from the nation overall, which saw new claims drop by 12,000. And although California’s problem-plagued Employment Development Department is making progress on its claims backlog, more than 216,000 claims had been stuck in the logjam for at least three weeks as of Aug. 7.

Further complicating matters, the federal $300 weekly unemployment supplement and a host of other federal jobless programs are slated to expire on Sept. 4, throwing millions of Californians into limbo. Experts say this could push some low-wage workers to reenter the job market, though opportunities in other sectors remain scarce.

3. Fire and drought hit Northern California

Illustration via iStock

The numbers quantifying the destruction of the Dixie Fire, now the second-largest in California history, are staggering: 553,000 acres charred, 29,000 people forced to evacuate, 15,000 homes threatened, 1,120 buildings destroyed and another 74 damaged. More than 6,500 personnel are assigned to the blaze — representing nearly 25% of firefighters attacking large uncontained fires nationwide. And the Dixie Fire is only expected to grow: Thunderstorms and dry, gusty winds were predicted Sunday along the Sierra Nevada mountains, meaning Bay Area residents will likely spend their fifth day in a row under smoky skies. PG&E warned Sunday night that it may shut off power for portions of the Bay Area close to the Dixie Fire. Meanwhile, another fire ignited late Saturday in El Dorado County, forcing more evacuations.

In addition to the flames, Northern California is also getting hit hard by drought — which Southern California is much more prepared to handle. In Mendocino, for example, water is so scarce that restaurants have closed their restrooms to diners, instead directing them to portable toilets on the sidewalk. Today, the state could start issuing formal orders blocking thousands of farmers, landowners and others from diverting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.

Podcast: CalMatters reporter Joe Hong and CapRadio reporter Sammy Caiola discuss how teachers and health care professionals are reacting to Newsom’s new vaccination mandates.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: With the outcome of the Newsom recall election too close to call, it’s time to ponder what might happen if he’s ousted.

California must adopt universal voting: That way, residents could focus on the caliber of candidates and quality of legislative proposals, rather than worrying about how and when to vote, argue Kevin Frazier of the UC Berkeley School of Law and Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission.

A more humane way to handle human trafficking: State lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow individuals like me to be seen not as criminals, but as survivors and humans, writes April Grayson of the Young Women’s Freedom Center.

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Other things worth your time

Former Gov. Jerry Brown praises Biden for ‘courageous’ Afghanistan pullout as country falls to the Taliban. // Fox News

California recall: Governor race has Democrats nervous about Feinstein seat. // CNN

Compton city councilman charged with election rigging, bribery in race decided by one vote. // Los Angeles Times

Effort to recall six Huntington Beach council members could get messy. // Orange County Register

Judge rules against California charter schools in class-action funding lawsuit. // Los Angeles Times

Cannabis might be legal on streets of California, but not in its prisons, court rules. // San Francisco Chronicle

Kern County will sue Newsom for efforts to ban fracking. // Governing

No criminal charges in fatal 2018 California wildfire. // Associated Press

Inside the political battle to preserve a sprawling national forest in California. // National Geographic

Boy dies from brain-eating amoeba in California. // Associated Press

Riverside County desert ghost town sells for $6 million. // Orange County Register

Oakland Athletics analyst brings astrophysics expertise to pitching. // Mercury News

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...