In summary

The omicron variant has just entered the U.S., and California is already bracing for a surge in COVID cases.

Update: On Dec. 1, officials reported the first confirmed U.S. case of the omicron variant, in a traveler who returned to California from South Africa on Nov. 22. The individual is fully vaccinated, is reporting mild symptoms and is self-quarantining, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Gov. Gavin Newsom said that the person had not received a booster but that their close contacts had tested negative so far.

After the reprieve of a long Thanksgiving weekend, today will likely serve as an unwelcome reminder for Californians that the pandemic is far from over.

Today, the United States is set to close its borders to travelers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia to limit spread of a COVID-19 variant called omicron, which the World Health Organization on Friday labeled a variant of concern.

Also today, the city of Los Angeles plans to start enforcing one of the country’s strictest vaccine mandates: Restaurants, coffee shops, museums, theaters and other indoor venues must verify that customers are vaccinated before allowing them to enter — or face fines of as much as $5,000.

For Gov. Gavin Newsom, who returned to California on Sunday night after spending much of the last week in Mexico, the developments underscore the twin challenges that will likely define much of his governorship: keeping Californians safe from COVID-19 and keeping the state’s small businesses afloat.

Newsom’s administration is already ramping up its response to the omicron variant, though it hasn’t yet been detected in the U.S. and it’s not yet clear if it’s more transmissible or deadlier than other forms of the virus. The California Department of Public Health said Sunday that it plans to increase COVID-19 testing at airports serving travelers from southern Africa, track the variant through genetic sequencing, and continue to promote vaccines and booster shots.

But even as the Newsom administration doubles down on vaccines, it secured a legal victory that seemingly undermines those efforts. On Friday, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked an order from U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar requiring California prison workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Newsom appealed that ruling last month, arguing that it would result in a severe staffing shortage at state prisons; now employees won’t be required to get the shot until March 2022 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court on Sunday temporarily blocked San Diego Unified School District’s student vaccine mandate — which was set to take effect today — from being implemented while the district allows pregnant students to seek exemptions. The conservative Thomas More Society filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Scripps Ranch High School student, arguing that San Diego Unified was violating students’ First Amendment rights by allowing medical exemptions but not religious ones.

Although California overall is doing better now than a year ago, a CalMatters analysis found that at least 18 of 58 counties had more hospitalized COVID patients last week than they did at the same time last year — and another five had just as many. Some Central California hospitals are so overwhelmed with patients they’re begging the state to make it easier for them to be transferred to other counties.

The economic outlook is similarly dire: California isn’t likely to see a full recovery until the end of 2023, according to a recent report from the California Center for Jobs & The Economy. Passenger levels rebounded at California airports over Thanksgiving weekend, but the omicron variant could erase some of that progress. And about 1 million Californians may have to repay some or all of the federal jobless benefits they received during the pandemic, the state unemployment department warned last week.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 4,780,867 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 73,365 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 58,056,991 vaccine doses, and 67.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. CSU error could worsen housing crisis

Humboldt State University Dorms, Canyon Apartments on July 18, 2021. Photo by Patrick Garcia for CalMatters College Journalism Network

More than 3,000 California State University students could lose out on affordable housing because the system misread the fine print of a new state student housing program, according to an exclusive report from CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn. And that’s not the only consequence: Had CSU interpreted the law correctly, it could have proposed adding up to 6,000 beds, rather than roughly 3,300. The blunder — which can’t be fixed unless state lawmakers intervene — comes amid a severe housing crunch that has pushed nearly 9,000 Cal State students onto a housing waitlist, forced hundreds of University of California students to live in hotels, and prompted Long Beach City College to allow students to sleep in their cars. It also comes as the state plans to increase enrollment by 15,000 students at UC and Cal State next year — further turbocharging the demand for housing.

In other housing news, more than a dozen cities across California are developing plans to restrict the type of housing that residents can build under a controversial law that, starting Jan. 1, effectively ends single-family zoning across the state, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

2. Californians on high alert for crime

Union Square visitors look at damage to the Louis Vuitton store after looters ransacked businesses late Saturday night in San Francisco. Nov. 20, 2021. Danielle Echeverria/San Francisco Chronicle via AP
Union Square visitors look at damage to the Louis Vuitton store after looters ransacked businesses on Nov. 20, 2021. Photo by Danielle Echeverria, San Francisco Chronicle via AP

Black Friday was a quieter-than-usual affair this year in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with seemingly more police officers and California Highway Patrol members out and about than holiday shoppers. The Los Angeles Police Department declared a tactical alert on Friday after a string of pre-Thanksgiving smash-and-grab robberies at high-end stores, which followed a wave of brazen thefts that rocked the Bay Area last weekend. Although shoplifting data remains scant and unreliable — for example, San Francisco’s monthly shoplifting rate doubled after just one Target store decided to use a new system that made it easier to report a majority of incidents — many Californians say they’re on high alert. In Los Angeles, for example, reported violent crime on public transportation through September 2021 was up 25% from the same time last year and up 9% from 2019, even though ridership hasn’t yet reached pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday approved a plan to increase the department’s budget by $213 million next year, and a San Francisco store where employees were robbed at gunpoint only reopened after hiring around-the-clock security guards with bulletproof vests — at a monthly cost of $30,000. Meanwhile, the Bay Area is mourning Kevin Nishita, a security guard who died Saturday from gunshot wounds inflicted by robbers attempting to steal camera equipment from KRON-TV reporters covering an Oakland smash-and-grab theft.

3. Climate-business tensions

Jorge Mijango of Ken’s Rototilling and Landscaping uses a chainsaw to cut trees for fire mitigation in Orinda on Nov. 16, 2021. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group

As California works to balance its environmental climate and its business climate, tensions are emerging in a few key areas:

  • Oil production. Newsom’s administration has approved 12 fracking permits this year and denied 109 — an unprecedented level of rejection that suggests the state has effectively embraced a ban on new fracking years ahead of its 2024 deadline. Kern County, which is the center of California’s oil industry, and the Western States Petroleum Association have sued Newsom, arguing the denials will cost the state jobs while making it more reliant on foreign oil and increasing already inflated gas prices.
  • Gas-powered tools. Newsom recently signed a bill banning the use of most gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers by 2024, setting aside $30 million to help small landscaping businesses and self-employed gardeners switch to electric. But many say the new law could push them out of business. “You are not going to be able to get the jobs done as fast,” Ken Tamplen, owner of Ken’s Rototilling and Landscaping, told CalMatters’ Jesse Bedayn. “You’re not going to be able to make as much money.”
  • Rooftop solar panels. California regulators are set to soon unveil proposed changes to the state’s rooftop solar subsidy program, including lower reimbursements and new fees for solar-powered homes. Supporters say such changes would insulate low-income residents from paying a disproportionate share of electric grid costs; opponents say they could spell trouble for the solar industry and hamper California’s ability to reach its clean energy goals.
  • Timber. California’s destructive wildfires are causing existential problems for the timber industry, which is struggling to process the overwhelming amount of dead and dying trees. “There aren’t enough loggers, there aren’t enough trucks, there aren’t enough foresters,” Drew Crane of Crane Mills told the San Francisco Chronicle. “A lot of it will go to waste” — resulting in a pileup of dry wood that could fuel future fires.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors is too small for 10 million people.

Time to pivot our COVID approach: California should shift away from controversial mask mandates and physical distancing orders and embrace antiviral medications, argues Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine.

Centering the voices of Native Californians: The state should ask its original inhabitants how they feel about protecting the environment, writes Juan Dominguez, a community organizer raised on the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo Indians Rancheria.

Other things worth your time

California chamber leader Allan Zaremberg has advice for the GOP. // Los Angeles Times

California Labor Federation votes to endorse Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez as its next leader. // Politico

Newsom reverses parole recommendation for Kern County man convicted of killing a toddler. // Bakersfield Californian

California’s execution moratorium raises question of reducing some of those sentences. // San Francisco Chronicle

The toll of one man’s mental illness: 17 criminal cases, six competency hearings, one failed conservatorship. // Los Angeles Times

As California prepares to raise marijuana tax, cannabis entrepreneur calls for tax revolt. // Sacramento Bee

Researchers urge changes to improve California’s education funding law. // EdSource

Ex-CalPERS members to launch pension ‘watchdog’ committee. // Sacramento Bee

Borenstein: CalPERS gambles with taxpayers’ money once again. // Mercury News

Tim Draper, who tried to break up California, now wants to break up unions. // The New Republic

Everyone’s moving to Texas. Here’s why. // New York Times Opinion

Record second-home purchases fueled by Bay Area wealth. // Mercury News

Supply-chain snarls leave Southern California swamped in empty shipping containers. // Wall Street Journal

Christmas tree frenzy comes early as California shoppers fear shortages. // San Francisco Chronicle

How to beat the drought? Inland Empire water agency wants to make it rain. // Daily Bulletin

Why the wind carries promise of a new economic boom for Humboldt County. // Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Oregon-born gray wolf dies after ‘epic’ California trek. // Associated Press

Anne Rudin, Sacramento’s first elected female mayor, dies at 97. // Sacramento Bee

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...