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The more things change, the more things stay the same.

A little more than a year after the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in California, the state is bracing for yet another surge — and piling back on protections.

On Wednesday, the day California’s new indoor mask mandate went into effect, the state Department of Public Health quietly updated its online guidance to emphasize that the rules — which are set to last through Jan. 15 — apply to both public and private workplaces. Previously, the state had allowed most fully vaccinated workers to forgo masks.

Then the standards board of Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency, voted Thursday to, among other things, eliminate some distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated workers. Under the new temporary COVID workplace rules — which are slated to last from Jan. 14 to April 14 — workers exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the virus must quarantine for two weeks (though asymptomatic vaccinated employees will have the option to wear masks and social distance), and companies must make free COVID tests available to them at work.

  • Robert Moutrie, a California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate, told my colleague Grace Gedye: “We have serious concerns about the implications of those changes, both in a world where rapid COVID-19 tests are becoming less available and where excluding more workers from the workplace — who are showing no symptoms and have been vaccinated — is going to make operational difficulties for many employers in California who are already short-staffed and struggling with a labor shortage.”

But labor advocates say the changes will help protect workers: “Unfortunately, vaccination is not immunity, and vaccination doesn’t mean you can’t spread the disease,” Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe, told Grace.

Indeed, California health officials are bracing for what Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s public health officer, called a “deluge of omicron.” COVID hospitalizations have spiked 15% statewide in the last three weeks, from 3,439 patients on Nov. 23 to 3,971 on Wednesday, according to state data. And, as more COVID cases are confirmed across the state and uncertainty continues to swirl around the omicron variant, cancellations are pouring in.

Moved online: A massive January JPMorgan Chase health conference in San Francisco, which would have injected much-needed dollars into the city’s hard-hit hospitality sector.

Delayed indefinitely: Apple’s return to in-person work.

Pushed to Zoom: Stanford’s first two weeks of January classes — and instruction for the entire sixth-grade class at Travis Ranch School in Yorba Linda, which was recently hit with a COVID outbreak.

Cancelled: Thursday practice for the Sacramento Kings basketball team, which also shut down its facility amid reports that multiple players had tested positive.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 4,901,895 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 74,879 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 61,992,176 vaccine doses, and 69.9% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Jobless claims jump — again

Image via iStock

If COVID isn’t going away in California, neither are its economic effects. Despite ongoing efforts to unsnarl supply chain bottlenecks, a record 101 container ships were waiting Monday to unload cargo at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports — which nevertheless handled in November the lowest number of loaded inbound containers since June 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal. One reason for the slowdown: persistent worker shortages, a challenge that doesn’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. More than 57,000 Californians filed new jobless claims for the week ending Dec. 11, according to federal data released Thursday — an increase of nearly 2,000 from the week before.

  • Michael Bernick, an attorney at Duane Morris and a former director of the state Employment Development Department: “Heading into 2022, the main employment narratives in California are the slow return to work and low labor force participation rate (61.8% as of October) … and how the economy continues to be awash in federal and state government spending. … This inflation rate has undermined the wage gains for workers in California, particularly lower-wage workers, which was one of the positive results of the tight labor market of the past year.”

However, it appears that some federal spending might be curtailed, at least temporarily. With President Joe Biden’s massive Build Back Better spending package stalled in Congress, California families on Wednesday began receiving the final installment of the expanded child tax credit. Advocates warn that if the benefit isn’t resuscitated, nearly 2 million California children could fall back under the poverty line or even deeper into poverty.

2. California’s crime debate continues

The windows of the Valentino store in Union Square in San Francisco were boarded up on Nov. 25, 2021. Videos on social media showed masked people running with goods from several high-end retailers in the storied shopping area. Photo by Samuel Rigelhaupt / Sipa USA
The Valentino store windows in San Francisco were boarded up on Nov. 25, 2021. Photo by Samuel Rigelhaupt / Sipa USA

Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta are set to unveil “new state efforts and proposed investments to fight and prevent crime in communities across California.” But as California Democrats — including former Gov. Jerry Brownembrace tough-on-crime rhetoric, a little-known but influential committee is urging them to do the opposite. Earlier this year, the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code — which consists of five Newsom appointees and two state legislators — saw Newsom sign six of its proposals into law, including ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and limiting California’s gang enhancement law. Now, in its recently released annual report, the commission wants Newsom and lawmakers to consider other controversial criminal justice reforms, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. They include:

  • Repealing California’s three-strikes law, which requires sentences of 25 years to life for people convicted of a third felony after two serious or violent felonies.
  • Making eligible for parole inmates currently serving life-without-parole sentences after 25 years in prison.
  • In another recent report, the committee recommended ending the death penalty in California and resentencing many death row inmates to life in prison.

“California’s Penal Code must do more than incarcerate to make society safer for all,” the committee wrote in its annual report, citing research that found “incarceration is no better at reducing reoffending than … sanctions such as probation.” Michele Hanisee, president of Los Angeles County’s Association of Deputy District Attorneys, sees the committee’s work differently: “They’re … making the worst-of-the-worst murderers eligible for parole,” she told the Chronicle.

3. The next culture war: Gas stoves

A gas range with a burner on. Photo via iStock Photo
A gas range with a burner on. Photo via iStock

California and Texas aren’t just facing off over abortions and assault rifles — they’re also at odds when it comes to gas stoves and furnaces. In an attempt to combat climate change, more than 50 California cities since 2019 have restricted or banned natural gas hookups in homes and businesses — setting off a wave of similar actions in liberal-leaning cities across the country and prompting Texas and at least 19 other mostly red states to ban cities from restricting gas use, the New York Times reports.

But switching to gas stoves has been controversial even in California, in part because of the familiarity and allure of cooking with fire: “The fat drips down on flames, giving you that nice sear on your steak,” Tony Palermo, owner of Tony P’s Dockside Grill in Marina Del Rey, told the Los Angeles Times. “That is not happening with electric. How would you cook steaks? How would you cook pork chops?”

CalMatters commentary

How California can do right by its Native tribes: The state has an opportunity to begin to repair historic wrongs through a Newsom initiative known as 30×30, argue Morning Star Gali, tribal water organizer for Save California Salmon, and Kate Poole of the National Resources Defense Council.

Nurses have demonstrated their bravery amid the pandemic: It’s daunting to think about being a nurse in the real world and not just in school, but it’s a challenge I’m ready to take on, writes Melissa Canales, a nursing student at CSU San Marcos.

Other things worth your time

House bill would hold EDD accountable for backlogs by withholding funding. // KCRA

Rep. Alan Lowenthal won’t seek reelection in 2022. // Politico

Marcus Santiago, a San Francisco park ranger, has amassed $1 million in overtime since 2011. // Mission Local

California utility faces $550M in penalties for 5 wildfires. // SFGATE

San Francisco tenants made millions after suing landlords over bogus owner move-in evictions. // San Francisco Chronicle

San Diego County to end its troubled COVID-19 hotel program. // inewsource

‘Like a nightmare’: major rainstorm floods Santa Cruz homeless community. // The Guardian

California city investigating why fire personnel refused to enter facility to administer care. // Mercury News

Another San Diego County inmate dies from drinking too much water. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Tesla employee charged with ambushing, murdering co-worker with ‘ghost’ assault rifle after argument. // Mercury News

3 men held in overdose deaths of 2 women left at Los Angeles-area hospitals. // Associated Press

Anaheim High will keep ‘Colonists’ nickname but reimagine school mascot. // Orange County Register

When the economy, logistics, color, and COVID-19 collide in the Inland Empire. // Black Voice News

Water well drilling is depleting aquifers in California, leaving taps running dry. // Los Angeles Times

How we drained California dry. // MIT Technology Review

Ultra-rare, bizarre fish washes ashore near San Diego in state’s third time this year. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Best Christmas present ever: 112 new parks in California. // Los Angeles Times

Foon will see you Monday. I’ll see you in 2022! Happy holidays and Happy New Year.

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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...