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California’s statewide mask mandate is back after a six-month hiatus.

Starting Wednesday, all residents will be required to wear face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, announced Monday. Ghaly said the mandate — which is scheduled to last through Jan. 15 — will help California blunt the effects of the omicron variant while also tamping down an apparent COVID-19 surge that’s resulted in the statewide case rate rising 47% since Thanksgiving.

California is also tightening its rules for events with more than 1,000 attendees: Unvaccinated residents must now show a negative COVID test result from the past 24 or 48 hours, depending on the type of test, instead of 72 hours. And the state is also recommending that all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, take a COVID test within three to five days of arriving in California.

  • Ghaly: “We know people are tired and hungry for normalcy. Frankly, I am, too. … That said … we are proactively putting this tool of universal indoor masking in public settings in place to ensure we get through a time of joy and hope without a darker cloud of concern and despair.”

Conspicuously absent from the Monday announcement was Gov. Gavin Newsom, who instead released a “social innovation impact report” highlighting the state’s private-public partnerships amid the pandemic.

Having Ghaly break the news may have been a way for the governor to avoid criticism for flexing his emergency powers — as he did last month by extending portions of California’s COVID state of emergency through March 2022. Newsom’s absence also underscores the political delicacy of reinstating coronavirus restrictions: In recent weeks, he’s taken pains to reassure Californians that more lockdowns are unlikely and nudged school districts to reconsider plans to force unvaccinated students back into online learning.

Indeed, the pandemic’s impact on schools is continuing to spark political reverberations across the state. On Monday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed took the unprecedented step of introducing a proposal to withhold city funding from classrooms unless the beleaguered school board — which has three members facing a recall election in February — changes its behavior.

And parents frustrated by school coronavirus policies are considering running for local or state office themselves — including Jonathan Zachreson, the founder of advocacy group Reopen California Schools. Zachreson recently filed a candidate intention statement to run for the state Assembly as a Republican — a marked turnaround for a former independent who voted for Newsom in 2018.

  • Zachreson told me Monday: “It takes rally after rally and letter after letter and phone call after phone call and there’s very little change — at some point you want to do something that makes a bigger difference. … It’s the Year of the Parent, this is the time.”

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 4,886,509 confirmed cases (+0.4% from previous day) and 74,685 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 61,315,927 vaccine doses, and 69.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Rooftop solar debate heats up

A worker installs solar panels in Hayward on April 29, 2020. AP Photo/Ben Margot
A worker installs solar panels in Hayward on April 29, 2020. Photo by Ben Margot, AP Photo

Who knew rooftop solar panels could be so controversial? On Monday, California’s utility regulators caused an uproar by proposing changes to the wildly successful incentive program that has resulted in more than 1.3 million rooftop solar systems across the state. As CalMatters’ Julie Cart explained to me, the California Public Utilities Commission’s proposal would reduce the payments that homeowners receive for selling excess solar power back to utilities — and charge them an average monthly fee of $57. The plan is backed by the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities — PG&E, Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy — which argue that California’s mix of solar rebates and tax incentives has subsidized wealthy families’ energy bills while burdening lower-income households with a larger share of grid maintenance costs. But many environmental advocates say the reduced incentives will actually push pricey rooftop solar installations farther out of reach for the state’s poorest residents and hamper California’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of 100% clean energy by 2045.

The Public Utilities Commission could vote as early as Jan. 27 on the proposal, which also includes a $600 million “equity fund” to help polluted neighborhoods access clean energy and financial incentives for homeowners and businesses to install batteries that would allow excess solar power to be stored and used at night, when the grid is most strained and the state most at risk of rolling blackouts. As the Los Angeles Times points out, Newsom could have a lot of sway over the final decision: His energy advisor, Alice Reynolds, is set to replace the commission’s outgoing president on Dec. 31, and the proposal’s main architect is exiting the commission this week for a Biden administration post — leaving Newsom to appoint her successor.

2. Will taxpayers see stimulus checks next year?

A man receives a stimulus check from a mailbox.
Image via iStock

Newsom hinted that he wants to use part of California’s estimated $31 billion budget surplus to send out another round of stimulus checks — but state lawmakers may not be as keen on the idea as the governor is. While outlining the Assembly Democrats’ budget proposal last week, Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco said he wants to spend a “significant portion” of the surplus on infrastructure, including $10 billion for school facilities and $10 billion for transportation projects, the Sacramento Bee reports.

  • State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat: “We’ll have some critical needs around infrastructure that need to be prioritized. If you’re sending rebates back instead of bolstering water systems and addressing sea level rise … you’re still shortchanging taxpayers.”

And Senate Democrats have proposed considering “future reforms to modernize” the law that forbids the state from spending more tax dollars per Californian than it did in 1978, once adjusted for inflation — and requires it to send at least some of the excess money back to taxpayers.

3. Winter storms drench California

People walk in the rain in downtown San Jose on Dec. 13, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond, Bay Area News Group

Heavy rain and strong winds lashed Northern California on Monday, bringing with them floods, evacuation orders, the threat of mudslides and rockslides, frost warnings and a 40-mile closure on Highway 1 set to last through this morning. This week is slated to usher in California’s biggest snowfall of the season — a boon for ski resorts forced to delay planned openings amid drier-than-usual conditions — and Southern California’s most significant storm of the season. But experts say all that rain and snow will only ease, not end, the state’s devastating drought.

Another, less powerful, storm is expected to sweep California on Wednesday and Thursday, bringing more relief to the parched state while also starkly underscoring the scope of its homeless crisis.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: President Joe Biden is helping unions attack California’s pension reform laws.

California is on track to create a ‘solar club’ for the rich: The state Public Utilities Commission has embraced changes that turn the clock back to when only the very wealthy could afford solar power, argues San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

Give people power to solve the climate crisis: It’s clear that top-down approaches to climate action simply don’t work, so California must implement a new model, writes Heidi Harmon, the former mayor of San Luis Obispo.

Other things worth your time

Transgender students explain why new California ‘deadnaming’ law matters. // CalMatters

City embraced plan to reform broken mental health care two years ago. Has it helped? // San Francisco Chronicle

Lawsuit over inmate death adds to scandal surrounding guards at California prison. // Sacramento Bee

First people of Orange County preserve a piece of their ancestral village. // Los Angeles Times

Could San Jose mobile home owners buy a $500 million piece of Silicon Valley? // Mercury News

For thousands of uninsured Central Valley residents, Covered California seeks to be the answer. // Bakersfield Californian

These Bay Area refineries want to ditch crude oil for biofuels. Critics say that’s a bad idea. // San Francisco Chronicle

Farallon Islands poison airdrop plan set for key vote. // Marin Independent Journal

With 2022 campaign on the horizon, Newsom has the public stage to himself. // Los Angeles Times

Easy Money: Inside the fraud, fortunes and failures of California’s unemployment department. // KCRA 3

The long, winding search for $20 billion in fake jobless claims. // Sacramento Bee

15 arrested in South Bay bust of catalytic converter theft ring. // San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Burger King franchisee cited $1.9 million for wage theft. // San Francisco Chronicle

Los Angeles city council pushes measure to explore divesting from Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever. // Forward

Elon Musk is Time’s Person of the Year 2021. // Time

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...