What a difference a year makes.

On Wednesday, not long after the country’s first known case of the omicron COVID-19 variant was confirmed in San Francisco, Gov. Gavin Newsom held a press conference to promote vaccines and booster shots — and to reassure weary Californians that more lockdowns are unlikely.

  • Newsom: “There’s more panic than information around this variant. Doubling down on what we’re doing is the most important message. We can avoid shutting down our schools or businesses. None of us want to see that happen. I don’t want to see that happen. And I see no indication at this moment whatsoever that that’s in our immediate future.”

The message — which echoes President Joe Biden’s recent assertion that the omicron variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” — marks a stark contrast from the one Newsom delivered almost exactly a year ago: On Dec. 3, 2020, the governor announced a regional stay-at-home order tied to ICU capacity as a winter surge in COVID cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals across the state. That came on top of a month-long curfew that Newsom had unveiled just a few weeks before — “we’re sounding the alarm,” he said.

Now, with nearly 70% of California’s eligible population fully vaccinated, free and widely available shots, and a growing supply of boosters, the state is in a much better position than it was last winter, health experts say.

But the emergence of omicron — about which much remains unknown — also raises serious questions: How does the state plan to respond to a virus whose presence could stretch on indefinitely? Is Newsom’s recent move to extend portions of his original emergency proclamation through March 2022 a long-term solution? Will the state’s current strategy of promoting vaccines and booster shots be enough to tamp down the spread of new variants?

For experts who joined a Wednesday discussion on California’s sluggish economic recovery, co-hosted by CalMatters and the Milken Institute, one thing was clear: COVID has changed everything — maybe permanently. Here’s more from CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 4,810,164 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 73,822 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 58,560,386 vaccine doses, and 67.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. State slashes water supply for cities, farms

Water pours from a pipe near Madera on June 10, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Californians could soon see mandatory statewide water restrictions if there isn’t significant rainfall this winter, Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said Wednesday. As if that outlook weren’t dire enough, Nemeth also announced that contractors who rely on the State Water Project — which supplies drinking water to 27 million Californians and irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland — should expect 0% of their typical allocation next year. It’s the latest indication that California’s devastating drought is reaching unprecedented levels: The state hasn’t unveiled a 0% allocation since 2014, and has never done so before the month of January. Meanwhile, Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, is at its lowest point in history at 30% capacity — about half of its typical level for this time of year.

Nemeth said the State Water Project will send limited supplies to seven water districts to help meet critical health and safety needs. But regions hoping for a reprieve in the form of rainfall may be out of luck: Some Bay Area cities are on track to notch their warmest-ever start to December, and San Diego just experienced its driest November in 41 years. Meanwhile, state water agencies on Tuesday submitted a report to state lawmakers recommending that urban Californians slash their average water use by 6 gallons a day by 2030 to account for the intensifying effects of drought and climate change.

2. Don’t forget the housing crisis

Josh Lowe, 32, made a makeshift raft out of longboards and wood to get across the San Mateo Creek to where he has been staying in San Clemente on Nov. 6, 2021. Lowe moved to the woods with his dog Anna since the encampment on the CalTrans property was disbanded on August 27th. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters
Josh Lowe, 32, rows across the San Mateo Creek to a San Clemente encampment on Nov. 6, 2021. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters

Another persistent problem plaguing California: its affordable housing crisis. Of the more than 1 million renters who make less than 30% of the statewide area median income, none can afford average asking rent in any of California’s 58 counties — and those making less than 50% of the area median income can afford rent in only three counties, according to a new report from the California Housing Partnership, an affordable housing nonprofit based in San Francisco. Those findings are corroborated by the Southern California News Group’s third annual affordable housing report card, which gave a majority of local governments C’s and D’s for their progress on housing production goals. The report found that roughly 73% of the 109,000 housing permits cities and counties issued in 2020 were for units affordable only to higher-income households. 

Meanwhile, a poll released Wednesday by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute and the Los Angeles Times found that a whopping 94% of county voters see homelessness as a serious or very serious problem, and nearly 4 in 10 say that homeless people in their neighborhood make them feel significantly unsafe. The poll also found that 49% of Black voters have been homeless or housing insecure in the past year or know someone who has, compared to 42% of Latino voters, 29% of white voters and 25% of Asian American voters.

3. CA Dems tweak crime stance

The windows of the Dior store in Union Square in San Francisco were boarded up as of 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
Boarded-up windows of the Dior store in Union Square in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2021. Photo by Samuel Rigelhaupt, Sipa USA

California Democrats are embracing a tougher-on-crime approach ahead of next year’s elections and in the wake of brazen smash-and-grab robberies. In a Wednesday conversation with the Sacramento Press Club, Attorney General Rob Bonta said he plans to make an “important announcement” on Friday about organized retail theft. He referred to the crimes as “felonies” and noted that there are “more than enough tools in the California criminal justice toolbox to charge them as such.” Meanwhile, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo on Tuesday denounced a judge’s recent decision to grant supervised release to two men charged in a deadly Halloween shooting, tweeting, “I appreciate the purpose of bail reform, but releasing a homicide suspect without bail is outrageous. The pendulum has swung too far, and it’s our neighborhoods that endure the most crime that suffer as a result.” (Ironically, Bonta was one of the state Legislature’s leading proponents of bail reform before Newsom appointed him attorney general.)

The crime uptick has caught the attention of former President Donald Trump, who said Tuesday that said the National Guard should enter cities such as San Francisco where “Democrats don’t immediately stop smash-and-grab robberies.” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who’s facing a recall election in June, retorted that the “instigator of the Capitol smash and grab should stay out of SF politics.” Boudin could face scrutiny, however, for his office’s decision to not oppose the recent supervised release of Aziza Graves, who allegedly stole more than $40,000 in merchandise from a San Francisco Target store and was charged with 120 misdemeanor counts of petty theft and eight felony counts of grand theft.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s drought is causing profound and perhaps permanent changes to the nation’s largest agricultural industry.

Addressing California’s gun violence problem: Here are four ways the state can achieve dramatic reductions in gun violence and firearm suicides in the next five years, writes Brian Malte of the Hope and Heal Fund.

Solving California’s nurse shortage: To help attract and retain nurse graduates, hospitals could offer to help pay back student loans, argues Jennifer Kim, a nursing student at CSU San Marcos.

Other things worth your time

Jacqueline Avant, wife of music executive Clarence Avant, fatally shot in Beverly Hills home. // Los Angeles Times

Assemblymember Jim Frazier will resign, triggering a Bay Area special election. // San Francisco Chronicle

Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna will challenge Villanueva in Los Angeles County Sheriff race. // Daily News

In one California city, rising prices overshadow economy’s strength, spelling trouble for Democrats. // Washington Post

Mayor Breed calls for change to state law to expand involuntary mental health treatment. // San Francisco Standard

U.S. drug crisis: In Fresno’s meth hell, there’s no antidote. // CNN

California addiction rehab CEO, indicted on federal charges, died with fentanyl in his system. // Mercury News

One San Diego school district wants to create an in-person option for unvaccinated students. // San Diego Union-Tribune

State appeals court rejects long-standing challenge to California bullet train. // Los Angeles Times

U.S. energy chief hints California may grant reprieve to its last nuclear plant. // Reuters

Oil demand, climate change clash in California pipeline plan. // Associated Press

Labor talks to start in 2022 at congested West Coast ports. // Wall Street Journal

California contains parts of 3 of the deadliest U.S. interstates, report shows. // Sacramento Bee

Tejon Ranch will build 19,300 “zero emission” homes. // Los Angeles Times

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...