In summary

How long will California be able to avoid shutdowns of schools, health care facilities and businesses if the omicron wave doesn’t peak soon?

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Starting today, Sonoma County is banning large gatherings for the next month. Los Angeles County on Tuesday urged residents to postpone nonessential gatherings and avoid some activities. The state prison system on Saturday suspended in-person visits as COVID surges among employees and inmates. A growing number of hospitals are cancelling or postponing certain surgeries.

Sound familiar?

Although both Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, have repeatedly stressed that California doesn’t foresee further COVID-related shutdowns, they’re happening anyway as more people enter quarantine — raising questions about how long the state will be able to keep overburdened and understaffed schools, health care facilities and businesses open if the omicron wave doesn’t peak soon.

Newsom on Tuesday signed an executive order that allows schools through March 31 to extend substitute teachers’ assignments, ease the pathway for retired educators to return to classrooms, and expedite the hiring of short-term substitute teachers.

  • Newsom: “I think the surgeon general under the Obama administration said the most significant preventable disease in this country is loneliness, social isolation. My gosh, that was before COVID. And our kids have lost a connection to their friends, their community, to the normalcy of the cadence of life. … I’m very, very sensitive to this and the learning opportunities that are lost because kids are not safely in school.”

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest, reopened Tuesday — but, with more than 62,000 students and staff testing positive for COVID, nearly 2,000 district employees had to step in to keep things running. Hayward Unified on Monday moved online for at least a week after more than 500 students tested positive and teachers were absent from more than half of classrooms. Palo Alto managed to avoid shuttering Monday only after 450 parent volunteers filled positions ranging from custodians to in-classroom roles; parents have also been asked to help supervise classrooms in Sacramento City Unified.

Meanwhile, students and teachers in both Oakland and San Francisco Unified are threatening sickouts, saying they won’t show up to school without heightened health and safety protocols. West Contra Costa Unified, which reopened Tuesday after closing for two days with no instruction, is now requiring employees to wear KN95 masks and students to wear surgical masks.

The situation is similarly dire in other workplaces. More than 800 of 12,200 Los Angeles Police Department employees are out sick this week, and COVID-positive officers tend to be gone for an average of 24 days, Chief Michel Moore said. Santa Clara County on Monday backed off from a booster mandate for health care workers at the request of already strained hospitals. And nearly 4,000 prison workers were COVID-positive on Tuesday, a more than 212% increase from the beginning of the month.

Restaurants are also shuttering across the state, and the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Rafael recently joined 21 others across the country in begging Congress to provide emergency relief to stave off permanent closures and “catastrophic” economic impacts.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 6,086,557 confirmed cases (+2.4% from previous day) and 76,564 deaths (+0.02% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 66,518,035 vaccine doses, and 71.8% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Big health bills take big step

Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, discusses his bill that would pay for the universal health care bill, during a news conference at the Capitol in Sacramento on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Kalra's universal health care bill stalled last year, in part because there was no plan to pay for it. On Thursday Kalra unveiled a second bill that would raise taxes on some business and individuals to pay for it. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo
Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat, discusses his single-payer health care bill in Sacramento on Jan. 6, 2022. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

Tuesday was a big day for the Assembly Health Committee, which pushed forward three controversial bills that failed to advance last year. They now face a Jan. 31 deadline to pass the Assembly — at which point the state Senate would take them up for consideration. They include:

  • A proposal to create a state-funded single-payer health care system called CalCare, though some Democratic lawmakers only approved it grudgingly and said they wouldn’t vote for it on the Assembly floor unless certain questions get answered before then. (They also have yet to consider a separate bill that would pay for the program with a series of tax hikes.) Meanwhile, Newsom traveled to Fresno to promote his own health care plan, which would expand access to Medi-Cal, the state’s health care program for low-income Californians, to all eligible residents regardless of immigration status. The two events, scheduled within hours of each other, suggest that Newsom and Democratic lawmakers could be primed for a health care collision course this year.
  • A proposal that would allow the city and county of Los Angeles, Oakland and the city and county of San Francisco to launch supervised drug injection sites, where staff would be on hand to prevent opioid users from overdosing.
  • And a proposal that would rewrite state licensing rules for nursing homes in the wake of an investigation from CalMatters’ Jocelyn Wiener that spotlighted an opaque licensing process plagued by indecision, delays and misleading information. Jocelyn found that the California Department of Public Health has allowed the state’s largest nursing home owner, Shlomo Rechnitz, to operate facilities for years through a web of companies even as their license applications languish in “pending” status — or were outright denied.

2. Will state resurrect COVID sick leave?

Alexis Reyna works at Chalio Mexican Restaurant in East Los Angeles on May 26, 2021. Legislators are discussing supplemental paid sick leave for COVID-19. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
Alexis Reyna works at Chalio Mexican Restaurant in East Los Angeles on May 26, 2021. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

Both Newsom and top Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to reviving extra paid sick leave for COVID-19 — but a lot of key details still have to be worked out, CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal reports. Chief among them: the cost. California’s previous COVID paid leave program expired on Sept. 30, along with the federal tax credit that funded it — and business groups are concerned that the price tag for a new program could fall on their shoulders.

It isn’t just unvaccinated workers, though: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should quarantine for 5 days after testing positive — a rule that California recently, and controversially, made optional for health care employees amid a severe staffing shortage. And the state may help cover some employers’ costs: “In the absence of new federal funding to assist small businesses with COVID sick leave requirements, I support augmenting the governor’s budget to add state funding for this purpose,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.

3. So much money, so many choices

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

Newsom may have just unveiled his priorities for spending California’s massive budget surplus — and state lawmakers have their own ideas — but what would you do? Well, you can now turn your vision into (virtual) reality by playing this super-fun Surplus Spender game created by CalMatters’ John Osborn D’Agostino. Tax (or don’t) Californians as you like, and pour money into whatever pot you want — just remember that the state can’t run a deficit! And once you finish your plan, compare it to those created by others — and share it on social media.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s school crisis gets short shrift in Newsom’s budget proposal.

Allow direct-to-consumer shipping for craft distillers: State lawmakers should seize the opportunity to modernize California’s alcohol shipping laws, argues Cris Steller, executive director of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

How to actually get tough on crime: California shouldn’t seek answers too far on either side of the pendulum — the best approach is to combine accountability with opportunity and rehabilitation, writes Karen Pank, executive director of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

Other things worth your time

Clinics say California’s new Medicaid drug program will force them to cut services. // California Healthline

UCSF COVID doctor: Hospital surge isn’t what you may think. // SFGATE

Inmate slayings reported at two California prisons over weekend. // Sacramento Bee

Off-duty LAPD officer is fatally shot in South Los Angeles. // Los Angeles Times

Firing upheld for California police who played video game during holdup. // Associated Press

‘Grab and run’ theft at Kohl’s store leads to Sacramento County chase, 4 arrests. // Sacramento Bee

Kin of dead sex abuse victim sue under new California law. // Associated Press

California budget surplus could lead to early CalPERS debt payments. // Sacramento Bee

How Newsom’s proposed budget could help ports shore up supply chain, reduce pollution. // Daily News

San Diego Board of Supervisors chooses Nathan Fletcher to chair a second year. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Many San Francisco tech workers have a new side hustle: Local politics. // NBC News

Crows everywhere, and Sunnyvale’s going to do something about it. // Mercury News

The true story behind the West Coast’s only native oyster. // Alta Online

Endangered salmon are appearing in Marin where they haven’t been in years. // San Francisco Chronicle

Redwood forest owned by ‘King Tut of Hoarders’ in Santa Cruz Mountains begins new chapter. // Mercury News

Environmentalists sue Point Reyes National Seashore over cattle ranches. // San Francisco Chronicle

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...