In summary

California’s statewide mask mandate is set to expire on Feb. 15, and state health officials may not extend it in an endemic COVID strategy.

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California is approaching yet another pandemic inflection point — one that could mark the state’s transition to treating COVID like any other virus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has hinted at a forthcoming “endemic strategy” for dealing with COVID-19 at least twice in the past two weeks. California’s statewide mask mandate is set to expire on Feb. 15 — and given decreasing test positivity rates, cities such as San Francisco relaxing their mask rules and photos of a maskless Newsom at last weekend’s NFC Championship game, state health officials may not be inclined to extend it.

Newsom’s health administration is experiencing changes of its own: California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the state’s top physician, announced late Tuesday that she is resigning Feb. 11 to “focus on prioritizing care for myself and my family.” The surprise departure comes less than two years after California’s public health director resigned amid a tech snafu resulting in a massive undercount of coronavirus cases.

But even as the state considers a shift in COVID policy, a statewide Public Policy Institute of California survey released Wednesday night found the virus continues to be a primary concern for many Californians. Some key takeaways:

  • 67% of Californians say the worst of the pandemic is behind us — a significant decrease from May 2021, when 86% thought so.
  • 42% fear being hospitalized for COVID a 14-percentage-point increase from May 2021.
  • 19% named COVID-19 as the most important issue for Newsom and state lawmakers to work on in 2022, followed by homelessness at 13% and jobs, the economy and inflation at 12%.
  • 59% approve of how Newsom is handling COVID, a percentage that has stayed more or less consistent since September 2020.

It may not be clear what path California will take post-omicron, but what is clear is that it will be divisive.

The battle over wearing masks in schools is heating up even in regions such as the Bay Area, with some San Francisco physicians circulating a petition calling on Newsom and state leaders to “immediately shift our public dialogue toward defining a path for removing all remaining COVID-19 restrictions in public schools” and others arguing that not worrying about the virus is a luxury few can afford.

Perhaps nowhere is the divide over COVID policies more stark than in Shasta County, where a Republican supervisor who faced a Tuesday recall election for his lackluster opposition to state restrictions appeared likely to be ousted from office — ceding control of the board of supervisors to officials linked to a local militia.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 7,941,318 confirmed cases (+0.3% from previous day) and 79,621 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 69,708,035 vaccine doses, and 73.2% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. Demystifying California crime

Police officers in Balwin Park on Aug. 6, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Police officers in Baldwin Park on Aug. 6, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

About two in three Californians say violence and street crime are either a big problem or somewhat of a problem in their local community today, according to the PPIC survey. And crime continues to dominate the headlines: A Tuesday morning shooting at an Oakland spa left the suspected shooter dead and a man in critical condition, while UCLA moved classes online Tuesday after a former lecturer — later arrested in Colorado — sent threatening messages to people on campus and posted a video referencing a mass shooting.

  • On Wednesday, state Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat, introduced a bill that would require the state Departments of Education and Justice to develop “model content” directing schools how to handle the threat or perceived threat of a mass shooting. The proposal would also mandate families to disclose whether they keep firearms at home, and require schools to share information on safe firearm storage and search student property for guns if there’s a credible violent threat.

But, as CalMatters’ Nigel Duara points out in this comprehensive explainer, California’s crime statistics are themselves a loaded weapon that can be pointed in any direction and manipulated to paint very different pictures. So what’s really going on with homicides, hate crimes and property crimes — and how many cases is law enforcement clearing? Nigel takes an in-depth look.

2. EDD wants to forgive most overpayments

The offices of the Employment Development Department in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
The offices of the Employment Development Department in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Some Californians may have received more money than they were technically entitled to under the federal government’s pandemic jobless benefits program, but they shouldn’t have to repay those funds unless the claims were fraudulent, the state unemployment department wrote in a Monday letter to Congress also signed by jobless agencies in every other state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The unemployment departments want the feds to make it easier to forgive overpayments for claimants who made honest mistakes — as of last month, California’s Employment Development Department had retroactively verified the eligibility of just 300,000 of 1.4 million recipients of federal pandemic jobless benefits.

  • The jobless agencies wrote: “Individuals receiving (those benefits) spent these funds months ago to help preserve their own economic stability. The likelihood of recovering these funds is low and the cost of states’ efforts to secure repayment far outweighs any monetary returns.”

That isn’t the only challenge EDD is facing: The agency, which on Tuesday welcomed its third director in two years, is also trying to crack down on a surge in fraudulent disability insurance claims.

3. Mountain lions vs. duplexes

A California mountain lion. Photo via iStock
A California mountain lion. Photo via iStock

One way to delay complying with California’s controversial new law ending most single-family zoning: declare the entirety of your town to be endangered mountain lion habitat.

  • That’s what Woodside — a wealthy town midway between San Francisco and San Jose — did last week, effectively blocking development under the new law until the state Fish and Game Commission decides whether to list the mountain lion as an endangered species, as first reported by local news outlet The Almanac
  • Woodside Mayor Dick Brown: “Every house that’s built is one more acre taken away from (mountain lions’) habitat. Where are they going to go?”
  • State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who’s proposed some of the state’s most ambitious housing laws: “I’m all for mountain lions. I’m also for people. You know, the ones who need homes. Can’t wait for the lawsuit against Woodside for this brazen violation of state law.” 

Woodside is just one of more than a dozen California cities trying to find ways to circumvent the law, as CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reported for the San Francisco Chronicle last year. Pasadena, for example, is considering creating more historic districts to exempt virtually the entire city from the law.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California may eventually realize progressives’ dream of social democracy, but not anytime soon.

The Working Families Party comes to California: Our state’s residents have moved to the left of elected leadership, but our agenda is barely being heard in Sacramento, argues Jane Kim, state director of the California Working Families Party.

California’s ag industry gets short shrift: Measuring the industry’s worth by its water use is a one-dimensional, inequitable and short-sighted lens by which to view the complex issue of water in our state, writes Kathleen Arambula-Reyna, a political science professor at Madera Community College.

Other things worth your time

Garcetti says he held his breath for maskless photo with Magic Johnson. // Deadline

Could a new policy approach solve inequality in California? // CalMatters

San Francisco becomes fourth California city to apologize to Chinese community for racist past. // CNN

Many Indigenous people see California mission bells as a reminder of painful history. // NPR

Let homeless people live in California Governor’s Mansion. // Los Angeles Times

A new SF housing complex for homeless people was faster, cheaper to build. So why isn’t it being replicated? // San Francisco Chronicle

After a fierce fight, San Jose abandons ‘extremely dangerous’ overpass project. // Mercury News

Single-payer health care is dead in California until these things change. // San Francisco Chronicle

Lorena Gonzalez is ready to unionize California. // Mic

California Reps. McCarthy, Pelosi are nation’s top fundraisers. // Los Angeles Times

LA mayoral raise fundraising: Who’s pulling in the most cash? // Los Angeles Magazine

Black Lives Matter ‘delinquent’ on financial disclosures, risks tax-exempt status, California AG warns. // Fox News

SF police will no longer cooperate with Boudin over police shooting investigations. // San Francisco Chronicle

Courtroom drama upends sentencing over $3 million California cannabis kidnap plot. // Mercury News

‘Remain in Mexico’ hearings off to a bumpy restart in San Diego. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Bid-rigging at county fair? Ex-employees saw troubling changes. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Tiny burrowing owls find safer homes in California with the help of these scientists. // National Geographic

Some beaches in Long Beach closed due to latest sewage spill. // Orange County Register

New wildfire reported Near Highway 1 in Big Sur amid winds. // 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...