In summary

With the California COVID test positivity rate dropping to 1.9%, local governments are racing to reverse strict pandemic policies.

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At 11:59 p.m. tonight, California’s statewide mask mandate for schools and child care centers is set to expire — marking an end to one of the state’s most consistent, and contentious, COVID policies.

Although school mask wars are far from over — numerous districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Sacramento City Unified, plan to continue requiring face coverings until further notice — the end to the statewide rule marks what is possibly California’s most decisive move yet to turn the page on the pandemic.

And with the statewide test positivity rate slipping to 1.9% on Thursday — a figure not seen since July — local governments are also racing to reverse strict pandemic policies.

Meanwhile, the federal government on Thursday extended its mask mandate for planes and public transportation — which was set to expire on March 18 — through April 18, but said it will use the extra month to prepare guidelines for lifting the rule.

The rapid shedding of pandemic precautions has raised concerns for some Californians, who point out that the virus continues to pose a serious threat to immunocompromised people and vulnerable communities. As CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reported, COVID has actually become deadlier for Black Californians since vaccines became widely available.

The quick policy reversals have also raised questions about how permanent any of these rule changes really are.

Still, that California is paring down its pandemic response was evident from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s State of the State address Tuesday night. The governor didn’t mention COVID until midway through his speech, and kept his comments on the pandemic brief. “I want to take a moment to thank all of you … for all you did these past two years to help keep us safe,” he told state lawmakers, before pivoting to the topic of homelessness.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 8,422,875 confirmed cases (+0.04% from previous day) and 86,185 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 72,069,472 vaccine doses, and 74.1% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. Gas prices keep soaring

A Valero gas station in Sacramento on March 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
A Valero gas station in Sacramento on March 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

California’s average price for a regular gallon of gas zoomed to $5.69 on Thursday, up 11 cents from the day before — likely increasing Newsom and state lawmakers’ urgency in settling on a plan to help Californians hurting at the pump. They’ve thrown a lot of ideas around in recent weeks — sending rebates, pausing the state’s gas tax increase, eliminating it altogether — but how would those proposals work, and what how much relief would they actually provide residents? CalMatters’ Grace Gedye takes a closer look.

In related news:

2. Wiener critiques CEQA

Senator Scott Wiener, right, speaks during a press conference announcing revisions to Senate Bill 50 the "More HOMES Act" on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group
Sen. Scott Wiener, right, speaks during a press conference on Jan. 7, 2020 in Oakland. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group

As state lawmakers rush to find a legislative solution to help UC Berkeley avoid a court order to cap its enrollment for the upcoming academic year, state Sen. Scott Wiener, the San Francisco Democrat who leads the Senate Housing Committee, had some choice words for CEQA — the state’s landmark environmental law that formed the basis for the enrollment cap. Here’s a look at key excerpts from Wiener’s interview with Politico, which suggests that some prominent California Democrats are increasingly souring on CEQA:

  • On CEQA spiraling out of control: “CEQA is an incredibly important law in terms of environmental protection and making sure that we’re analyzing projects that may actually harm the environment, such as building a new dam or expanding a highway. Unfortunately … at this point, CEQA is the law that swallowed California. … CEQA has really spiraled, and I think the general public is now seeing in a very real way what’s been happening for a long time.”
  • On preserving CEQA’s core: “I’m not advocating to eliminate CEQA or anything like that. But we do want to focus CEQA on actual environmental protection, and we don’t want CEQA to be used as a tool to undermine environmental protection.”
  • On the difficulty of CEQA reform: “This train wreck has definitely highlighted for the broader public the problems with never-ending CEQA expansion. … But, with that said, CEQA is big and expansive, and a lot of stakeholders have an interest here. … At certain times, you have outrageous situations that show a significant public policy failure, and you have broad public support for change, but the politics still drag down reform efforts.”

For more:

3. 2022 election updates

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Faulconer speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles on Feb. 2, 2021. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

With the deadline quickly approaching for Californians to file paperwork declaring their intention to run in the June 7 statewide primary election, let’s dive into the latest updates:

CalMatters commentary

Restricting natural gas is a recipe for blackouts: California policymakers are pushing us headlong into another energy crisis by pretending the wind and sunshine will save us, argues Lance Christensen, vice president of government affairs at the California Policy Center.

California’s travel industry needs a boost: Other American travel destinations are gaining ground on California and making investments to inspire travel at the expense of the Golden State’s economy, writes Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association.

Other things worth your time

Woman linked to S.F. crime through rape-exam DNA speaks out. // San Francisco Chronicle

California correctional officer charged with killing girlfriend after reporting death as suicide. // Los Angeles Times

Fresno State harassment probes hurt by fear of retaliation. // Fresno Bee

Former SJSU athletic trainer charged by Justice Department in sex abuse scandal. // Mercury News

As Stanford mourns Katie Meyer, university promises to act on string of student deaths. // San Francisco Chronicle

It’s not just doctors and nurses. California veterinarians are burning out, too. // KQED

Why L.A.’s next mayor may struggle to hire more cops. // Los Angeles Times

California labor advocates want stronger enforcement of paid sick leave laws. // Sacramento Bee

Lateefah Simon, only Black member, removed from BART board over home move. // Mercury News

Commission raises pay of Oakland City Council members above $100,000. // Mercury News

It didn’t pass: City had ‘no authority’ to thwart voters’ will on Measure C, court rules. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Assembly bill would tax house flippers, those who sell homes a few years after buying. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Yosemite National Park to force California homeowners from homes. // Fresno Bee

S.F. homeless deaths more than doubled during the pandemic’s first year — but not because of COVID. // San Francisco Chronicle

L.A. could limit how landlords can screen potential tenants. // Los Angeles Times

Redistricting gets political as California school boards draw new boundaries. // EdSource

Ukraine, NATO and the DSA are L.A. election issues. // Los Angeles Times

13 people injured in fiery Caltrain crash in San Bruno. // Mercury News

Mummified body found inside wall of California convention center. // NBC 15

Environmental groups are united in California’s rooftop solar fight, with one notable exception. // Inside Climate News

Plan now for daylight saving time: Experts offer advice for staying healthy and rested. // Sacramento Bee

See you Monday.

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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...