CVIndependent

Wed06032020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Yesterday in this space, we discussed the fact that you should take whatever you read regarding the science of COVID-19 with a grain of salt—because things are moving so fast right now.

“We will indeed get to answers eventually—because an unprecedented number of very smart people are working on this problem, and science is an amazing thing,” I wrote.

Well … the same thing goes for speculation about the timing of things.

I think it’s safe to say that we’re all getting tired of the stay-at-home order. I think it’s also safe to say that we’re going to have to deal with the order for more than a few weeks longer. But beyond that … I don’t think anything is safe to say.

Why? We just don’t know a whole hell of a lot about this virus yet. We don’t know what treatments may emerge. We don’t know how widely available accurate testing—of antibodies and for the virus itself—will be in six weeks, six months, etc. We really know very little about COVID-19.

And you know what? This lack of knowledge really, really sucks. We all want this to be over, and the lack of an end date we can all look forward to is annoying as heck.

Several articles were making the rounds earlier today that focused in on a statement made during a New York Times audio roundtable by a bioethicist and professor named Zeke Emanuel. Emanuel said that large gatherings like concerts and sporting events would be the last “normal” things to return, and then  dropped this nugget: “Realistically, we’re talking fall 2021 at the earliest.”

Now THAT is depressing. And you know what? There’s a very good chance that we may not see the return of the largest events until the fall of 2021.

But … with all due respect to Mr. Emanuel, he doesn’t know enough to make a pronouncement using the terms “realistically” and “at the earliest.” Nobody does.

We all need to prepare ourselves, as best we can, for the worst. But we also need to avoid falling into depressive holes because of some thing some expert said—especially when, upon further examination, the thing that expert said is demonstrably unverifiable, unknowable.

There’s so much we don’t know. But we’re learning a little more each day, and literally the entire world is working on this problem. For now, we need to take solace in that.

Today’s links:

• The big news of the day: Gov. Newsom is going to work with the governors of Oregon and Washington on a plan to reopen the West Coast. He said we’d get some preliminary details tomorrow—but don’t expect hard dates.

• The city of Palm Springs says it’s now mandatory to wear masks at essential businesses. The county had already issued such a mandate, but this move makes it easier for code enforcement and law enforcement to force compliance.

• One of the most important questions in determining how we move forward, according to the World Health Organization, remains unanswered: It’s still unclear whether COVID-19 survivors are immune to the disease going forward.

• From our partners at CalMatters via the Independent: While the stay-at-home order has drastically decreased air pollution across the state—and world—scientists are concerned about an apparent link between long-term exposure to pollution and a higher coronavirus risk.

• The state insurance commissioner has ordered companies to issue premium discounts for at least a couple monthsbecause, for example, fewer cars on roads means fewer costly accidents.

• The first saliva-based test for COVID-19 has received a thumbs-up from the government.

• A whole lot of educators are concerned that the closure of schools is going to set students back.

• The Trump administration has asked for more time to complete the 2020 Census.

Is a furniture store an essential business? Mathis Bros. has decided the answer is “yes,” and has apparently reopened its stores.

• I’ve sang the praises of The Conversation in this space before, and I’m gonna do it again, because where else could you read an understandable academic analysis of why porn use is on the rise (pun intended) (sorry) during the pandemic?

• If you love art, take note: Many galleries are offering “online exhibitions,” including Palm Desert’s CODA Gallery, which is currently highlighting the raku ceramics of Karen Shapiro.

That’s all for now. Submit your online events to our calendar! Tomorrow is the final, final deadline for submissions to our coloring book project—and participating artists get a cut of the sales, which are slated to start later this week! Please, if you’re able, send us a few bucks to help is continue doing local, independent journalism. Oh, and wash your hands, and wear a mask when you absolutely must leave the house. Back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Blood tests for antibodies to the novel coronavirus will be “foundational, fundamental,” to sending Californians back to work, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Monday—but medical experts caution that there’s still a lot we don’t know about whether the tests are reliable enough to ensure people’s safety.

Testing people’s blood for antibodies may help determine who has already had the disease and recovered. But just because someone tests positive for antibodies doesn’t necessarily mean they are immune to the virus—or that they will remain that way over time.

Antibodies are immune proteins that attack viruses and other pathogens. Unlike the diagnostic tests that are backlogged across the country, antibody tests—sometimes called serologic tests—don’t sniff out the virus itself. Instead, they search the blood for these proteins, teasing out who has been infected, and who hasn’t.

“We really need the antibody test. The whole country is waiting for a good antibody test,” said Philip Norris, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and vice president of research at Vitalant Research Institute. “It will change how we can address this epidemic so dramatically. We’re operating with blinders on now.”

Newsom said that figuring out whether people have antibodies to the virus “will allow us to process new protocols in order to get people back into the workforce, or least back into society in more traditional ways.”

Charity Dean, assistant director at the California Department of Public Health, congratulated Stanford University about its development of an antibody test on Saturday. “We’re very excited that this is a California home-grown test that is going to be rolled out in the next week for actual use on Californians,” Dean said.

Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Kim said that the university has developed two antibody tests—one for use in research, and the other for use in the lab. But she declined to discuss the timeframe or make any experts available for an interview.


Some People Already Are Being Tested

Antibody testing of some people already is occurring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using the tests to survey hotspots for viral spread. A team at Vitalant is testing blood donors from across the country with multiple antibody screens.

Stanford has rolled out a community-wide antibody surveillance effort, The Mercury News reported. And the Food and Drug Administration recently granted emergency use authorization to one antibody test developed by a company called Cellex.

But even when a reliable test is developed, its production and use has to be scaled up to reach millions of people. 

There’s a balance to navigate, said David Pride, associate director of University of California, San Diego’s, clinical microbiology lab—between waiting until scientists fully understand immunity to the novel coronavirus, or allowing people to go out in public again.

“We can know the answers eventually,” he said. “But what are we going to do three months from now? What are we going to tell people—stay at home, or go out? So there’s the strict science, ‘We have to go with the data,’ and then there’s the, ‘What is practical to get life back to normal?’ And those two things are almost in direct opposition.”

Norris expects to see the test prioritized for healthcare workers—for whom every extra bit of protection helps.

“At the medical centers, everybody would love to get an antibody test so that we can apportion those on the front line, and give those jobs to folks who already have antibodies,” he said. “So in theory, I do think it’s a great idea.”


Does Immunity Last?

Relying on antibody tests to determine who can avoid the shelter-in-place order means answering a big question: Can you get the new coronavirus twice?

Right now, reports are mixed. But preliminary findings in monkeys suggest that once infected with the virus, reinfection was unlikely a month later. The evidence hasn’t yet been published in an academic journal, but a team of infectious disease experts called the results reassuring in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“I think it’s probably a good assumption that if you had (the virus), and you developed an antibody response, you’re unlikely to get it again in the short term,” Pride said.

Researchers around the world are racing to find out for certain—and whether protection persists long-term.

“It won’t be tomorrow,” Norris said. “But people are working hard to make it happen.”

The epidemic started only a few months ago, so there have been no long-term investigations into immunity, according to an article published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There are also no biological markers yet to separate those who are still vulnerable from those who are immune, such as the levels of antibodies that are protective.

“We don’t know what the correlation is between the antibody levels that we measure and the protection that’s conferred by that antibody,” said Philip Felgner, director of the vaccine research and development center at the UC Irvine School of Medicine. “That’s the link that we don’t have yet.”

Early research suggests that most people infected start producing antibodies against the novel coronavirus between one and two weeks after showing symptoms. And preliminary studies hint that these antibodies can neutralize the virus. Μore research is needed to bear that out.

To test whether antibodies can block the virus from penetrating cells, Norris’ colleague at Vitalant created a safer stand-in for the virus by equipping the more benign vesicular stomatitis virus with a key coronavirus protein. Then he mixed his declawed virus with cells, and added serum from two patients who had recovered.

The antibodies blocked the virus from getting inside the cells, preventing a successful infection. That’s the rationale behind treating sick patients with plasma filled with antibodies from people who have recovered. However, clinical trials are needed to determine if it works. 

There’s another open question: How long does immunity last?Long-term follow-ups of people who survived the first SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003 suggest that their antibodies lasted for about two years, before disappearing in about a quarter of the study participants after three years

Studies of milder coronaviruses indicate that reinfection is possible, but that the symptoms tend to be less severe the second time around. 

In the 1990s, a team of scientists in the United Kingdom spritzed “nasal washings” containing a mild coronavirus up the noses of 15 volunteers. Ten became infected; eight came down with colds; and a year later, most of the infected volunteers had slightly higher levels f antibodies in their blood than the volunteers who weren’t infected. 

When the volunteers were re-exposed a year later, all five who hadn’t been infected the first time became infected, and one showed symptoms. Of the ones who had been infected the previous year, two-thirds became re-infected—but none developed symptoms. 

Again, it’s hard to draw conclusions from such a small study. But that, and the possibility that the virus itself might change over time, is why Felgner cautions against pinning hopes on the idea that antibodies mean imperviousness to the virus. Instead, he proposed a more measured view:

“They’re going to have to say this immune response that’s being measured here doesn’t necessarily protect me entirely from this infection. But it may reduce the severity if I do get another exposure,” he said.


The Worst-Case Scenario: False Security

It’s one thing to use an antibody test academically to investigate the virus—where it spreads and how people’s bodies fight it off. It’s another thing to rely on it to shape public policy and determine who should take on greater risks of exposure—which is what Newsom has hinted at. 

Newsom said last week that testing for antibodies “is all part of our strategy to get people … back into some semblance of normalcy.”

But it’s still too early for Felgner to be completely comfortable with that idea. Antibody responses vary from person to person. Some may not make enough or send the right kinds to the lungs to fight off the virus.

“That’s what gives everybody who works on the science a queasy feeling of insecurity—because there are so many obvious things that need to be checked, to get confidence in this,” Felgner said. “And we don’t have those answers yet.”

Still, those answers are coming. Felgner’s team is planning to survey healthcare workers over time for a constellation of antibodies. The goal is to compare these antibody fingerprints to symptoms to understand why some get severe disease, and others escape relatively symptoms-free. 

Inaccurate tests could put people at risk if the results indicate that someone has antibodies, when in fact, they don’t—a result known as a false positive. That could happen if a test detects antibodies against other coronaviruses, like the ones that cause colds, and misinterprets them as antibodies against the novel coronavirus.

“So suddenly you’re getting a lot of positives where you shouldn’t, and people falsely think they’re protected,” Norris said. “That would be the worst-case scenario.”

That’s why researchers around the state are carefully vetting which tests to use. Nam Tran, associate professor and senior director of clinical pathology at University of California, Davis, said his team is working with a Southern California company called Diazyme to develop an in-house antibody test.

“I’ve received over 100 emails from numerous manufacturers—some I’ve never even heard of before,” Tran said. “You don’t want to jump on it out of desperation and have a bad test. Can you imagine I tell a patient or an employee ‘Oh, you’re immune to COIVID-19,’ and it turns out they weren’t weren’t? We can’t do that.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Some days are OK. Other days, not so much.

That seems to be the experience most of us are going through as we approach the three-week mark of California’s stay-at-home order. (Yeah, the statewide order hasn’t even been in place for three weeks yet; it came down Thursday, March 19.)

Yesterday was an OK day for me. I got up and did some work. I took a nap. I did a little more work. I made a delicious dinner—shrimp-and-scallop ceviche, and London broil—and then the hubby and I watched Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and various cooking/food videos on YouTube. My mood throughout the day was, while not exactly exuberant, OK.

Today, not so much.

My funk started off with what should have been fantastic news: My orthopedic doctor cleared me to resume playing softball. I dislocated my right elbow almost nine weeks ago, and while my arm is not yet 100 percent, it’s stable and healthy enough to play, albeit with some restrictions and cautions.

Logically, this is wonderful. It means all the physical therapy and the at-home exercises and hard work I’ve put into my right arm has paid off. But emotionally, it was a stark reminder that there’s no softball anymore—or, well, anything else outside of the house anymore—at least not for the foreseeable future.

Then the news about Boris Johnson hit me. Now, I am not a fan of Boris Johnson. In fact, I think he’s kind of a putz. But the fact that a prominent world leader—the prime minister of Great Britain!—is fighting for his life in an ICU because of COVID-19, for some reason, smacked me upside the head. Again, I don’t know why it did. It just did.

Then I read this. In yesterday’s Daily Digest, I referred to a story about a tiger in a New York zoo that apparently got this damn virus from a zoo employee. Well, yesterday, the American Veterinary Medical Association—while making it clear there’s very little evidence pets can be threatened by, transmit or get ill from SARS-CoV-2—said this: “Out of an abundance of caution and until more is known about this virus, if you are ill with COVID-19 you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people.”

Dammit. That was it for me. The funk was solidified. F--- this damn virus.

I debated just saying screw it and going to bed. But I didn’t. Instead, I listened to more silly ’80s music, and then I watched a couple of videos that, while making me weepy, managed to make me feel a little better.

As for the first video, you may have seen it already, given it’s already gotten nearly 4.2 million YouTube videos in less than 24 hours: the second episode of John Krasinski’s Some Good News. It’s worth the not-quite 17 minutes of your time it’ll take to watch it, I promise.

The second is more personal. Here’s a 90-second video from a TV news station in Reno, Nevada. It’s about a family that gets dressed up in unicorn costumes and wanders around nearby neighborhoods every night—just to bring good cheer. The matriarch of the family, Jaunice, has been a friend of mine since middle school; her husband, Matt, has been a friend since we were in high school. I may have been the best man at their wedding. Anyway, at the -54 second mark, they visit a woman in a little maroon-colored house. That woman is my mom, and that visit came at the tail end of a scary illness, involving a lot of coughing, that my mom picked up a couple of weeks ago. (What was that illness? Dunno. She was never tested. I just know it scared the hell out of my family.) I requested that the Unicorn Squad make her a visit a while back, and they obliged. That visit made my mom’s month.

I hope these videos make your day—or at least make it a little better, as they did for my day.

And now, today’s links:

• Our beer columnist points out that there’s never been a better time to make your own beer at home. If you’re interested in homebrewing, here’s how to start.

• Want to know why it’s good to wear a mask, and why it may or may not be good to wear gloves, when you go to a store? A UC Riverside epidemiologist explains it all.

• Seen ads or news about an at-home COVID-19 test? They’re not really a thing, at least not yet, according to the Los Angeles Times.

• The Desert AIDS Project continues to help lead the way in the local battle against the effects of COVID-19. The latest move: DAP has started a support group for people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

• In related news, our friends at Wabi Sabi Japan Living have started a virtual food drive on the Desert AIDS Project’s behalf.

• Some good news: Gov. Newsom says the state has enough ventilators for now, so he’s loaning some to states, including New York, that currently don’t have enough.

• While we humans stay inside, animals keep on keepin’ on—including the mountain goats at The Living Desert. Meet one of the baby mountain goats that was just born.

• Here are more specifics on Palm Springs’ eviction moratorium. And this literally came in just as we were about to hit send: The state Judicial Council has halted evictions statewide.

• The California Desert Arts Council and the La Quinta Arts Foundation have created a $50,000 fund to help artists. It’s called Keep Art Alive.

• Because so few people are driving these days, Allstate insurance is giving $600 million back to its auto-insurance customers.

• First, Dr. Drew Pinsky made the TV rounds, dismissing COVID-19 as a threat. Now he’s trying to use copyright laws to erase videos of him making these dangerous and irresponsible comments from the internet.

A lot of people won’t get stimulus checks because of their tax status. NBC News explains.

• Rep. Raul Ruiz gets some love from The New York Times, in this piece about doctors and medical experts in Congress—and how some of them, if not all of them, have been speaking out.

• More video cheer: Randy Rainbow is back with another delightful song parody. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Andy!

That’s enough for today. Wash your hands. If you’re an artist, send us art for our coloring book by Friday. If you can spare a buck or two, help us continue to do quality local journalism that’s free to all. Be safe. Reach out to an old friend and see how they’re doing. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

I think I speak for all of us when I ask the question: How long is all of this going to going on?!

The only correct answer, of course, is that nobody knows. Nobody. We’ve never dealt with a worldwide crisis like this during the information age. We’ve never had so many smart, qualified people working on fixing a problem at the same time. And we’ve never before seen such rapid devastation—both in terms of health and the economy—strike the entire world, all at once.

Every day, there’s good news that offers hope—including hints that treating COVID-19 patients with plasma from people who have recovered may just help treat those who are still sick.

And every day, there’s news that’s alarming—such as today’s revelation that, good lord, tigers are getting it from humans now?!

Sigh.

Anyway … some news yesterday that has local implications regarding this question of “How damned long?” went a little under the radar. It all started with a call that President Trump had with representatives of most of the major sports leagues and operations in the country. Sources say Trump said he thought the NFL season should be able to start, with fans in stadiums, on time this year. What does on time mean? Pre-season games start in August, with the regular season starting Sept. 10.

Trump elaborated later yesterday during his daily briefing, according to ESPN: “I want fans back in the arenas. I think it’s ... whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air.”

Putting aside Trump’s, um, credibility problem (to put it mildly), I think we can all agree that we really, really want all of that, too, if it’s safe. But … will it be?

Later yesterday, Gov. Gavin Newsom was asked about Trump’s hopes that society could handle 80,000 people packed into a stadium in August or September. The first words out of his mouth were rather direct: “I'm not anticipating that happening in this state.”

Newsom then sort-of backtracked, but not really, by clarifying that decisions “will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts,” and that he was focusing immediate concerns. Newsom also said he wanted California to avoid the fate of some Asian countries, which seemed to “return to normal” a bit too soon.

As for that local angle … well, our friends at Gay Desert Guide have done a fantastic job of listing the dates that the valley’s biggest events (not just the gay-themed ones) are now scheduled/rescheduled for, and … well, here’s the thing: If we are in a place by the start of September where we can have larger crowds at things, this valley could have one hell of a fall, in terms of an economic boost. Starting with the ANA Inspiration golf tourney (Sept. 10-13), and moving through Dinah Shore Weekend, Coachella’s two weekends, the Modernism Week Fall Preview, Stagecoach, the White Party and Palm Springs Pride (Nov. 6-8), we could see two fall months the likes of which the Coachella Valley has never seen.

But if Gov. Newsom’s right about September, and likely October and November … you get the point.

Even if Newsom is right, that doesn’t mean we won’t be a lot closer to “normal” by then. After all, one of the last things we’ll be able to do is let 80,000 people into a stadium together. Of course, the same goes for letting 125,000 people into the Empire Polo Club together.

To repeat one more time: We really don’t have any idea how long this is going to go on. And that may be one of the most frustrating aspects of the pandemic.

Today’s news:

• Hey, artists: Take part in our coloring book project—and earn a few bucks while doing so. The deadline is this coming Friday afternoon; get the full details here.

• The big news: Riverside County now says you can’t have any gatherings at all. And you have to wear a face mask when you go out.

• Gov. Newsom says California is making progress on its COVID-19 backlog—and he took responsibility, unlike some other leaders, for missteps.

• Hooray: Palm Springs has enacted an evictions moratorium.

• Making lemonade out of really awful lemons: All of this working from home has given the creators of The Office an idea for a new show.

• When students from different backgrounds get to a college campus, socioeconomic differences can seemingly melt away, when everyone’s living in the same dorms and eating the same food. But inequity can get magnified when all of the classes go online.

• CBS News got some advice from Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and George Takei on how to handle all of this pandemic stuff.

• A TV news station in Cleveland has introduced a helpful new feature for those of us who may be losing track of the days of the week.

• The Los Angeles Times brings us this sad but important story about the increase in calls to suicide hotlines. Sigh.

• You know times are tough when a rare address from the Queen of England is making me weepy.

That’s enough for now. If you have the means, and appreciate the free-to-all journalism the Independent does, both in print and pixels, please consider helping us to continue to do it. Thanks for reading. Oh, and wash your hands, and make the best of this coming week.

Published in Daily Digest

I spent most of my day wildly oscillating between despair and inspiration.

The despair came from, y’know, the news: The increasing numbers of reported infections and deaths. And the fact that we’re only two weeks into what’s going to be a rather lengthy shelter in place order.

The inspiration came from … well, people doing amazing things.

Below, we have links to 16 stories—and three quarters of them are at least partially “good” news. Go look (after you finish reading this introduction, of course). I promise you: You will feel a little better after perusing these links.

I am also inspired by what’s going on in my little corner of the journalism world—where things, economically, literally could not be worse. We are all fighting to stay alive while covering the biggest story in a century. Yet some of the ideas that my fellow publishers—people who are clearly more creative than I—have come up with to serve their communities and bring in revenue are amazing.

This brings me to the fact that yesterday, I said I’d be sharing more info on the Independent’s future plans today. Well, we’re going to save that for the weekend now, partially because some of those plans have changed slightly due to the wisdom of my fellow newspaper people, but mostly because I wanted to get all this good news out to you.

On with the news:

• Breaking and important news: Gov. Gavin Newsom has finally heeded the call for an eviction moratorium in the state. But make sure you read the fine print.

• Duke University has come up with a way for medical professionals to safely decontaminate and re-use N95 masks—which, given there’s a shortage, could be a big frickin’ deal.

• Meantime, a group of amazing locals are sewing masks in case they’re needed. Get to know and support the C.V. Mask Project.

• Elon Musk can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but he did a very amazing thing by delivering 1,000 ventilators to the state in Los Angeles.

• Buried within this piece from The Washington Post about the Alabama governor, well, being an idiot: Hints that the shelter in place order in California is working.

• OK, this is one of the stories down here that is decidedly NOT GOOD: Kaiser Permanente is no longer filling routine prescriptions for chloroquine.

• A lot of scientists are being told to stop working and stay at home, like the rest of us. Our partners at CalMatters, via the Independent, show how that will take a toll on everything from wildlife research to cancer treatments.

Are gun shops essential businesses? Gov. Newsom refuses to say for sure.

• Walmart says all this working from home has made Americans eschew pants.

• The Independent’s Beth Allen checks in with an update from the high desert, where Pappy and Harriet’s is offering takeout—but locals want people to stay away.

• News from the sports world, sorta: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry did an online chat with Anthony Fauci, and it was amazing.

• More news from the sports world, sorta: A baseball-jersey company has shifted gears and started making masks and gowns.

• The recently passed stimulus package will make it easier to tap into retirement accounts.

• Buzzfeed listicles generally fill me with despair over the state of what passes for journalism these days, but this one, while still annoyingly presented, is helpful: It highlights children’s shows that Amazon is now streaming for free.

• Meanwhile, international treasure Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets to us all.

• Like indie film? Well, some art house theaters are now streaming what would be new releases of indie films, and keeping half of the proceeds. Since we don’t have one locally, we’re going to send you to some friends of mine from my Tucson days: The amazing Loft Cinema.

That’s all for now. I’ll be back over the weekend with the update on the Independent that I promised. Wash your hands. Get takeout from a local restaurant if you can afford it. Savor the food. Live in the now. Enjoy life. And you like what the Independent is doing, please send us a few bucks.

Published in Daily Digest

When the novel coronavirus hit California, Jamille Cabacungan, a registered nurse at UCSF Medical Center, rushed to sign up as a volunteer to treat infected patients.

She hesitated to answer, however, when asked about her preparation for that job.

The hospital is providing the necessary gear, she said, and more heightened training for some nurses. But not for all—and much of her training is coming from videos forwarded to her by the hospital, as opposed to hands-on learning-by-doing. Her colleagues are depending on her—“we don’t want to put our pregnant co-workers or those who live with elderly people at risk,” she added—but the preparation is less intense than she expected, considering the risk involved.

As California’s coronavirus strategy has moved from containment to mitigation, the health-care workers on the first line of response to the epidemic are also finding themselves on the front line of potential infection. From internal conversations to calls for action from their unions, nurses, first responders and hospital staffers have sounded the alarm, raising questions about the safety protocols and spotlighting flaws and lags in response, both in California and nationally.

“Nurses are eager to take care of patients and make sure that our communities are safe, but we need the right staffing, equipment, supplies, communication and training to do this safely,” Deborah Burger, president of the National Nurses United, which represents about 150,000 nurses around the country, said during a public health roundtable earlier this week. 

“Put simply, if we are not protected, our patients are at risk,” Burger said. 

The union has asked the state to notify nurses when patients sickened by the virus are sent to their health-care facilities. They are also petitioning the state to release a full account of the protective gear in stock statewide, including respirators, and information about where these respirators are stored, citing concerns over a shortage of respirators and other personal protective equipment.

The nurses say that some of the workplace safety guidelines for states recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not rigorous enough to sufficiently protect health care workers and their patients.

Earlier this month, the union released a nationwide survey of 6,500 nurses in which only 29 percent said their hospitals had a plan in place to isolate potential coronavirus patients, and only 44 percent said they had gotten information from their employers about how to recognize and handle the virus.

As sick people turn up in emergency rooms, community clinics and school nurses’ offices, the workers who initially treat them run a high risk of infection. After a Vacaville hospital reported the first U.S. instance of community transmission, and the patient was transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, for example, healthcare workers’ unions reported 124 workers were placed under quarantine. (UC Davis Medical Center later said that number was inaccurate but did not provide an estimate.) Concerns have also been raised about health-care workers inadvertently spreading the virus.

Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, said her department is collaborating with all groups involved in response and checking regularly with hospitals and health care facilities to learn where their needs are.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that the collaboration has extended to health-care workers’ unions.

“We certainly can strengthen those lines of communication, but they are open lines of communication, very directly with the governor himself,” Newsom said.

SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, which represents nearly 150,000 workers across California, is also asking the state to help increase access to coronavirus testing for both workers and the general public. Spokesman Sean Wherley said the union also wants hospitals to make it easier to track workers sent home for possible exposure to the virus, and to provide clearer follow-up.

“They were sent home as a precaution, but not all of them were tested before they were sent home, so what about the risk posed to their families?” Wherley said.

In California and nationally, testing has been an ongoing issue. Though thousands of Californians are self-monitoring and self-quarantining, only 1,075 people have been tested in the state, with a backlog of about 200 tests, Newsom said Tuesday. Commercial labs are supposed to help relieve some of that load.

Workforce shortage is also a concern. “If each positive patient results in five to 10 workers being sent home, how many times can that happen before you have a staffing crisis?” Wherley said.

The California Hospital Association said healthcare staffing hasn’t become an issue at this point, “but it is certainly something everybody has to be cognizant of,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokesperson for the group.

“The discussion has moved from containment to accepting the fact that this virus is here, so there is certainly some concern about how it will affect staff and the ability to continue operating,” she said.

Newsom’s emergency declaration earlier this month on coronavirus allows health-care workers to come from out of state to fill any gaps should California experience a crisis in staffing. Still, state lawmakers—the majority of whom, like Newsom, were elected with the support of organized labor—have been sensitive to health-care workplace concerns.

“Making sure we protect health care workers is extremely critical, because we depend on these very same health-care workers to take care of the patients who may end up in the hospital,” said Sen. Richard Pan, chair of the Senate Health Committee. “If there are any resources (state public-health officials) need, the Legislature would want to make sure they have those resources.”

CalMatters.orgis a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Everyone around him saw this coming.

No one managed to stop it.

For years, family members of James Mark Rippee—a blind, homeless Vacaville man with a traumatic brain injury and paranoid schizophrenia—have fought to get him into treatment. He resisted. And official after official cited California’s involuntary-treatment laws in explaining to his family why there was nothing they could do.

On the evening of Feb. 12, Rippee stepped off the center divide of a dimly lit Vacaville street into the path of an oncoming vehicle, police say. Now he’s facing multiple surgeries, said his sister Linda Privatte—for a fractured skull, a brain bleed, a shattered elbow, a dislocated shoulder and a crushed leg.

Like many other families, Rippee’s sisters place much of the blame on the mental health implications of a 1967 state law, Lanterman-Petris-Short. It imposed specific timeframes for involuntary confinement and limited involuntary holds to those deemed a danger to themselves or others, or those gravely disabled.

But families like Rippee’s are ratcheting up the pressure to change the controversial law—and policymakers seem to be listening. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his State of the State address, said: “Clearly it’s time to respond to the concerns of experts who argue that thresholds for conservatorships are too high and need to be revisited.” 

After watching the speech, Rippee’s sisters aren’t yet convinced. They’ve been circulating a petition begging the governor to pay attention to Rippee’s situation and act to help him.

“It’s easy to stand up and say what needs to happen,” Privatte said. “What is he really going to do about it? What’s the plan? I watched it twice, and I didn’t hear one.”

An audit of Lanterman-Petris-Short is due out later this spring, and could suggest a possible path forward for the state. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment or provide any details about what exactly he would do to respond to change the rules surrounding involuntary treatment of people with mental illness. While the governor has not yet outlined a specific plan for the state, he did sign a bill to pilot expanded conservatorships in San Francisco.

Privatte and her twin sister, Catherine Hanson, recognize that making it easier to conserve people isn’t a simple fix, either. Disability-rights advocates are concerned that involuntary treatment is ineffective and jeopardizes people’s civil rights. County public guardians say they are overwhelmed with an influx of new clients, while the number of facilities available to treat them shrinks.

Even if Rippee were to be conserved, very few facilities in the state accept patients with traumatic brain injuries, Gerald Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, said in an interview late last year.

Rippee himself, when I found him huddled at the edge of a Vallejo strip mall last year, told me he wants to live in a home with a shower and someone to care for him. But not a locked facility, he emphasized.

“To leave a blind man outside, you know, I just figured the county could do better than that,” he said.

This was not the first time Rippee has wandered into traffic. People who know his family regularly reach out to tell them they have pulled him out of danger, or have themselves almost hit him. In September, he was struck by a car and ended up hospitalized with a brain abscess. But after a couple weeks, his sisters said, the hospital discharged him to a board-and-care. Soon after that, he returned to the streets.

Lt. Mark Donaldson, of the Vacaville Police Department, said his officers regularly respond to calls about Rippee stepping into traffic.

“You have to go out and deal with these same people over and over again, and you know what the end result is going to be, because there’s no place to take them,” he said. 

“I got into this job to help people above all else, and we like to be problem-solvers, and when you simply don’t have the tools to solve these problems, it’s devastating,” he said. “It’s so frustrating. Your heart hurts for him and his family. There simply is no place; there’s nothing we can do.”

Privatte says she doesn’t blame the driver who struck her brother earlier this month.

“I just blame the whole situation of him still being out there,” Privatte said. “Sometimes I’m just amazed at how he does survive.”

She and Hanson say their brother has refused necessary medical treatments while in the hospital, including blood transfusions.

Rippee’s sisters have been fighting to get him into involuntary treatment for years. They testified on behalf of state legislation that sought to redefine “gravely disabled” to include those who don’t seek needed medical treatment. It failed. They attended Solano County Board of Supervisors meetings. They asked the police for welfare checks. They sent thousands of emails, and administer a Facebook group about their brother’s situation, which currently has more than 2,500 members.

“What we’re doing is unacceptable,” Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson told Privatte as she wept during a board of supervisors meeting in 2018. Thomson declined to comment on Rippee’s most recent accident.

“I’ve struggled with this for the five years I’ve been here,” Huber, the county’s director of Health and Social Services, said last year. “The street is not an appropriate place for him to live.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Even the special interests that helped kill a California Senate bill aimed at reforming beverage-bottle recycling say the state needs to fix its broken system—and one lawmaker who voted no on the bill says he might just introduce his own.

Authored by Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, the Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have required beverage distributors to design a new recycling program—and to help pay for it themselves. But the bill failed a critical juncture after it fell four votes short of passage.

Wieckowski’s bill was one of a handful aimed at addressing two major problems plaguing California’s recycling industry. One is the turmoil in global recycling markets that kicked off when China decided to stop importing much of the world’s waste. The second is the home-grown death of California’s bottle-recycling businesses.

That’s the one Wieckowski’s bill aimed to fix. “My hope was to reshape the recycling industry in California so that we have a system that makes it convenient for consumers,” Wieckowski said. “No one—in California or outside California—thinks that the current system in California is working.”


A New Focus: Single-Use Packaging

Special interests and legislators instead are focusing on a set of identical bills collectively called the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act. The act aims to curb waste from single-use packaging and food-service items like containers, forks and stirrers that Californians use once, and then toss.

Spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers Sen. Ben Allen from Santa Monica and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, the effort calls for cutting three-quarters of the waste from these single-use products in the next 10 years. It also requires manufacturers to make such items 100 percent compostable or recyclable starting in 2030.

Those bills are “the big game that we’ve been seeing,” said Tim Schmelzer, vice president of California state relations at the Wine Institute, an advocacy organization that represents the California wine industry.

Wieckowski’s bill, Schmelzer said, “was kind of an unfortunate distraction here in January, and we can get back to work on the real bills.”

Allen voted to pass Wieckowski’s bill—saying it was an important conversation-starter.

“If anything, conversations that I had during the debate over the Wieckowski bill give me confidence that the members understand what a big problem there is, and they are interested in a comprehensive solution to our waste management problems,” Allen said. 

But Allen and Gonzalez’s Act—on which Wieckowski is a co-author—stalled in September. As the act wound its way through the Legislature, its focus shifted from curbing plastic pollution to reducing waste from all materials. It picked up amendments that ended opposition from plastic and beverage companies represented by powerful trade groups—the American Chemistry Council and the American Beverage Association. It even won support from the plastic company Dow Inc.

The act also, however, picked up opposition from the glass and wine industries. The Wine Institute’s Schmelzer said the industry was concerned by what he called “unfettered authority” granted to CalRecycle. His organization would also like to see clearer rules surrounding industry plans to meet state recycling targets.

Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, said his organization needs to see more before switching positions. “We support the goals of the circular economy legislation,” he said. Still, “The details of those issues matter, and need to be fleshed out a little bit before we can really consider changing a stated position.”


“We Are Going to Hold You Responsible for Doing Your Part”

No amendments to the act have been publicly posted since it stalled in September, so its current breadth is unclear. But Schmelzer and Allen’s team have been working to resolve the Wine Institute’s concerns so it can drop its opposition. “We’re not (having) hard, throw-our-bodies-across-the-tracks, we-should-never-try-to-recycle type of objections. It’s like, let’s make this bill work a little better,” Schmelzer said.

In the process, Allen said he’s made an effort to understand industry issues first hand. “I’ve toured secondary (materials recovery facilities); I’ve toured glass-bottling facilities. I’ve been to the mattress recyclers, carpet,” he said. “I’ve been to a water-bottling facility for plastic bottles; I’ve got the chance to sit down with city waste management people and haulers and recyclers. This is all complicated stuff.”

Ultimately, he said, the bill sets goals—and manufacturers will have to figure out how to meet them.

“At the heart of all this, of our efforts, is a message to manufacturers,” Allen said. “‘We are going to hold you responsible for doing your part, but we’re going to let you do what you need to do.’”


“There Needs to Be a Major Overhaul”

Like Wieckowski’s bill, the act includes beverage bottles that Californians can currently return for rebates—but only starting in 2026.

That’s not soon enough, said Jeff Donlevy, general manager for recycling company Ming’s Resources-East Bay and a board member of Protect CRV, a coalition of recycling centers and processors.

“Recycling centers need help this year, this session—and if we don’t get some legislation this session, we’re going to need the governor to step up with some budget solutions,” he said. “Because more recycling centers will close, especially in the higher-operating cost areas like Northern California.”

Under California’s “bottle bill,” Californians pay an extra 5 or 10 cents for most beverages—except milk, wine and hard alcohol. Then, they can trade empty beverage bottles and cans for a refund at recycling centers, or, if there are none nearby, at certain supermarkets. Not all the grocery stores obligated to participate actually do, however, opting instead to pay a fee of $100 a day.

Recycling centers have been shuttering for years, however—leaving Californians who rely on the income in the lurch. The shutdowns culminated with the closure of major California recycler rePlanet’s remaining 284 facilities last August, which the company attributed to high operating costs, lower returns for recycled materials, and insufficient state fees—despite a $25 million payout in 2018 from CalReycle.

Wieckowski’s Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have scrapped the program and started over. The bill would have tasked companies and manufacturers that sell beverages to dealers in California with developing a new system and helping to cover the costs. The program would also have included beverages currently excluded from the bottle bill including wine and liquor.

Protect CRV would have supported the bill had it been amended to include more support for existing recycling centers, Donlevy said. “It’s disappointing, because it was the only true bottle bill legislation going forward,” Donlevy said. “We supported the overall idea of comprehensive reform, because there needs to be a major overhaul. And Sen. Wieckowski took the lead on it.”

The beer and wine industry raised concerns about requiring beverage distributors to lead the effort.

“Distributors are in no position to dictate recycling policies to our suppliers, retail customers, and local governments,” according to a statement from California Beer and Beverage Distributors, a trade association that opposed the bill.

Schmelzer said the Wine Institute also objected to including wine bottles in a redemption program, instead favoring recycling at the curb. “We don’t think a redemption-style program where people have to haul in our wine bottles is an effective way to recycle our products,” he said.


“A Desire to Move”

One senator who voted no, Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa, said he believes the wine industry’s concerns are valid, calling the bill “a band-aid to a major problem in the recycling program.” Still, Dodd said, “The days of them not being involved, and not paying into some sort of program, have to be over.”

While Dodd hasn’t seen the most recent amendments to Allen and Gonzalez’s joint effort, he said it’s fair to say he supports it. And he told CalMatters that after voting no on Wieckowski’s bill, he’s considering introducing his own.

“You can’t say no to something like that, and then not be responsible and offer an alternative,” Dodd said. “What I’d really like to do is to present a bill, an alternative going forward, to bring glass and aluminum and plastic beverage containers all together in a more-effective program.”

Dodd said his bill would make producers responsible for the program, not distributors—although his team is still working on what exactly “producer” encompasses. It could include wineries, or major soda companies, or even glass manufacturing companies—“all of them having that stake,” he said. “If we put it on the producers, they’ll figure out the best way forward.”

Californians might be able to weigh in themselves. Recology—an employee-owned California recycler—continues to collect signatures for a ballot measure it’s funding. The measure bans polystyrene food containers and takes aim at single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils—requiring that manufacturers pay a one-penny tax on these items, sell 25 percent fewer of them, and ensure that what theysell is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030.

The tax, according to a financial analysis, would bring in “a few billion dollars annually.” The goal is to help pay for improvements to recycling infrastructure and offset costs, according to Eric Potashner, Recology’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs.

Early polling suggests the measure could be a popular one; 64 percent of Californians surveyed said they would definitely or probably vote yes, according to a report Potashner shared with CalMatters. “We’re on schedule to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” he said.

And California Gov. Gavin Newsom nudged the Legislature in January to take action, saying in his budget proposal: “The administration is committed to working with the Legislature so producers have the responsibility and flexibility to meet recycling requirements for products that ultimately end up in the waste stream.”

Newsom said at a budget press conference that he gave recycling a shout-out to show “a desire to move and a deep desire to look at packaging—to look holistically at the whole recycling space.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Kathy Garcia is not your typical Republican candidate for the California Senate.

For one thing, she only just joined the GOP. A lifelong Democrat, she won election as a Stockton school board member with the backing of the county Democratic party. She changed her affiliation to Republican in June 2019, six months before the deadline to enter the Senate race.

She said the idea to run—under the banner of a party she’d opposed most of her adult life—was suggested to her by a Stockton lawyer and powerbroker who, records show, has helped fund the campaign of another candidate in the race. And that candidate, a moderate Democrat, incidentally stands a better chance if the Republican vote is divided.

The 80-year-old Garcia, asked by CalMatters why she’s running under the GOP label, gave a series of distinctly un-Republican explanations.

“I just decided I was going to try something new. And not because I like Trump,” she said, before making a retching noise. As for the Republicans that are running, she said, “I want to just put them under the bus.”

Garcia might get her wish.

That’s thanks to California’s unique “top two” election system, in which all candidates—regardless of party affiliation—are listed together on the same ballot in the first round “primary.” Only the first- and second-place winners on March 3 move on to the general election Nov. 3, also regardless of party affiliation. The race for state Senate in this Central Valley district is the latest oddball illustration of how the state’s decade-old electoral attempt at reform can distort the typical logic of campaigning, confuse voters and lead to mind-bending results.

Under the top two system, Garcia’s unlikely candidacy as a Republican is—paradoxically—most likely to benefit moderate Democrat and Modesto Councilman Mani Grewal. By running as a Republican along with another long-shot GOP candidate, Jim Ridenour, Garcia could split the local GOP vote three ways. If so, that could very well leave the two Democratic contenders—Grewal and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman—with the top two winning spots.

And it would leave the most viable Republican candidate running, Stockton Councilman Jesús Andrade, who has been endorsed by the state party, flattened under that proverbial bus. 

Asked if her motivation was to undermine Andrade, Garcia demurred: “I can’t come out and say that.”

Both she and Grewal say they aren’t working together. The Andrade campaign isn’t buying it.

“It’s shameful that Democrat Mani Grewal would plant a Bernie Sanders-supporting, fake Republican like Kathy Garcia in this Senate race to split the Republican vote,” said Andrade consultant Steve Presson. “Republican Jim Ridenour is also a Grewal plant whose candidacy is solely to help Grewal make the top two general election run-off. These Nixonian dirty tricks are just deplorable. Central Valley voters deserve better.”

Grewal called that a “ridiculous accusation.”

The top two system was intended to strip political parties of their influence over the candidate-selection process, making California elections less prone to backroom dealing and polarization. The jury is still out as to whether the system actually has pushed state politics toward the ideological center, as promised. But 10 years into California’s experiment with electoral “reform,” an unintended side effect has emerged: Political insiders have figured out how to game the top two—or, at the very least, how to accuse other campaigns of doing so to muddy the political waters.

But the mere fact that any of this is in doubt is an artifact of the state’s peculiar election system, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., and frequent critic of the top-two system.

“Nobody would have questioned (Garcia’s candidacy) under the old system,” he said. The top two, he said, “encourages not only this manipulative strategy, but it also makes the public question a manipulative strategy where maybe there isn’t one.”

Grewal said allegations of coordination between his campaign and any other candidate in the race are “conspiracy theories” and “a cry for some free media” by the Andrade campaign.

“The first time I met Kathy Garcia was at The Modesto Bee forum” on Jan. 14, he said. “I know Jim Ridenour, and the last time, he endorsed me in my campaign. I would have liked his endorsement this time.”

In a follow up conversation, Garcia, who supported New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker for president, insisted that her choice to run was not motivated by her antipathy towards the Republicans, despite her earlier comments.

“Look at the people running as a Democrat,” she said. “Everybody is either an incumbent or has a big following or something. So here I am.”

She added that the idea to change parties and run for office as a Republican first came from Stockton lawyer and political operative N. Allen Sawyer, whom she described as “kind of my campaign manager.”

In an email, Sawyer explained that he encouraged Garcia to run as a Republican, because the “San Joaquin County Democratic Party is rigged and controlled by insiders. … I think as a moderate, she has a better chance of being treated fairly as a Republican.”

Last year, prior to Garcia’s entry into the race, Sawyer donated $3,000 to Grewal’s campaign.

“I support financially a wide range of candidates who run for office,” he said.

Grewal acknowledged the early financial support from Sawyer, whom he said he has known for some time. “And about his relationship with Kathy, I’m not aware of that stuff.”

Sawyer isn’t the only financial backer of Grewal’s campaign with connections to the two outsider Republicans, Garcia and Ridenour.

Rex Dhatt, a used-car dealer and president of the American Punjabi Chamber of Commerce, has donated at least $2,000 to Grewal. He’s also contributed to Garcia. (The exact value will be disclosed after the next campaign-finance-filing deadline at the end of January.)

Bill Lyons, a farmer, rancher and land developer in Modesto who serves as Gov. Newsom’s agriculture liaison and was state secretary of food and agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis, donated $1,953 to the Grewal campaign. Since 2017, Lyons, his firms and members of his family have given $26,891 to Grewal’s various electoral efforts.

But this year, four companies owned by Lyons have also been the sole contributors to Ridenour, one of the Republicans in the race, giving a total of $4,000 as of the end of 2019.

Dhatt said he wasn’t involved in either campaign directly. “I know them personally from before,” he said of the two candidates when reached by phone. “They came for a check, so I gave them a check. End of story.”

Neither Lyons nor Ridenour responded to requests for comment. 

While Grewal insists that none of the various connections between his campaign and those of Garcia and Ridenour amount to much more than a coincidence—common enough in moderately sized towns like Modesto and Stockton—his campaign has recognized that the presence of three Republicans in the race works to his benefit.

“With three credible Republican candidates—a former mayor of Modesto, a Stockton school board member, and a Stockton City Council member—those votes will be split,” reads a memo his campaign sent out to supporters last November. “None of the three Republicans will get more than 20 percent of the March vote.”

Given the moderate lean of the district as a whole, the memo continues: “Grewal’s support from law enforcement and business will result in the majority of Republicans supporting him.” Combined with a large share of the district’s Democrats, that will “give him a comfortable November margin.”

This isn’t the first time in California’s top-two history that an outside candidate has been labeled a spoiler. Take the case of Scott Baugh.

In 2018, the former Orange County Republican Chair entered a congressional race against then-incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Baugh, who also happened to be Rohrabacher’s former campaign director, claimed to have suffered a falling out with his old boss. But with eight Democrats in the race, some political observers called his last-minute entry into the race “suspicious,” suggesting it was an attempt to insert a second well-known Republican in the race to nab the second place spot. As CalMatters’ columnist Dan Walters put it, the state GOP could have been “pulling off one of history’s most audacious political coups.”

Baugh and Rohrabacher’s mutual history didn’t help allay those suspicions. In 1995, Baugh won an Assembly race after Baugh’s campaign manager and Rohrabacher’s wife convinced a friend of Baugh’s to run as a “decoy” Democratic candidate, siphoning off votes from Baugh’s main opponent.

In 2018, Baugh came in fourth, and Rohrabacher lost in the general. The plan—if there was one—didn’t work.

That might be thanks to a bit of electoral shenanigans on the Democratic side: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads hammering Baugh and boosting a little-known Republican candidate named John Gabbard, hoping to lift up the latter at the expense of the former.

Running political advertising to back a weaker candidate is yet another convoluted strategy enabled by the top-two system.

Last year, supporters of both Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom ran advertisements that subtly(or maybe not so subtly) boosted the conservative bona fides of their Republican opponents.

Why? In a traditional partisan primary system, a Democrat in California would be forced to face off against a Republican, no matter what. But in California, where a Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006, ensuring a GOP candidate gets into the top two rather than a fellow party member is a winning strategy for any Democratic candidate.

Newsom said as much when asked which candidate he’d like to run against during a pre-primary debate last May: “A Republican would be ideal.”

These strategies aren’t illegal. It’s not clear they’re even unethical, said Mitchell, who offered the electoral equivalent of the adage “don’t hate the player.”

“You can decry the people who would do those kinds of things, but you could also point to the system,” he said.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Declaring that moral persuasion and economic incentives aren’t working to bring in people from the sidewalks, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on homelessness earlier this week called for a “legally enforceable mandate” that would force municipalities and the state to house the growing number of homeless Californians. 

The proposal, which came as Newsom kicked off a weeklong tour of the state aimed at drawing attention to the homelessness crisis, urged the Legislature to put a measure on the November ballot that would force California cities and counties to take steps to provide housing for the more than 150,000 Californians who lack it—or face legal action.

Such a measure would require a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses to be brought to voters. California law does not currently penalize the state or local governments for failing to reduce their homeless populations, nor does it force them to make housing sufficiently available to people without it.

But Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-chair the governor’s 13-member Council of Regional Homeless Advisors, have been advocating for some sort of enforceable “right” to sleep indoors since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down laws against homeless camping. That ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court let stand just last month, dramatically limited cities’ enforcement options, finding it to be cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping on the street if sufficient shelter isn’t available.

“California mandates free public education for all of its children and subsidized health insurance for its low-income residents. It requires its subdivisions to provide services to people with developmental disabilities and foster children,” the commission wrote in a letter signed by both elected officials. “Yet everything that state, county and city governments do to alleviate this crisis is voluntary. There is no mandate to ensure people can live indoors, no legal accountability for failing to do so, no enforceable housing production standard and no requirement to consolidate and coordinate funding streams across jurisdictions. The results speak for themselves.”

The council’s recommendation stops short of Steinberg’s and Ridley-Thomas’ initial call for a “right to shelter,” which would not only have required cities to provide immediate beds, but also obligated people experiencing homelessness to come inside. But it adds momentum to the strategy of elevating litigation as a tool to accomplish what compassion and money haven’t been able to do.

Newsom, visiting a homelessness program in Nevada County, said Monday he “would lean in the direction” of speedily deploying a legal “obligation” to supply sufficient services and housing, adding that “a number of cities and counties” have volunteered to do demonstration projects over the next several months, “not the next few years.” (Ridley-Thomas later said he would propose such a pilot in Los Angeles County this week.)

“I broadly have been encouraging this debate about obligations,” the governor said, adding that “there’s a distinction between rights and obligations.”

Without elaborating on that distinction, he seconded the task force’s point that many of the state’s responsibilities stem from legal mandates: “We do it in almost every other respect,” Newsom said. “On this issue, we don’t, and I think that’s missing. The question is how do you do it. … This is not black and white. This is tough stuff.”

Municipalities made it clear they would need more clarification.

“A legally enforceable mandate can only work with clarity of who’s obligated to do what, and what new sustainable resources will fund it; that’s the ticket for clear expectations and accountability,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, in a statement.

Steinberg, meanwhile, called Monday’s proposal an improvement on the original “right to shelter” concept, saying a mandate by any name would still have the force of law. The point, the mayor said, is to give the courts a legal “last resort” to address pleas to supersede political gridlock, just as federal laws have in the past armed judges to combat other social crises.

“It’s analogous to desegregation,” Steinberg said.

The task force’s proposal would let a “designated public official” sue the government for not doing enough to offer emergency and permanent housing to the homeless. A judge could then intervene to force a city to approve an emergency shelter, for example, or redirect budget funds to homelessness services.

The proposal, however, so far lacks specifics on how taxpayers would pay for such a mandate. The letter released by the task force, which includes local elected officials from large and small cities, states that “more state resources will undoubtedly be required,” but includes no estimate.

State and local governments in recent years have poured billions into combating homelessness, only to watch the problem worsen as ever-rising rents drive Californians to the streets faster than they can be re-housed. On Friday, for the second straight year, Newsom proposed more than $1 billion in new state funds to fight homelessness, calling it “the issue that defines our times” in California. But the state’s “point-in-time” homeless count jumped 17 percent between 2018 and last year.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a task force member, said leverage is needed.

“We do the things we are required to do first … then for everything else, we try very hard,” said Fletcher. “Absent a legally enforceable obligation, I believe people will continue to try very hard.”

But a legal mandate would arm jurisdictions to tackle “the underlying problem, which is poverty,” rather than appease communities with shelter beds, he said.


Putting the Onus on Government to Provide Housing

Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas floated the idea of a statewide “right to shelter” law last year. Spurred by decades-old litigation, New York state has a “right to shelter” policy that makes its state and local governments legally liable for having emergency shelter beds available for every unhoused person. 

While many credit “right to shelter” for New York’s success in reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets, Newsom and advocates for the homeless have balked at the idea. Some advocates fear it would divert finite funding from permanent supportive housing, which experts say is a more long-term, albeit expensive solution; others worry about cost and potential civil-liberties violations that might arise from requiring a homeless person to accept shelter if it’s available.

“The reason why right to shelter is a mistake is because it diverts resources from the solution, which is housing, not shelter,” said Sharon Rapport, California policy director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing and a member of the task force.

Under the policy proposed by the task force, a local government would be required to develop a plan to house the vast majority of its homeless people within “an aggressive but reasonable period of time.” “Reasonable” is not defined in the letter.

However, Steinberg said that, in the case of Sacramento, “aggressive but reasonable” might mean a 1,500-person annual reduction in the city’s 5,500-plus homeless population, and housing the “the vast majority” within five years.

Advocates on the homelessness issue said more specifics are needed, but applauded the task force’s recommendations as a philosophical pushback, at least, against efforts to criminalize living on the streets.

“Any kind of policies that are promoting locking up people or warehousing people or punishing people for being homeless, the council is saying those policies have been very ineffective in the past,” said Rapport.

The city of Bakersfield recently proposed ramping up enforcement of low-level drug offenses to get people off the streets there, and advocates have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s threats to do something about homelessness in California may involve heavier use of law enforcement.


A Homelessness Czar, but Little on Conservatorships

The task force also called for a single point person on homelessness, a Newsom campaign promise that devolved in his first year into confusion over who, at any given point, was his “homelessness czar.”

Various administration members, including Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly, and adviser Jason Elliott, have filled the role—so many that last week, Newsom headed off press questions by declaring tartly, “You want to know who’s the homeless czar? I’m the homeless czar in the state of California.”

But the issue of who is actually overseeing the state’s disparate homelessness initiatives—across multiple bureaucracies from prisons to health care—is still pressing, at least according to the homelessness task force. One of their key recommendations would “create a single point of authority of homelessness in state government,” suggesting a high-level official that reports directly to Newsom. Another calls for a comprehensive accounting of existing funding for homelessness, housing, mental health and substance-abuse treatment.

Still other recommendations have already been incorporated into Newsom’s proposed homelessness budget, including a “flexible fund” that service providers can tap for uses from emergency rental assistance to building shelters. The task force also proposed revamping the state’s health-insurance program to draw down more federal dollars for homelessness-related services, a key pillar of the strategy Newsom unveiled last week. Doing so would require a waiver from the federal government.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a member of the task force, said that a Medi-Cal reform proposal is key to the the blueprint.

“Housing is health,” she said. “And to recognize that health dollars should appropriately be used to support housing is a very important part of our recommendations.”

More-controversial proposals included an executive order expanding the state’s new rent-gouging law to cover more households, and legislation exempting from environmental review any new housing project for people at risk of homelessness.

California has strict laws that make it difficult to detain mentally ill people against their will for a prolonged period of time. Families of homeless loved ones struggling with schizophrenia or other disorders often blame the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, a late 1960’s law intended to curb the overuse of asylums, for precluding necessary care. New York’s commitment laws are less stringent.

While Newsom talked vaguely of reforming the law last week, such reforms are conspicuously absent from the task force’s report.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Published in Local Issues

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