With 2020 hindsight: Recapping the stories that defined California life

Coronavirus, of course, detonated our every expectation of 2020. For the most fortunate, this created room for new pastimes, new priorities. For the least so, it hollowed out holes that can never be filled.

Nor was COVID our only profound challenge. There were raging wildfires, again. There was an overdue reckoning with racism, again. There was an election that felt as if it was the most consequential of our lifetimes, again.

At CalMatters we sought to help Californians make sense of it all. So before we push the year off a cliff, here’s a retrospective sampler of some of the news that dominated 2020:

Close Quarters: California’s overcrowded homes fuel spread of coronavirus among workers

Isidoro Contreras Flores, sells an arrangnment of flowers in Seaside, Calif, on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian

Until the pandemic struck, every day for the last 10 years, Isidoro Flores Contreras stood at the edge of the Sand City Costco parking lot selling $15 bouquets. No matter the weather, he slowly walked back and forth along the sidewalk, a hitch in his gait as he waved bouquets at cars. More flowers sprouted from large white buckets behind him, tilted like umbrellas on an overflowing beach.

He shut down his business for 15 days when Monterey County issued its stay-at-home order, and returned when regulations permitted in early May.

Across California, essential and service workers like Flores Contreras are being hit hardest by the coronavirus, and so are the people they live with. He lives in the most crowded ZIP code in Monterey County, sleeping in the living room of a jam-packed, two-bedroom house he shares with four other people.

The poorest ZIP codes with the most people living in crowded housing are suffering the most from the coronavirus, according to an analysis of housing and health data by The California Divide, a statewide media collaboration. The millions of Californians who live in overcrowded houses are more likely to be infected.

Read the full story HERE.

California’s no-bid contracts for pandemic supplies reveal collapsed deals, untested vendors

Flying money and masks

A medical equipment supplier that was once raided by the FBI. A business executive fined for making false or misleading statements in financial reports. A corporation fined for Medicaid fraud. At least two companies that had existed less than a week.

These are among the hundreds of vendors the state of California has contracted with, or nearly gone into business with, as government officials rushed to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic.

While normal bidding and vetting procedures have been suspended during the state of emergency, California has entered into roughly $3 billion worth of no-bid contracts for masks, ventilators, call-center workers and other supplies and services to respond to the health crisis, the state’s procurement database shows. Some of the vendors are established companies the state has been doing business with for a long time, but others are newcomers that launched amid a chaotic quest for medical supplies. The nationwide scramble kicked off in March when President Donald Trump told governors that states were on their own to secure equipment necessary to manage the pandemic.

Some of the contracts topped out at a half-billion dollars. And in a few instances, readily available public records and some Googling should have raised potential red flag.

Read the full story HERE.

Churches, gunshops, irked parents and irate brides: All the shutdown lawsuits against Newsom, explained

CalMatters is tracking lawsuits against California's shelter-in-place order and other pandemic responses. Photography by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters; elements via iStock

Alongside the beach-goers denied, the indignant gun shop owners and the house-bound pastors, Gov. Gavin Newsom now has yet more ticked off challengers to face in court: frustrated parents who want schools reopened despite the pandemic.

And, not to be forgotten, an extremely disappointed bride-to-be. Among the filing to challenge the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Monica Six, an Orange County resident, is suing California’s Democratic governor for civil rights violations after his executive order “caused her significant financial hardship as well as ruined her idyllic wedding plans…”

Restrictions that the governor’s March 19 stay-at-home order imposed on California civic and economic life were without precedent in state history. Partial reopenings in many counties led to coronavirus spikes, which in turn prompted some retreat back to restrictions. Many health experts say such drastic measures have been necessary to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and more Californians from dying.

But drastic measures they are — spelling financial calamity for households, business owners, nonprofits and city governments, while testing executive power and the negotiability of many constitutional rights.

Read the full story HERE.

Voices of California protesters: same message, different motives

Eddie Wutangsy uses a bullhorn while chanting to the crowd of several thousand protesters as they march past Fresno Police headquarters during a protest over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, May 31, 2020. Photo by John Walker, The Fresno Bee

A celebrity influencer in an expensive Hollywood apartment, yelling at people, all black, some guilty of vandalism and burglary, some innocent — 28 years after the deadliest riots in modern U.S. history. It was an incident that provided a unique snapshot of a protest and civil unrest in Los Angeles.

The imagery of this week’s protests — buildings burning against a night sky, people running and screaming, cars on fire — evoked memories of the 1992 riots, in which 63 people died. But the worries and hopes and raw fury of Californians who took to the streets this week show that all protests, like politics, are local. Throughout the state, protesters had their own motivations, their own methods, their own issues with their police force and their city.

In Merced, protesters asked why the north side of town remains wealthy and safe, while the south side wilts. In Sacramento, protesters demanded the firing of police officers who fatally shot a black man in 2018 in his grandmother’s backyard while he was holding a cell phone. And in Salinas, a police department three years into its own reforms is gleaning modest praise as well as complaints.

Uniting all the protests throughout California, as well as the rest of the nation, is the idea that police must reform — or be forced to reform — treatment of black people.

Read the full story HERE.

A Tale of Two 2020 Presidential Contenders, explained

‘Out of control:’ Candidate Trump casts California as cautionary tale

President Donald Trump, in his 2020 reelection bid, often seems to be campaigning against California — evoking it as a Democratic dystopia. Illustration by Dan Hubig for CalMatters

Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has taken aim at California for its policies on immigration and environmental protection, its left-leaning cultural institutions, its poverty rate (which, if you factor in the cost of living, is the highest in the nation), its crime rate (which isn’t), its liberal governor and its alleged tolerance of voter fraud (a charge that’s completely unfounded).

Trump has taken the familiar script to new extremes. In court documents, regulatory maneuvers, executive orders and, of course, Twitter tirades (more than 55 negative tweets about California since Election Day), the president has assailed the Golden State as a dystopia of liberal laxity — and a cautionary tale of life under Democratic rule.

Read the full story HERE.

Nine ways Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aim to make the U.S. more like California

California has become a laboratory for progressive policies. Illustration by Dan Hubig for CalMatters

With Democrats holding all the political power in California for nearly the last decade, the Golden State has evolved into a laboratory of big blue ideas. Put a price on carbon? We’ve done it. Ban assault weapons? We’ve done that too. Gun control, minimum wage hikes and two years of free community college are also realities here.

Here are key ways Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris want to make the United States more like California — and what the state’s policy experiments reveal so far.

Read the full story HERE.

A collision of crises: Central Valley suffers searing heat, smoke and virus hot spots

Shawnee Whaley, 57, wears a mask as she rests on a cot at the Ulatis Community Center in Vacaville after evacuating her home on August 18, 2020. Whaley said she and her mother, who lives across the street, had to leave in a matter of minutes, leaving almost everything behind. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

As ash drifted down from the fires burning through Solano County, a woman sweating under the smoke-reddened sun dug through her car, searching for an adapter for her husband’s oxygen machine.

The couple had fought traffic on Wednesday to reach the evacuation shelter at Vacaville’s Ulatis Cultural Center — but, once there, they realized the key piece was missing. The smoke was bothering him, but he had his portable tank and that would have to do, she said. She wasn’t driving back. “I had a heck of a time getting out of there.”

Californians, particularly people with serious health conditions, are caught in a collision of crises: Fires are churning out dangerous smoke amid a record-baking heatwave and the relentless coronavirus pandemic. The crises are particularly acute in the Central Valley, which is a hotspot for triple-digit temperatures, billowing smoke and ash from lightning fires, unhealthful smog and rising infection rates.

Read the full story HERE.

More than 1,600 Californians have been evicted during the pandemic

Jamie Burson sits on the bed of her motel room in Farfield on August 4, 2020. Burson, who has been living between her car and motels since being evicted in April, says she feels unsafe at the motel and plans to move again later later today. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Like any parent, Jamie Burson didn’t want her 11-year-old son to discover how frightened she really was about the novel coronavirus. But it’s hard to mask anxiety when you’re living and sleeping together in the same car.

After Burson was evicted from her two bedroom apartment in Vacaville the second week of April, she heeded Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to shelter in place by cooping up in a two-door sedan near her Walmart job. With school campuses shuttered, her son propped his school-issued laptop on top of the glovebox and attended class in the same passenger seat he slept in. It helped that he could occasionally spend a night at a relative’s or friend’s house, although Burson hesitated to ask to sleep there herself, partly out of fear of spreading the virus to friends and family.

“I was scared because of how many people were dying on a daily basis,” said Burson, who was evicted for a late February rent payment. “Made me feel like mankind was going to go extinct.”

More than 1,600 California households have been evicted since Newsom declared a statewide state of emergency March 4, according to data CalMatters obtained via public record requests from more than 40 California sheriffs’ departments. Nearly a third of those evictions took place after Newsom’s March 19 shelter-in-place order, and more than 400 since Newsom issued a self-described March 27 “eviction moratorium.” And they are likely an undercount.

Read the full story HERE.

Can California protect COVID-19 vaccine from cheaters and fraudsters?

What seemed like a Herculean task just months ago is now here: the COVID-19 vaccine.

For the next several weeks, vaccines will be available in limited amounts in California and across the nation — and only to high-risk individuals, with supply expected to ramp up in the months to come. Experts estimate vaccines will be available to the general public sometime in the spring.

Until then, step in line.

But the pandemic already has showcased deep inequalities, scams, greed, fraud and a system that favors the rich and famous. Will it be the same with the COVID-19 vaccine?

Read the full story HERE.

California for all? Few public schools pursuing elementary waivers

Diana Marrone helps her daughter Sienna, 5, into her backpack at their Oakley home before leaving for school on Sept. 22, 2020. Marrone, who works full time, enrolled Sienna in a private Christian school so she would have in-person instruction. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

“I was very desperate,” Diana Marrone said. She remembered thinking to herself, “What am I going to do? Am I going to quit my job and Zoom from my car and be homeless?”

The single mother of a kindergartener had struggled to balance her full-time job while guiding her daughter’s remote learning. Ultimately she pulled her daughter out of the Antioch public school the girl had been attending and enrolled Sienna at a private Christian school that was bringing elementary students back on campus after getting a waiver.

These waivers allow public and private schools in restricted counties to offer in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through sixth grade if they prove they will take strict safety precautions and demonstrate they have support from teachers and families to reopen.

But nearly two months since the waivers’ debut, a disparate picture has emerged: California’s private schools make up an overwhelming share of approved applications.

Read the full story HERE.

For some California teens, school closures led to work in the fields

Sisters Maria and Jennifer Salvador start their days before the sun. The Southern California teenagers report to work at an Oxnard strawberry farm with one goal: To harvest as many bright red strawberries as they can. Each 20-pound box brings in $3.

In the evenings when school was still in session, albeit remotely – and after chores at home were done — Maria and Jennifer turned to their school work. The two relied on their father’s cell phone because the school district’s hot spot didn’t work in their Oxnard neighborhood.

“It has gone badly for me,” said 16-year-old Jennifer. “It’s not the same because it’s difficult to know how to do the work that the teachers send. You can’t ask questions. It’s like being all alone.”

When the health crisis interrupted education across the state, closing schools in March and moving learning online, many students went to work in the vast green fields that feed much of the country. As fall approaches, administrators and teachers are scrambling to figure out how school will look amid the ongoing pandemic  — and how to help these students return to classes and catch up.

Read the full story HERE.

The new thing for California politicians? Sweet charity

The California Legislature’s Latino Caucus recently circulated a memo offering a potential perk for members: A trip to Cuba to learn about “culture, history and possibly government structure and policy making.” The caucus’ nonprofit foundation, the memo said, would help pick up the tab. A visit to Israel for the Jewish Caucus was similarly underwritten, in part, by its nonprofit. The nonprofit Irish Caucus has organized three trips to Ireland for legislators and lobbyist friends.

A nonprofit run by a California assemblyman has helped fund a literacy organization led by his wife, who, as CEO, was drawing a six-figure salary. Nonprofits run by lawmakers and their staff are hosting fundraisers where lobbyists can mingle at the Disneyland Hotel with politicians, and policy conferences where tech executives can dine in Silicon Valley with legislators shaping California’s laws on data privacy and the gig economy.

While California law caps the amount donors can contribute to politicians’ campaigns, donations to nonprofits are not limited. ‘Money will find an outlet,’ says one expert in nonprofit law.

These organizations also underwrite charitable work — scholarships, cultural celebrations, community film screenings — and let public officials help the state or advance causes they care about without tapping taxpayer money. But unlike campaign accounts, they often offer a tax break and can raise unlimited sums from powerful special interests, with fewer disclosure requirements.  And In California, their numbers, as well as their donations, are surging.

Read the full story HERE.

The hidden toll of California’s Black exodus

Sharie Wilson in the kitchen of her remodeled Elk Grove home on June 22, 2020. Wilson says that when the bought the home it was the ‘worst on the block’ but was able to turn it into a space that she’s proud of. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

In a quiet corner of Elk Grove, where the maze of subdivisions and shopping centers gives way to open fields, Sharie Wilson has spent the last three years building her dream home.

It’s nothing like the neighborhood where she grew up in South Central L.A. But in this Sacramento suburb, her family owns a modern farmhouse set on 2.5 acres, with a stately U-shaped driveway and a Pan-African flag over the front door. In the backyard, there’s a basketball court inlaid with the logo of her hair care company, DreamGirls.

Still, Wilson has to justify her family’s success. Neighbors have asked her husband, who works at the local water district and runs his own apparel company, what sport he plays. Or how the couple really paid for their house. “Hopefully once people keep seeing it, they stop seeing the color and start seeing us as humans,” said Wilson, a 41-year-old mother of six boys.

Wilson is one of around 275,000 Black Californians who have left high-cost coastal cities in the last three decades, sometimes bound for other states or cities, but more often to seek their slice of the American dream in the state’s sprawling suburban backyard. Many transplants pack up for the promise of homeownership, safety and better schools. Housing-rich Elk Grove has gained nearly 18,000 Black residents since 1990 — a 5,100% jump mirrored by increases around the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, Southern California’s Inland Empire and the Central Valley.

At the same time, Black renters have been disproportionately forced out of cities as costs and evictions climbed; the Black population has plunged 45% in Compton, 43% in San Francisco and 40% in Oakland. While a version of this geographic scramble is playing out for working and middle-class people of all races, the distinct obstacles that Black residents encounter in new communities raise the question: How far do you have to go today to find opportunity — and are some things ever really possible to leave behind?

Read the full story HERE.

‘Go on Medi-Cal to get that’: Why Californians with mental illness are dropping private insurance for taxpayer-funded treatment

While looking at family photos at her home in El Sobrante, Teresa Pasquini describes how her son’s moods began to change as a teenager, March 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

There’s an open secret among those who care for people with serious mental illnesses.

Judy Bracken first heard it a few years ago from a hospital social worker: If Bracken wanted her adult son, who has schizoaffective disorder, to receive long-term mental health treatment, she should get him off her private insurance, UnitedHealthcare, and onto the public system for low-income people in Contra Costa County.

Lucinda Chiszar figured it out when she tried to take her then 10-year-old son, who was insured by Aetna, to the only nonprofit agency in Merced County that offered the intensive wrap-around services the county’s behavioral health services said he needed. “Oh, you’re not on Medi-Cal?” someone at the agency asked. “We can’t help you.”

In dozens of interviews, families, attorneys, judges, therapists and public officials agree: People with serious mental illnesses often do better dropping private insurance and qualifying for taxpayer-funded treatment.

Read the full story HERE.

End notes:

A dozen other 2020 stories well worth your time:

‘Things have gotten ugly’: Pandemic pushback prompts health directors to quit

‘Bizarro Beach’ or state park? What it’s like living next to California’s off-roading mecca

‘Someone will contract the virus here’: Meet homeless Californians trying to survive a pandemic

Is your college in a severe wildfire zone?

How Fresno is confronting its history of racism

Investigation: COVID rips through motel rooms of guest workers who pick nation’s produce

Students missing: A South L.A. high school confronts pandemic’s heavy toll

So you think your California county is tracing contacts of sick people? Maybe not.

What California knows about Kamala Harris

Midway through plagued first term, Newsom’s career hits make-or-break point

The pandemic’s great divide: Twelve hours in an L.A. restaurant

Welcome to Zoom University. That’ll be $500.

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