No COVID-19 cash for rural cities questioning Newsom’s rules


Two small cities in the heart of California’s Central Valley are learning the hard way what happens when they don’t fall in line with what Gov. Gavin Newsom has laid out in rules to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

No action, no cash.

“He’s playing hardball,” said Atwater Mayor Paul Creighton. “And it’s just a bullying tactic.”

On Friday, city leaders in Atwater and Coalinga — communities about 100 miles apart and together smaller than 150 other cities in California — were told federal coronavirus relief funds were being withheld due to local actions the Newsom administration says are in violation of state public health rules.

“Here’s the governor taking federal money and using it to extort us,” Creighton said in an interview on Friday.

‘Rescind this resolution’ or no COVID-19 cash

The rules in question were tucked inside the budget Newsom signed last month and govern the distribution of $1.8 billion allocated to the state earlier this year. Because California’s largest communities received money directly from the feds — a total of $5.8 billion to counties and cities with populations over 500,000 — the state budget provides help for less-populous locations.


But in rural California, local officials haven’t always seen eye to eye with Newsom in decisions on when and how to reopen businesses. In Atwater,the City Council approved a resolution in May declaring a “sanctuary” for all businesses to remain open regardless of the state’s rules.

A similar action was taken in early May by the City Council in Coalinga. Both resolutions remain on the books, prompting near-identical letters on Friday to the cities from Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“In order to be eligible for funding, assuming it meets the other prescribed criteria, the City would need to rescind this resolution,” Ghilarducci wrote.

Coalinga’s share of the federal cash would have been $212,358. For Atwater, the payment would be $387,428.

“The state remains optimistic that these cities will do what is right to protect public health and safety in their communities and will move expeditiously to rescind their resolutions,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state emergency services agency.

In Atwater, hit hard by the Great Recession and the national foreclosure crisis of the last decade, the money could have helped pay for a variety of city services. Creighton says he and his council colleagues won’t back down.

“We’re more than diligent” about rules regarding masks and physical distancing in local stores, he said. “What’s the goal here? You don’t see him going after Orange County.”


Creighton insists state officials haven’t done enough to explain where current community spread is coming from and how it would be stopped by closing some businesses and not others.

“There’s no intention by any of the residents or business owners or City Council to cause harm to anybody,” he said. “We’re just trying to survive.”

Legislature returns: new rules, a ticking clock

There are 35 days left before the two-year session of the California Legislature comes to an end, and it’s now likely lawmakers will have to drastically trim their to-do list even in the face of mounting problems caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Deadlines for bills to move through final policy committees have been moved back twice — now seven weeks later than originally planned — after legislators and staff tested positive for COVID-19. The state Senate and Assembly will allow some at-risk lawmakers to vote from home or their district offices, and it remains unclear how much access staff, lobbyists, reporters and the public will have to events in the state Capitol between now and Aug. 31.

Perhaps most pressing is some kind of action by lawmakers or Newsom to prevent pandemic-caused evictions and foreclosures. On Friday, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the state’s judicial council is likely to end its temporary ban on those proceedings effective Aug. 14.

“I urge our sister branches [of government] to turn their attention to this critical work to protect people from the devastating effects of this pandemic and its recent resurgence,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

The Times’ team in Sacramento is tracking more than 100 bills that could have major effects on the state, including proposals to address the pandemic’s impact on workplace safety. We’re also watching proposals on policing, racial inequality and the state’s economy.

And everyone will keep an eye on whether Newsom and legislative leaders decide there’s a need for a special session of the Legislature. It’s a tool frequently used in previous years, though we haven’t seen a special legislative session since 2016. Convening what’s technically an “extraordinary session” would allow lawmakers extra time to focus on a few key issues — coronavirus concerns seem most likely — and potentially craft laws to take effect before year’s end.

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National lightning round

— With a $600-a-week unemployment benefit expiring this week, senior aides to President Trump continued to suggest Sunday that a jobless benefit that was too generous would discourage people from going back to work.

Joe Biden‘s diplomatic missteps on China might have been a potent weapon for Trump had the president not made so many of his own blunders in U.S.-China relations.

— Struggling to fulfill a 2016 campaign promise, the president on Friday took new action to rein in drug prices. Previous efforts have stalled.

— Trump has taken a hard-line approach in calling for schools to reopen despite the coronavirus outbreak. Parents making the decision describe a more complicated swirl of emotions.

— For most voters, the Supreme Court is not a top-of-mind issue this year. But replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could change that.

— Trump and Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe are pushing Congress to preserve the names of military bases that honor Confederate generals.

Today’s essential California politics

— State officials say they are redoubling efforts to secure protective gear and are preparing to expand the number of available hospital beds to handle a surge in patients.

— Less hair, fresh air: Newsom is allowing hair salons and barbershops to offer some services outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

— Alarmed that unlicensed cannabis sellers continue to dominate California’s pot market, lawmakers are moving toward imposing steep new fines on businesses that provide building space, advertising platforms and other aid to illicit operations.

— The California Supreme Court, which oversees the state bar, has agreed to lower the passing score for the exam, a victory for law school deans who have long hoped the change would raise the number of Black and Latino lawyers.

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