Was the Saturday night announcement of a “reset” of California’s unemployment insurance system an attempt to obscure evidence of a catastrophic failure by a government agency that has been dogged by problems for months?
Or was it an urgently needed measure that will ultimately help hundreds of thousands of Californians unemployed because of the pandemic to get their money faster?
It depends on whom you ask.
[Track coronavirus cases by California county.]
According to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, the release of a 109-page report on the issues plaguing the state’s Employment Development Department on a Saturday night — coupled with the announcement that the department would not accept new unemployment claims for two weeks — appeared to be “a deliberate ploy to bury bad news.”
CalMatters reported that the report was already late and it included some alarming statistics, like the state’s backlog of almost 1.6 million unresolved unemployment claims, which won’t be cleared until late January. And the backlog is growing by thousands each day.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom scrambled to address those criticisms, saying that officials started the “reset” over the weekend because he didn’t want to wait any longer to begin the work of casting its decades-old computer systems into the “waste bin of history.”
“We’re not paving over the old cow path,” he said.
When it’s reborn on Oct. 5, the system will have a tool for automatically verifying an applicant’s identity using a selfie. That will keep applicants from getting funneled into a queue for a manual identity verification.
Yolanda Richardson, secretary of California’s government operations agency and co-chair of the “strike team” that made the recommendations, said on Monday that was a major source of the backlog at the Employment Development Department.
[Read more about California’s unemployment assistance woes.]
“We believe if the E.D.D. embraces our recommendations they’ll be well on their way to creating a first-class experience,” she said.
Of course, California isn’t the only state grappling with outdated information technology.
And as businesses and schools tentatively restart in-person operations and life returns to “normal,” the difficulties of making sure people get the help they need and are entitled to will most likely be widespread.
The good news for Californians is that the state’s new coronavirus case numbers have been declining in recent weeks, suggesting that the second major attempt to reopen businesses is going better than the first.
[Read more about the state’s tiered, color-coded reopening plan.]
As of Monday, the state’s average positivity rate over the past two weeks dipped to 3.1 percent. Over the week, that number was below 3 percent for the first time.
On average over the past two weeks, more than 108,000 tests were administered each day, a number that Mr. Newsom has said may be depressed because of the wildfires burning across the state.
He hinted that more counties would be able to move ahead in their phased reopenings.
“Real progress,” he said.
Mr. Newsom said that a planned doubling of testing capacity, coupled with much faster turnarounds of those tests will allow the state and counties to better gauge when to reopen schools and lift restrictions on other types of businesses.
Still, he cautioned that Californians shouldn’t get complacent; it’s still unclear whether there will be a spike in cases stemming from increased travel over Labor Day weekend. Furthermore, flu season is on the way.
And the encouraging signs out of the nation’s most populous state — a kind of nation unto itself — come as the United States approached 200,000 deaths in a horrific and unpredictable pandemic that could continue to drag on.
So far this year, 3.6 million acres, an area roughly the size of Connecticut, have burned just in California. That’s about 23 times the acreage that burned in the state last year — although it was a wet year, unlike this one.
[Track major fires and air quality across the West.]
But officials emphasized again on Monday that it’s September and more could be ahead.
Some 19,000 firefighters are still battling 27 major fires, including the Bobcat Fire, which exploded northeast of Los Angeles over the weekend. More than 23,000 people are still evacuated from their homes across the state.
“We continue to do our best,” the governor said.
Climate change has turned California from a marvel of infrastructure ingenuity into ground zero for disasters. [The New York Times]
A firefighter died last week battling the El Dorado Fire, which the authorities say was sparked by a gender-reveal party pyrotechnic stunt. [The New York Times]
Some Californians moved to Oregon to find cheaper housing. Wildfires there have left them homeless. [The Los Angeles Times]
Autumn has arrived on the North Coast, bringing hot, dry winds; fire danger; and low reservoirs. [The Press Democrat]
Fish in Teichert Ponds, a wildlife refuge in Chico, have been found dead. Experts say it’s because they lacked oxygen and air quality was poor. [Chico Enterprise-Record]
Air in the Bay Area is expected to be clear this week, but the respite from wildfire smoke might be brief. [The San Francisco Chronicle]
And Finally …
There is a deep, dark part of the ocean, beyond that which has been known to man (except a few scientists and well-financed explorers, including James Cameron). It is vast, but it isn’t timeless. It’s outside the reach of sunlight.
It is — insert Rod Serling pause here — the midnight zone.
And as Annie Roth reported for our Science desk, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is leading an effort to bring life in that zone, 3,300 to 13,000 feet under the sea, to the surface.
What’s challenging is that organisms at that depth are hard to catch and hard to keep alive. But millions of dollars and technological advances can go a long way.
So over the next two years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium plans to spend $15 million to create the world’s first exhibition of deep-sea life.
But it won’t just be for tourists to ogle the wild, unknown creatures.
“If people come away from this exhibit thinking that they’ve just seen an ‘other’ place then I think we haven’t done our job,” said Kyle Van Houtan, the aquarium’s chief scientist. “Our job is to get them to see themselves in this place.”
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.