Here Are Financial Programs to Help Northern Californians Pay Their Power Bill

In March and April, residential electricity usage skyrocketed between 15% to 20% compared to the same period last year, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Last month, PG&E and other utility customers received a break on their energy bill as a result of warmer weather and the state issuing a climate credit of about $35 to most ratepayers. While the state has moved up what is normally a second climate credit in October to be split over May and June, energy bills for a full month of extra power usage resulting from the coronavirus shutdown come due in May. For many Californians, it may not be pretty. Power providers say people are already falling behind on their payments.

California is offering assistance to those who are going through economic hardship and need help in paying their power bill. Both PG&E and community power aggregators are also offering support in the form of a suspension of collections and unenrollments, flexible payment plans, and other programs.

See a roundup of these programs from KQED's Kevin Stark here.

California Sets In-Person Voting Rules Under Virus Threat

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that California will establish hundreds of locations around the state where voters can cast ballots in-person, a month after he decided to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot for the November election.

The decision is an effort by the administration to balance the necessity of protecting public health during the coronavirus outbreak, while recognizing that some residents want, or need, to vote in person.

"We are committed to protecting the hard-fought right for Californians to make their voices heard this November, even in the face of a pandemic," Newsom said in a statement.

In a tweet, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican from Rocklin, northeast of Sacramento, called the order unlawful and another reason to lift Newsom’s broad emergency powers during the virus outbreak.

The governor's office said the order would ensure in-person voting options are available in sufficient numbers to allow voters to maintain physical distancing. Counties must open a minimum of one in-person voting location for every 10,000 registered voters, beginning the Saturday before Election Day. The executive order also requires ballot drop-box locations be available between Oct. 6 and Nov. 3.

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As is already the case, in-person voting sites will be available in county elections offices starting 29 days before Election Day.

Read the full story from The Associated Press here.

MAP: See Which Nursing Homes Have Had Outbreaks in the Bay Area

In the Bay Area alone, 97 skilled nursing facilities and 18 residential care homes for the elderly have reported outbreaks of COVID-19,  KQED has found, part of a national trend that has seen the coronavirus taking a heavy toll on the frail and elderly, and creating stress and anxiety for their loved ones.

Statewide, as of May 31, at least 2,184 residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have died of COVID-19, according to data reported by the California Department of Public Health and the California Department of Social Services. That total makes up around half of the state’s coronavirus deaths.

State health officials have acknowledged that published case and death totals are less than exact. COVID-19 cases and deaths are self-reported by facility representatives, and regulators do not systematically verify them. Where facilities report under 11 infections or related deaths, the totals are reported as "10 or fewer," a practice the agencies say is necessary in order to protect patient privacy.

KQED Science has exclusively compiled an interactive map showing the exact locations of Bay Area nursing homes and long-term care facilities that have had coronavirus outbreaks, including the number of cases in each one. Check it out here.

— Julia Scott (@juliascribe)

'Slow Streets' Coming to the Presidio

The Presidio will close off certain roads from June 6 - 30 in order to create a safe space for running, cycling, walking and other recreational activities, according to a Wednesday notice from the Presidio Trust. Some roads will remain open, but with vehicle access restricted to residents, tenants, deliveries and emergency vehicles.

The Presidio "Slow Streets" initiative is a companion to San Francisco's effort to close off streets to traffic and allow more room for San Francisco residents to recreate while maintaining social distancing. It replaces the Presidio Loop pilot closures that began in May.

Presidio Slow Streets will close off select roads to vehicles from June 6-30. See the website for the most updated closures.

Street closures will be observed 24/7 for the duration of the initiative. Check the website for the most up-to-date information, as routes may be adjusted throughout the month.

— Alexandra Hall (@chalexhall)

Sonoma Coast, Russian River Beaches Are Now Open

Sonoma County further eased restrictions Wednesday on outdoor recreation for residents, reopening coastal parking lots and restoring daytime visiting hours at beaches.

The amended parks order, which you can read here, permits individuals and households to drive to coastal parks for lower-risk activities, including hiking, walking, running, fishing and surfing, as well as relaxing or sunbathing on the beach.

Under the order, visitors must practice physical distancing and wear face coverings when within six feet of people outside of their household.

Picnic and barbecue areas, playgrounds, dog parks, outdoor exercise equipment, drinking fountains and recreational campgrounds remain closed.

— Peter Arcuni (@peterarcuni)

Yosemite Ready to Reopen Next Week

Yosemite National Park could be open as early as next Thursday after being closed since March 20. But it's contingent on a sign-off from state health officials who will need to allow campsites and hotels to reopen for overnight visitors.

Officials from Mariposa, Mono, Tuolumne and Madera counties wrote a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday letting him know that Yosemite is ready to reopen “on or about June 11.”

KQED Science Managing Editor Paul Rogers first reported on the letter in the Mercury News.

Yosemite is actually scheduled to open this Friday in a very limited capacity, to "those with an existing wilderness permit reservation and to those with an existing Half Dome permit," according to a social media posting by park officials.

— Julia Scott (@juliascribe)

Crucial Mask Shipment to California Delayed Again

A Chinese company paid by California to manufacture hundreds of millions of protective masks missed a Sunday deadline for federal certification, marking the second times its shipments to the state will be delayed.

State officials are deciding whether to give manufacturer BYD more time or seek a refund for about a quarter-billion dollars it already paid up front for the masks, said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services. The contract requires BYD to repay the money by Friday unless it can reach an agreement with the state.

It’s the latest setback in the contract Gov. Gavin Newsom announced with fanfare on a nightly cable news show in early April, calling it a “bold and big” expression of California’s economic power.

California signed the nearly $1 billion contract with BYD, a Chinese-based electric vehicle manufacturer with offices in California, to manufacture 200 million masks a month. The company has already sent more than 60 million looser-fitting surgical masks to the state.

The rest of the order is for tight-fitting N95 masks that must be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The masks failed certification in April, prompting BYD to refund the state $247 million, half of what it paid up-front. It had until Sunday to try again or be required to send the rest back.

Read the full story from The Associated Press here.

SFMOMA Announces Layoffs and Reduced Schedules for 55 Employees

In a public statement issued Tuesday evening, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced the layoff or reduced schedules of 55 staff members, to take effect, an employee confirmed, on June 8. This number includes both union and non-union employees, joining the 131 on-call employees SFMOMA laid off April 8. The latest phase of layoffs will impact departments across the museum.

SFMOMA has been closed since March 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic and now faces an estimated $18 million deficit. In late March, the museum announced the layoffs of on-call staff and the planned lay off or furlough of an additional 191 regular staff beginning May 1.

But shortly before furlough took effect, the museum received $6.2 million through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program, Hyperallergic reported, allowing them maintain employment and shift the furlough date to June 30.

Shortly before the museum received the PPP loan, staff issued an open letter calling on the museum to do everything in its power to retain all staff members during the pandemic. Of the loan, the letter states, “While this is a temporary reprieve for SFMOMA workers, we know that this simply kicks the can down the road.”

Employees who received layoff notices today will retain their full salary and benefits through June 31, thanks to the PPP loan. (SFMOMA is be eligible for loan forgiveness, per the CARES Act, if the 75% of the funds are used for payroll costs during the eight-week period of coverage.)

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The museum’s statement concludes: “We anticipate reopening sometime this summer based on City of SF reopening protocols with reduced hours, a revised exhibition schedule and a streamlined program.”

— Sarah Hotchkiss (@sahotchkiss)