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Massive Milestone For Massive Wildlife Crossing Over 101 Freeway

(Courtesy National Wildlife Federation)

The effort to build a massive wildlife crossing over the 101 Freeway just hit a big milestone. An anonymous $1.4 million donation pushed the project over the $18 million mark (the final cost is estimated at $87 million).

The planned bridge will span 10 lanes of the freeway at Liberty Canyon and provide a safe pathway for endangered mountain lions and other wildlife that live in the Santa Monica Mountains to cross busy lanes of traffic without getting hit by cars.

(Courtesy National Wildlife Federation)

Beth Pratt, California Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation, says this latest donation means they've hit the homestretch:

"This is an incredible milestone, and we owe it to people, we owe it to the public. Caltrans has always been an incredibly supportive partner on this. They have told us since the beginning, they want to build it, they just don't have a budget. So that's where it was up to all of us to step up. And people have."

The project is set to break ground in November.

And more good news!

Those big cats in the Santa Monica Mountains have some new company. Wildlife officials say they successfully captured and released a 90-pound male mountain lion last week. He now has a GPS collar and a new name: P-95. Biologists think he's about a year-and-a-half old, and may have been traveling with a sibling or his mother.

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Long Beach Rushed To Vaccinate As Many As Possible. Now It's Short On 2nd Doses

Drivers check-in for a COVID-19 vaccination on Jan. 19, the first day the Long Beach Convention Center becomes a mass vaccination site. (Thomas R. Cordova/ via Long Beach Post)

Officials in Long Beach say supplies of COVID-19 vaccines are running low. So starting next week, the city will shift gears and prioritize getting second shots to people who have already received their first dose.

The city, which has its own health department, had been a model in vaccination speed. This week, they started giving shots to teachers and staff in the Long Beach Unified School District and at Long Beach City College. Grocery store and food service workers were also getting inoculated.

But now the city faces a much smaller allocation of doses than anticipated.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said Tuesday the city needs about 7,000 doses in the first two weeks of February to cover everyone who needs a second shot, and they only have about 2,500 doses on reserve:

"We're going to push every lever that we have, and push against the state really, really hard to ensure that we get as much vaccine as possible."

Long Beach residents can sign up to be notified when their turn in the vaccine line comes up via the city's VAXLB website.

Meanwhile, Long Beach allowed outdoor dining to resume and personal care businesses to reopen Tuesday, following the state's decision to lift its regional COVID-19 stay-at-home order.


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LA's COVID Numbers Continue To Improve, But Surge Still Isn't Over


Many of LA County's key COVID-19 metrics are continuing their downward trend.

County health officials reported about 6,900 new cases Wednesday, with slightly more than 6,200 COVID patients currently in local hospitals.

Numbers in both categories are down significantly from just a few weeks ago, but are still considerably higher than before the current surge began in November.

The good news also comes with a familiar warning: we still have a long way to go before life can go back to normal.

And with outdoor dining and other businesses reopening as soon as Friday, and with the Super Bowl coming up a week from Sunday, public health director Barbara Ferrer urged residents to play it safe:

"We can't repeat the mistakes of the past. It will be tragic if the Super Bowl becomes a super spreader of coronavirus."

The county also reported 307 deaths Wednesday, almost breaking a single-day record. We've logged more than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths in the past 10 days.



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Could This Color-Changing Mask Accessory Test You For COVID-19?

Researchers are developing this color-changing test strip, that can be stuck on a mask and used to detect SARS-CoV-2 in a user’s breath or saliva. (Courtesy UCSD)

We know that face masks help stop the spread of COVID-19, but what if they could also act as a sensor to help you find out if you've been exposed?

Researchers at UC San Diego are currently developing a color-changing test strip, or sticker, that could be attached to any type of mask and used to detect the virus in the mask-wearer's breath or saliva.

Engineering professor Jesse Jokersts is the lead researcher on the project. He says at the end of the day, or when changing your mask, you'd break open a blister pack on the test strip, which would release a liquid.

He explains:

"The liquid would just flow across the sticker. And that's when you would observe for a color change. So it's not as if it's going to be sitting there broadcasting this color to the whole world ... As you're wearing it, it's just accumulating the biomarker. It doesn't test until you click the little blister pack."

The test strip works by detecting the presence of protein-cleaving molecules, called proteases, that are produced from infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The test strip before the blister pack is opened. (Courtesy UCSD)
The test strip after the blister pack is opened. (Courtesy UCSD)

Jokerst says the test strip wouldn't replace a COVID test, but it could be especially useful in high-risk settings such as nursing homes and prisons where the virus can spread quickly.

The project received $1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health, and is aimed at providing simple, affordable and reliable surveillance for COVID-19 infections.

You can read more about this research here.

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Even With A Green Light, Don't Expect All Of LA's Restaurants To Reopen This Weekend

People eat takeout food at a public parklet in Manhattan Beach on December 12, 2020. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

If you're wondering why Los Angeles restaurants are being allowed to reopen for outdoor dining as Southern California's ICU capacity remains near zero and air quality regulators lift limits on the number of bodies crematoriums can burn, you are not alone. Some restaurateurs are just as confused.

"I have to say we were all pretty shocked and a little bit overwhelmed at how sudden that decision came," Susan Feniger, co-owner and co-chef of the Border Grill in downtown Los Angeles and Socalo in Santa Monica, told our newsroom's local culture and news show Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC. "We all sort of thought maybe March, maybe April with the vaccine."

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted California's regional stay-at-home orders, returning control over pandemic restrictions to individual counties, which can loosen, tighten or maintain current regulations. Most counties, including Los Angeles, have returned to the strictest tier — purple — in the state's color-coded COVID-19 reopening plan.

L.A. County officials said they'll align with the state by allowing outdoor dining (and other types of businesses, such as nail salons) to re-open with limited capacity.

The upshot is that L.A. County restaurants will be allowed to resume outdoor dining this Friday, Jan. 29. (Public health officials had put the kibosh on outdoor dining in late November, despite resistance from local politicians and a lawsuit.) But there will be restrictions.

Barbara Ferrer, the director of Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health, was meeting Wednesday with restaurant owners and employee unions about what safety measures will be required when outdoor dining resumes. Previously, restaurant patios could be open at 50% capacity.

Many restaurants were surprised by the reopening timeline and may not be ready to resume outdoor dining this week.

"How do we want to handle it? Is it a 'for sure' thing? [What] if we do this then there's a shift that happens in a week from now? What's the smartest decision to keep our team safe and healthy and be able to do that for the public?" Feniger said.

When outdoor dining was shuttered in November, Feniger said she had just spent "a bunch of money" on redoing her restaurant's outdoor patio. "We had just finished phase one and we literally never got to use it."

Now, she has to decide whether it's worth the expense of completing the process and opening at limited capacity or waiting until some later date when the restaurant can seat more people.

"Every penny right now that we spend is very critical," Feniger said. When outside dining was shut down, she estimated she laid off 60-65% of the people who were working for her.

She asked:

"So now you bring people back, you bring on more staff to be able to hopefully handle a little bit of an increase in business. But if you don't get the increase because it's sudden and the weather's cold and vaccinations aren't happening… you've brought people back on — but is there business?"

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LAUSD And County Health Department Advance Plan To Distribute Vaccines At School Sites

A dose of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Vaccines for COVID-19 are expected to be distributed at several Los Angeles Unified School District campuses starting in February, L.A. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer announced this week at a county Board of Supervisors meeting.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has been pushing the Health Department to take his district up on its offer to use school health centers and licensed clinicians to administer the vaccines, once more doses become more available.

“While supply may be today’s problem, tomorrow’s will become access and trust,” Beutner told the supervisors.

Now, it seems, a plan is coming together. Ferrer says that within weeks, LAUSD will start being factored into the weekly allocation of vaccines. So far, 11 campuses across the county have been identified as possible sites to vaccinate residents 65 years or older.

Those schools selected already run federally licensed health clinics that typically immunize students against measles and polio, for example. Under the proposed plan, those school clinicians would be trained to administer the COVID-19 vaccines, instead of LAUSD depending on county staff.

“We’re making sure right now that our employees can get the training and sign-off needed to do it,” LAUSD Board of Education Vice President Nick Melvoin told LAist. “We’re lucky that we have the school-based health staff so that we can be part of the solution, and not pull staff away from other sites.”

The L.A. Health Department has also identified dozens of other LAUSD schools that could be used as expansion sites to vaccinate teachers, school staff, and the general public later this year. Melvoin is hopeful LAUSD employees will be prioritized, but those decisions will ultimately be decided by the state and county.

Melvoin says that so far, families have been supportive of the distribution plan. “A lot of parents see this as part of the solution to get their kids back (to school),” he said.

Ferrer said her department polled local school districts in the L.A. area and found 20 that are open to distributing vaccines on their campuses. The county is also looking to partner with local private schools.

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State Regulators Complain Edison Relies Too Much On Outages To Prevent Fires

The downtown skyline seen behind high tension towers from the East 4th street bridge along the L.A. river. (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images) APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

Southern California families found themselves serving turkey in the dark on Thanksgiving Day last year after Southern California Edison cut power to thousands of homes with very little advance notice.

More outages were imposed by Edison during the red flag fire danger days falling between Christmas and New Year’s Day. In all, Edison cut off power sixteen times to nearly 80,000 customers across its five million customer base during 2020.

These public safety power shutoffs are supposed to be used only as a last resort, to keep the utility’s aging equipment from causing wildfires during hot, dry and windy weather.

On Tuesday, the state regulators, the California Public Utilities Commission, said Edison was using shutoffs too often and with too little consideration of the public harm they cause.

Every time the utility shuts off the power, it is trading off the safety and immediate well-being of its customers to mitigate the risk of igniting a wildfire,” Commission President Maribel Batjer said during the public hearing.

Utilities’ financial liability for causing fires can be very high. Last week, Edison agreed to pay more than $2 billion to settle damage claims stemming from two of California’s most destructive fires: the 2018 Woolsey Fire that tore through Malibu, and the 2017 Thomas fires in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, as well as the subsequent mud flows that killed 23 people and wrecked dozens of homes in Montecito.

Batjer said Edison’s use of shutoffs was often “tactless,” marked by contradictory and confusing messages to customers. The outages disrupted business and medical offices, as well as families working and studying at home during the pandemic. She said that the shutoffs in 2019 were dismal and little improved in 2020.

The regulators said the company needs to improve the transparency of its decision-making and speed up its communications about shutoffs to the commission and local officials such as police and fire departments. Those departments often had to manage traffic and other emergency situations exacerbated by the outages.

A number of Edison executives apologized to the commission for the disruptions and failed communications.

At the same time, they have repeatedly said that customers have a responsibility to be ready for outages of all kinds, including from storms and earthquakes.


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Santa Clarita Man Pleads Guilty To Massive PPP Loan Fraud Scheme

The outside of the home traced to Mr. Magana's PPP loan (as stated in the complaint affidavit in this case). (Screenshot via Google Maps)

A Santa Clarita man pleaded guilty on Tuesday to claiming more than $1 million in fraudulent loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

According to his plea agreement, 40-year-old Raymond Magana submitted applications for loans in the amount of $940,416 for a company in his name, The Building Circle LLC. Those loans contained false statements about both the number of employees and the amount of payroll expenses he had.

Magana said he employed 40 people, but IRS and EDD records showed the company never reported paying any employees...

Investigators also deteremined that the company's address in Pico Rivera was actually a 980-square-foot single-family home (pictured), not an office building.

Magana also admitted to applying for and receiving a PPP loan of $360,415 for a second shell company, Forward Builders LLC, also with fake documents.

He now faces up to 30 years in federal prison. Sentencing is scheduled for May.

Magana’s business partner, Steven R. Goldstein, 36, of Northridge, also pleaded guilty to fraud. Goldstein admitted that he obtained $655,000 in PPP loans for his companies by submitting false tax documents and fake employee information. Goldstein’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 30.

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Fallout From California's Unemployment Fiasco Involves Bank Of America

Assemblymembers listen as Faiz Ahmad, Bank of America managing director of transaction services, makes opening comments during a budget subcommittee hearing on unemployment insurance on Jan. 26, 2021. (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

California unemployment debit card contractor, Bank of America, lost "hundreds of millions" of dollars last year as it scrambled to address record jobless claims, rampant fraud and a flood of consumer complaints, a senior bank executive told lawmakers Tuesday.

The assertion came at a state hearing hours after a new audit slammed the California Employment Development Department for years of mismanagement and technical errors that culminated in a failure to respond to skyrocketing unemployment after COVID-19 lockdowns.

More than an hour into the contentious Assembly budget committee meeting, the bank, which contracts with the state agency, was directly asked how much it has made on the contract it has held since 2010 — a question that both the bank and the state have repeatedly refused to answer when asked by CalMatters.

Here's what Faiz Ahmad, managing director of transaction services for Bank of America, had to say:

"With respect to what the bank has earned last year, we've actually lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the contract. We never really mention it because it pales in comparison to the scale of the human cost of the pandemic."

The contract has been complicated by finger-pointing between the bank and the state about who is to blame for jobless Californians ensnared in fraud crackdowns, some losing their homes or struggling to care for loved ones while unable to access badly needed unemployment benefits. Bank of America contends that the "vast majority" of fraud was linked to fake applications that the state failed to catch, rather than hacked debit cards, and state personnel also struggled to answer lawmakers' questions about how to make claimants' whole.


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Morning Brief: Confusion Prevails When It Comes To What's Open And What's Not

Vaccinations will be conducted at Dodger Stadium to those with appointments. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Good morning, L.A.

State and local officials are once again confusing everyone with the news that some businesses in L.A. County can reopen.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Monday that the state would lift its stay-at-home order, handing reopening control back to the leadership of California’s 58 counties.

The state order was in place for one-and-a-half months, overriding both county and city lockdown regulations. When it was first issued in December, Newsom’s order contained two tenets that inspired outrage: the shuttering of outdoor dining, and the closing of personal care services, such as nail and hair salons — even those that were operating at minimum capacity.

It was, however, the dining mandate that really struck a nerve. County and city officials could not agree on whether to adhere to the state’s guidelines with regards to outdoor dining; after being asked by L.A. City’s governing body to overturn the ban, L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors upheld it instead.

As the weeks ticked by, though, and SoCal’s coronavirus cases and deaths continued to grow at staggering rates, the importance of staying at home began to sink in. Two weeks ago, county officials described the regional loss of life as “horrific.”

To that end, when Newsom made his announcement on Monday, L.A. officials could have opted to ignore it and kept outdoor dining and personal care services off-limits. Instead, they jumped on board.

Unfortunately, this lack of clarity and back-and-forth has come to be the defining principle of California’s and L.A.’s approach to issuing coronavirus guidance. Confusion abounds, and the right hand never seems to know what the left hand is doing.

Or, as this TikToker brilliantly put it:


thanks gavin newsom for really being on top of all of this #california #fun #beach #losangeles

♬ original sound - Matt Grippi

Keep reading for more on what’s going in L.A. today, and stay safe out there.

What Else You Need To Know Today

Before You Go … How Food And Chaos Bonds L.A.’s Salvadoran Community

Roberto Lovato's father, Ramon, in Hunt's Donut Shop, circa 1980. (Courtesy of Roberto Lovato)

“The connection between food and crisis is one of the open secrets of Salvadoran life, both in Los Angeles and beyond.”

So writes LAist guest contributor Robert Lovato, in an examination of how his Salvadoran heritage has informed his life as an Angeleno and beyond. Lovato explains that many Salvadorans in L.A. planned to return home one day, then soon found themselves bound to the U.S. by family, work and the hope for safety.

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