COVID-19 leaves 40% of eligible low-income students without free meals in California desert

Photo: Omar Ornelas

NORTH SHORE, CALIF. — With limited staff and an area larger than Rhode Island to cover, Coachella Valley Unified School District has set up 39 distribution sites, which include many — but not all — of the bus stops where students are normally picked up for school.

District officials say they’re currently providing meals to about 10,400 students. But they acknowledge thousands of children enrolled in the 17,887-student district might not have access. Based on their figures, about 6,000 — or more than 40% — of eligible students aren’t getting the meals they’re entitled to receive. — The Desert Sun

Slab City is a refuge for those looking to escape society, but can they escape a pandemic?

Photo: Omar Ornelas

SLAB CITY, CALIF. — In some ways, an isolated outpost on society’s edge may seem like an ideal place to ride out a deadly pandemic that spreads through human contact.

Yet fear among Slab City’s approximately 1,500 wintertime residents is growing. Although “Slabbers,” as they call themselves, take pride in their resilience, many worry that COVID-19 may prove impossible to outrun.

The pandemic has challenged some norms of this rather abnormal place.

Many Slabbers, even in ordinary times, are not keen on heeding authority or taking leaders’ words at face value. The deadly virus has divided residents over whether to follow or flout government guidelines on social distancing. Plus, what meager income there is to be had often comes from tourists, and shying from contact may mean less water or food on the table.

“I’m extremely concerned that Slab City could become a hotbed,” said Andra Dakota, a German-born Slabber who runs the Slab City dog rescue. “We have some who are very strict and on lockdown, but a portion of our Slabbers, who suffer from meth addiction, live hand-to-mouth or live under a tarp, isn’t social distancing. We have such vulnerable people here — elderly, disabled or people on medication that compromises their immune system.” — The Desert Sun

Chad Mayes tried to change the Republican Party. Now, he’s targeting the two-party system

Photo: Damian Dovarganes, AP

For Chad Mayes’ entire life, people have been telling him variations of “I vote for the candidate. I don’t vote for the party.”

Now, he’s putting that to the test.

The former Republican Assembly leader announced he was abandoning the GOP in December, after several years of struggling to reconcile his long-held beliefs about what the Republican Party stands for with the direction he believes President Donald Trump has taken it. In Tuesday’s primary, he’s running for his fourth term in the California Assembly against two party-backed candidates he defeated in 2018: Republican Andrew Kotyuk and Democrat DeniAntionette Mazingo. But this time, the ballots list his party preference as “None.”

The race will test the power of incumbency versus party affiliation in the Trump era — whether voters will choose the candidate they’ve elected three times by double-digit margins or vote based on the D or R next to someone’s name. “I still believe the same things I’ve always believed,” Mayes explained to The Desert Sun during an interview at a local barbecue joint. “So the question is: Will the district continue to vote for me even though I no longer have the Republican label?” — The Desert Sun

The cannabis industry—legal and illegal—is booming in California, but the resulting feuds are tearing apart the Anza Valley

ANZA, CALIF. — Like the pungent aroma of the fall’s cannabis harvest, feuds over how to confront the explosion of unlicensed marijuana grows are nearly unavoidable in this remote Southern California valley.

Disagreements in this close-knit community have devolved into what one grower calls a “Hatfield-and-McCoy reality,” where residents call law enforcement on their neighbors, inciting a culture war of sorts, spawning fights over policing, rural life, water and even immigration.

Anza Valley cannabis growers are protesting the county’s permitting system. They contend it excludes small growers and hinders businesses that could buoy this economically depressed region where median income is about $19,000.

In this 256-square-mile region, where police response times have historically been longer than 45 minutes, law enforcement has recently expanded its presence and initiated an epic crackdown on hundreds of unlicensed grows.

Since then, a debate has raged among Anza Valley residents who rely on the plant for their livelihoods and those who say marijuana is responsible for a laundry list of negatives including: the pervasive odor and a perceived dangerous crime spike that threatens their quality of life. — The Desert Sun

In the shadow of war, a struggle for life

KYIV, UKRAINE — Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, both Ukraine and Russia have struggled to confront a regional HIV epidemic fueled largely by the recreational use of intravenous drugs and shared syringes. Ukraine and Russia have some of the highest infection rates outside the African continent, and 3 out of every 4 new HIV diagnoses in Europe happen in the two countries.

In the Donbas region, in addition to having their cities bombed and besieged, Ukrainians with HIV have seen many of their doctors leave and had their access to life-saving anti-retroviral medication threatened. Moreover, parts of the treatment model that Ukraine and international aid organizations implemented post-independence have been replaced with the Russian model favored by the new men in charge. That model hasn’t changed significantly since Soviet times. — The Desert Sun

Outside this mountain getaway town, a wildfire burned 13,000 acres last summer. The effects still reverberate a year later.

IDYLLWILD, CALIF. — On Mount San Jacinto, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees once stretched into the blue skies. Below, where manzanita and chapparal used to blanket the hills and canyons, now stands patches of frail, dead trees encrusted with charred, black bark.

It’s been a year since nine small fires set by an arsonist equipped with only a barbecue lighter and a can of WD-40 coalesced into a fire U.S. Forest Service Commander Matt Ahearn said firefighters immediately knew would be difficult to contain.

On July 25, 2018, the Cranston Fire tore through swaths of the San Bernardino National Forest and Mount San Jacinto State Park. Its flames roared up the mountain, jumping highways, spewing black smoke and growing so large and hot the fire created its own weather system. The heat from the blazes mixed with moisture and smoke plumes to form pyrocumulonimbus lightning clouds — the “fire breathing dragon of clouds.”

The fire ultimately forced more than 7,000 area residents to evacuate using two narrow roads leading out of Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Mountain Center. — The Desert Sun

As fire season starts, roads remain washed out and Idyllwild ponders its escape routes

IDYLLWILD, CALIF. — The Inn had a wedding scheduled for the weekend. A bridge and groom had arrived just as White heard authorities beginning to close roads.

He knocked on their door, and they agreed to help him prepare to evacuate. As they were turning off propane tanks, Christina Reitz, the Idyllwild fire chief’s wife, pulled up in her truck and asked White and his guests what they were still doing in town, telling them they needed to evacuate immediately.

“At that point, the town was full of smoke. There were sirens and the atmosphere seemed like a war scene,” White remembered.

White made sure all his guests had evacuated before leaving. By that time, the California Highway Patrol had closed two of the three routes off of the mountain and a line of cars was backing up on Highway 243 — the only remaining route out of Idyllwild. — USA TODAY

Copycat Legislation: think tank-written ‘Right to Try’ legislation passes through 41 statehouses

From 2013 to 2017, the policy thinktank named after conservative icon and five-term Senator Barry Goldwater sponsored “Right to Try” bills in statehouses throughout the country, including bills in California.

And after 41 state legislatures passed “Right to Try” bills, Congress passed its own in 2018.

The Desert Sun identified “Right to Try” legislation as part of a USA TODAY analysis that matched language in “model legislation” against bills introduced in all 50 states and Congress.

The analysis of nearly 1 million bills introduced between 2010 and 2018 identified bills authored by corporations, interest groups and lobbyists. “Copycat legislation” has become commonplace in legislatures throughout the country; more than 10,000 bills were copied and pasted almost entirely, and more than 2,100 of those were passed and signed into law. – The Desert Sun / USA TODAY

Bird scooters: traffic and climate change disruptors or toys for privileged urbanites?

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — Only three days after Bird Co. dropped off hundreds of sleek black stand-up electric scooters early in the morning, city government issued a cease-and-desist order then took the surprise, two-wheeled Birds captive.

With its more than 10 million e-scooters, Bird is the latest cash-rich tech startup aiming to disrupt traditional modes of transportation and Palm Springs was hardly the first city subjected to a surprise avian invasion.

Eight years after Uber first launched in San Francisco without permission from the city, Bird and its competitors are instigating the latest battles between cities and tech startups. In cities throughout California and elsewhere, the company has taken a page from Uber’s playbook, frequently deploying its e-scooters without warning, sending city governments reeling to try and regulate them and then only later attempting to negotiate the terms of their presence.– Desert Sun