California's Central Valley has disproportionately high coronavirus positivity rates

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday spoke in Stockton to highlight an increase in infections in the Central Valley, where the positivity rate of coronavirus ranges between nearly 11 and 18%.

Those numbers are much higher than the 14-day average 7.5% percent experienced in the rest of the state, and the virus disproportionately affects essential workers and Latinos, he said.

He announced that $52 million will be dispersed to eight counties in the region, which will be spent on better quarantine conditions, testing methods and enhancing support for health care workers. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in Stockton. July 27, 2020

Newsom also said that three new "strike teams," comprising workers from the Office of Emergeny Services, OSHA and social services, will be dispatched to focus specifically on the Central Valley.

The money and help come after Newsom's Friday focus on essential workers, where he pledged to do more to farm workers, grocery clerks and truck drivers. 

Latinos make up 39% of California's population but 55% of confirmed positive coronavirus cases, according to state data. They account for 45% of the deaths, more than any other group. 

Latino lawmakers and nonprofits welcomed the focus but called it the first steps to address a pressing and grave problem.

“This is something that has to be talked about every single day," said Christian Arana, policy director for the Latino Community Foundation. He said lawmakers needed to take swift action because of the rapid spread of the virus through the state and community.

Many farm workers still don't have access to appropriate masks and protective equipment, and many are afraid to get tested for the virus because it could force them to stop working, said Armando Valdez, who runs a nonprofit in Fresno and has been working with farm workers and other families in the area during the pandemic.

“If you do it and become positive you're not going to have any food on your table, but if you continue you most likely can either die of this or infect other people," he said.

He said much of the state and federal virus relief money has been tied up in bureaucracy or run through organizations that aren't the closest to the ground. Many workers are still getting evicted despite state policies designed to prevent it right now, and at some farms workers still aren't getting enough protective equipment, he said. His organization made and distributed more than 4,000 masks.

Efforts in the Legislature attempt to tackle some of these problems.

A bill by Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu and others, would prevent landlords from evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent during the pandemic. It would give tenants up to one year to pay back that rent before a landlord could file a civil action, which would not include eviction. Another bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill would make a coronavirus infection eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. That bill has already cleared the Senate and is now in the state Assembly.

A third bill, by Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino, would require expanded paid sick leave for food sector workers, including farm workers, so that people who are sick don't come to work. Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes has legislation that requires businesses to report virus outbreaks, something they aren't currently mandated to do.

“Our community is in grave need of government intervention. Requiring businesses to be transparent with their workers and the state about positive coronavirus cases in the workplace is a basic action we can take to protect Latino workers," members of the legislative Latino Caucus said in a statement.

Associated Press reporters Kathleen Ronayne and Adam Beam contributed. This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.