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Mendocino Ave, looking north, is nearly free of traffic at Santa Rosa Junior College, Tuesday, March 18, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

A year like no other: Sonoma County reflects on pandemic’s deep and lasting changes

The beginning now seems so long ago — and our lives beforehand almost unrecognizable — with the return to that normality still so far out of reach.

When it arrived in California and the North Bay, the novel coronavirus shattered the rhythms, routines and rules that define nearly every aspect of our daily existence.

School, work, home life, consumer habits, recreational activities, civic spaces, social relationships, how we wander through the world. Every part of waking life would be constrained by efforts designed to curb transmission of the frightening and mysterious new disease, reordering priorities, revealing stark inequities and deepening divisions throughout the nation.

In Sonoma County, residents hardened by wildfires, flooding, power shutdowns and evacuations braced for a renewed period of discomfort and uncertainty amid a transformation that unfolded in almost unimaginable scope and speed.

Starting in mid-March, stores, restaurants, bars, gyms, salons and many other business sectors were shut down, moves that cost county residents about 35,000 jobs in the first six weeks, raising the unemployment rate to a peak 14.5% in April, the highest level in some 80 years.

Highway 101 is almost empty of commute traffic at the Highway 12 interchange, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Highway 101 is almost empty of commute traffic at the Highway 12 interchange, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

More than 68,000 students were sent home from school, left to figure out with their teachers and parents how to learn online for more than year.

Extended families were kept apart by guidance on mixing households. For elders in care homes, visitors were banned.

“Flattening the curve” became our common mission, as we withdrew from shared public spaces, retreating indoors with immediate family, companions or, in many cases, alone.

Few imagined that, a year later, the world would remain upended and society still largely locked down — the economy battered, more than 300 local COVID deaths mourned and more than 28,000 county residents stricken, the lasting scars from job losses and business closures, months of isolation and milestones missed, yet to be revealed in full.

Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital emergency room staff on duty, May 22, 2020.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital emergency room staff on duty, May 22, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

The residual anxiety and grief is only intensified by the fact that so much remains the same 12 months into the pandemic, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said.

“There was a lot of hope that it would be substantially different now, and it isn’t, and I think that’s a hard psychological realization,” said Hopkins, chair of the county Board of Supervisors. “We’re still in this disaster, and things aren’t a whole heck of a lot better, even though hope is on the horizon. But it’s still the sense of ‘Get into the grocery store and get out as quickly as you can.’ ”

Immediate hunger crisis

As the pandemic approaches a second year dominating life in Sonoma County, people ranging from community leaders to once-quarantined patients, parents and public health authorities have shared their reflections on how we have been changed by a year like no other.

For David Goodman and his colleagues at the 32-year-old Redwood Empire Food Bank, where he is the longtime chief executive officer, the effect of the shutdown was immediate.

Goodman said it’s well-established that many working people in Sonoma County need help to make ends meet, given the high cost of living. But even more people are one emergency or unexpected event away from coming up short.

COVID-19 has spelled that out in sharp relief.

“In the blink of an eye, when all of a sudden it was shelter in place and businesses were closed, and people couldn’t go to work and they didn’t have the money and the bills were still coming, the theoretical constructs became reality, and we saw this massive surge of people coming,” Goodman said. “Within one week the lines formed.

“Food insecurity is urgent. Hunger is urgent.”

Hundreds of cars lined up each day for drive-thru delivery facilitated by relief workers who have remained unwavering in their commitment despite some risk to their own health, he said.

The soup aisle at Oliver's Market is depleted, Friday, March 20, 2020, before an hour dedicated to senior and immunocompromised citizens in Cotati. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
The soup aisle at Oliver's Market is depleted, Friday, March 20, 2020, before an hour dedicated to senior and immunocompromised citizens in Cotati. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

In the year since then, the food bank has more than doubled the amount of food it distributes to clients each month, providing groceries equal to about 13.5 million meals and serving 263,200 households between July of last year and January, Goodman said.

“Maybe a silver lining is that society will now recognize food insecurity and hunger as something that is quite literally we are all right up against it, and it takes nothing to find yourself — I don’t have the words for it,” he said.

COVID-19 pandemic in Sonoma County — By the Numbers

Total number of cases: 28,281

65% Latino

27% White

COVID-related deaths: 301

60% of deaths were residents from long-term care facilities

1,105 residents and 975 staff members infected at skilled nursing, assisted living and board and care homes

68,000 students from 174 public schools and 40 districts sent home from school for a year

Peak Unemployment in April 2020: 14.5%; 35,100 jobs lost

Paycheck Protection Program loans (first round): $590 million injected into Sonoma County and the surrounding area last summer, going to 1,500 businesses, nonprofits and small firms in amounts ranging from $150,000 to $5-10 million.

Rent Debt: $36.5 million held by 10,545 renters, as of December 2020

7,131 child care spaces, or 57% of the total, lost from March 2020 to January 2021

Read about the start of the pandemic here. Learn more about health orders from the duo in charge here.

Click here for a timeline of the pandemic in Sonoma County can be found.

Uneven impact

While the pandemic has imposed hardship on nearly all of us, the shared experience has not been uniform and some have borne much greater loss than others.

Shoppers keep their distance as they wait their turn to enter Costco in Rohnert Park on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Shoppers keep their distance as they wait their turn to enter Costco in Rohnert Park on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

The financial hits were merciless, especially for those in lower-income brackets and for business owners and workers in industries that closed down. Their income stream suddenly dried up. As the weeks went on, hardship became despair, exacerbated by the uncertainty of how long the pandemic and its attendant restrictions would persist.

The pandemic exacerbated long-standing socioeconomic inequities that weighed most heavily on the county’s Latino residents. The demands of on-site work and sometimes crowded quarters at home made them substantially more likely to become infected with the virus than their white counterparts.

Since the county began collecting information on race and ethnicity several weeks into the pandemic, Latinos have accounted for 65% of all COVID-19 cases, though they make up only 27% of Sonoma County’s population. White people, who make up 63% of the county’s residents, were 27% of the COVID-positive cases, where race and ethnicity were known.

Local pandemic deaths hewed more closely to demographics. Of the county’s 181 deaths by December, at least 124 or about 70%, were elderly individuals, predominantly non-Latinos, living in senior care homes. Latinos made up nearly 25% of the pandemic deaths at that point.

Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer of the Petaluma Health Center, said the disparities have only brought greater transparency to long-standing social inequities and the importance of diverse representation among those in charge at every level.

Policymakers, he said, need to “understand what it means to have eight people living in a home or three generations living in a household,” and the implications of bringing coronavirus into a home with “grandparents, parents and people with chronic medical conditions, in a precarious case of viral Russian roulette.”

Caniella Iniguez, brought her step children Valeria Cibrian, left, and Eduardo Hurtado, obscured, right, to be swabbed for COVID-19 at Andy's Unity Park in Santa Rosa, Tuesday,  Oct. 20, 2020.  Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Caniella Iniguez, brought her step children Valeria Cibrian, left, and Eduardo Hurtado, obscured, right, to be swabbed for COVID-19 at Andy's Unity Park in Santa Rosa, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

He also noted that recent vaccination data showed Latinos and other people of color represented only 7% of the county’s health care workforce, a reflection of the potential for language barriers and other obstacles to accessing medical care for some residents.

County supervisors sought to confront the problem by investing heavily in a suite of efforts to combat increased transmission among Latino and lower-income communities. The extra dollars supported increased outreach, testing, culturally competent support, case management and financial assistance to ensure those who needed help staying home and isolating could do so.

Separately, volunteer supporters of a newly formed nonprofit called IsoCare have been working along a similar track to offer guidance and support to those who need to isolate and quarantine.

In her work as a volunteer with IsoCare, Ana Horta works with the LatinX community who have received a positive Covid-19 and are in need of guidance isolating or quarantining. Photo taken in her backyard on Thursday, March 4, 2021. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
In her work as a volunteer with IsoCare, Ana Horta works with the LatinX community who have received a positive Covid-19 and are in need of guidance isolating or quarantining. Photo taken in her backyard on Thursday, March 4, 2021. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Ana Horta, a social worker by profession, is among the 180 or so trained IsoCare volunteers who has found the work sobering, as well as gratifying.

She and another volunteer, Mario Castillo, described the situations they encountered: the live-in caretaker of a paralyzed woman tested positive for COVID, but had nowhere to go and no one who could replace her in caring for the client; two parents were hospitalized with COVID, leaving two sick children at home; a widow whose husband had died of COVID-19, leaving her alone without help, facing eviction, though she could neither hear nor speak.

“It really put in perspective how we take things for granted,” among them, “that we can have a room that we can just go and shut the door and isolate,” said Horta, 44.

Horta, Castillo and IsoCare founder and Medical Director Panna Lossy also cited numerous instances in which clients described being pressured to work even when infected or symptomatic, and fearful of retaliation.

“Over the time of the pandemic, I think the disproportionate way people are impacted has magnified over time,” Lossy added, “so if you were poor before the pandemic, with job losses all around you, and all your friends and family are poor … Wow. It’s been compounding for a year.”

Isais Zamora wears a face mask while thinning fruit at Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.  Lideres Campesinas, a farmworker support group, provides PPE to farmworkers to help protect them during the coronavirus pandemic.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Isais Zamora wears a face mask while thinning fruit at Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Lideres Campesinas, a farmworker support group, provides PPE to farmworkers to help protect them during the coronavirus pandemic.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Economic catastrophe

Though joblessness in Sonoma County has dropped since mid-2020, reaching 6.5% at the end of December after being in double digits from April through June, the financial fallout in the region remains staggering.

An estimated 10,545 renters in the county have accumulated debt averaging $3,460 per household, or $36.5 million total, according to a recent report.

Peter Rumble, chief executive officer of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said there’s no way to know exactly how many businesses have gone under, but the chamber itself has “lost well over 100 due to financial hardship or business closure.”

Some local losses have been highly visible: Bistro 29 in Santa Rosa, Healdsburg’s Raven Film Center, Petaluma-based Three Twins Ice Cream. But others — small offices, personal care salons or self-supported entrepreneurs — may have closed their doors with less notice, Rumble said.

Either way, “that’s a family,” said Sheba Person-Whitley, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “That’s people who have put their heart and soul into this baby, that’s their business. There’s all their staff. It’s so impactful.”

Others, especially those in the hard-hit hospitality industry, are “hibernating,” hoping to reopen when it’s feasible, she said, but the struggle is similar.

There’s just not enough relief funding to go around, either, whether through the federal Paycheck Protection Program or other packages.

Friends have lunch inside the plastic tarped seating area at the new Mi Ranchito Downtown restaurant on 5th St. in Santa Rosa on a rainy Friday, November 13, 2020.   (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Friends have lunch inside the plastic tarped seating area at the new Mi Ranchito Downtown restaurant on 5th St. in Santa Rosa on a rainy Friday, November 13, 2020. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The government loan program funneled $590 million into Sonoma County and the surrounding area last summer, with more than 1,500 businesses, nonprofits and small firms receiving forgivable loans ranging from the minimum $150,000 all the way up to the $5 million to $10 million range. Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of The Press Democrat, received a $3.4 million loan to avert layoffs.

In all, the program was said last year to have safeguarded 64,000 local jobs.

In January, a state-run small business relief program drew more than 334,000 applications from around California during the first round. From that mix, 252 were awarded to Sonoma County businesses, Person-Whitley said.

Locally, county supervisors set aside $2.5 million for small business stabilization last fall, with instructions that grants be large enough to make a difference, drawing more than 1,300 applications, Person-Whitley said. The Economic Development Board could fulfill only 542 requests.

“It gives you an idea how great the need is,” she said.

“None of us, I believe, anticipated that we would be in this very long, protracted, seemingly never-ending event known as COVID-19,” Person-Whitley said.

Martha DeBower, 106, had a wonderful surprise when she saw her great-great grandson, Luke Masi, 14 months, walk for the first time through the window of her room at the Summerfield Care Home in Santa Rosa. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Martha DeBower, 106, had a wonderful surprise when she saw her great-great grandson, Luke Masi, 14 months, walk for the first time through the window of her room at the Summerfield Care Home in Santa Rosa. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Peril, isolation for most vulnerable

Some of the greatest suffering of the pandemic has occurred in elder care and skilled nursing facilities, which early on closed their doors to visitors and required residents to remain in their own rooms and apartments in an effort to reduce exposure to the coronavirus.

Twelve months later, some of those sites — which include 20 nursing homes and more than 177 long-term care facilities — are just beginning to allow more open, if cautious, visits.

At the height of the pandemic, the sites proved ideal incubators for coronavirus, typically introduced by asymptomatic staff members, many of them low-wage earners working across two or three facilities, often on a part-time basis. The close contact required during the course of caring for elders and others requiring assistance, and the frequency with which clients share rooms, made it all the more difficult to prevent transmission.

Over the course of the pandemic, at least 1,105 residents and 975 staff members at skilled nursing, board and care and assisted living facilities have been infected with the virus, according to county data.

Patients from such settings account for at least 165 of the county’s 303 COVID-related deaths.

Raymond Jax, 71, feared he might become one of them. He has lived at Petaluma Post-Acute Rehab for over three years, a result of a disabling stroke about 15 years ago. He became aware early on of COVID-19 cases at the facility.

Eventually, there would be 45, including at least one death. Jax was infected in December. It was a shock, as he suffered no symptoms at all, becoming ill only after he was vaccinated six weeks later and landing in the hospital for five days.

But Jax, who uses a wheelchair in the wake of his stroke, may have suffered most from the isolation endured through a year of confinement in his room. He concedes he’d endured some depression.

“It’s been less than enjoyable,” he said.

He had just received new bifocals before the lockdown but couldn’t use them until they were fitted and adjusted, an objective that’s remained beyond his reach for the past year. Using screen technology to visit family has been mostly a bust, though he’s talked with his son on the phone, and his granddaughters, 6 and 8, have made “window visits.”

“I’m still alive,” he said.

County health's Dr. Rachel Rees displays the a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, packed in dry ice that contains two boxes of vaccine with 975 doses in each, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 in Santa Rosa.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
County health's Dr. Rachel Rees displays the a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, packed in dry ice that contains two boxes of vaccine with 975 doses in each, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

COVID cases were peaking in July at Broadway Villa Post Acute in Sonoma, where 12 of 50 infected residents would lose their lives, when Leticia “Tish” Hoover’s husband of 26 years, Bob, 67 died.

His COVID-19 test came back negative that very morning, allowing his wife and her son to be with him as the Parkinson’s disease and dementia that had slowly drained his vigor took him at last.

It was their first visit in five months, a carefully controlled one for which Tish Hoover will be forever grateful after a long separation that had been challenging for her husband to understand. Phone calls and FaceTime often proved disorienting for him, so it was a gift to hold him during his last few hours, to thank him for their time together and tell him how much she loved him, even though he had closed his eyes for the last time a day earlier, she said.

“I knew he could hear us because I was talking to him, and when he heard my voice, tears came out of his eyes,” Tish Hoover, 65, said. “We were blessed to be able to see him because so many families can’t.”

Emptied classrooms await return

As public schools begin to reopen, Steve Herrington, the county’s superintendent of schools, worries about the entire community of staff, teachers and students, but particularly about the youngsters who left for spring break a year ago March 13 and learned only later they would not be returning any time soon.

They’ve been gone for a year.

Most kindergartners approaching this spring vacation have not yet been in a classroom. High school students who graduated last year and started college did so without walking across a stage or sitting in a lecture hall.

“One of the things we’ve done here,” said Herrington, whose mother died of COVID-19 in May, “is we’ve hired, we’ve recruited eight behavioral counselors because that’s what we believe is going to be needed in our county — for not just students, for teachers and everyone in our offices.”

Luther Burbank Elementary School teacher Ross Hause, Sonoma County Teacher of the Year for 2020-21, goes through a lesson plan on a Clevertouch screen, Thursday, August 6, 2020 to make sure everything is ready to go for the coming school year and distance learning. When in person teaching begins, Hause will need to stay behind the yellow line, and students desks are socially distanced with red stickers on the carpet.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Luther Burbank Elementary School teacher Ross Hause, Sonoma County Teacher of the Year for 2020-21, goes through a lesson plan on a Clevertouch screen, Thursday, August 6, 2020 to make sure everything is ready to go for the coming school year and distance learning. When in person teaching begins, Hause will need to stay behind the yellow line, and students desks are socially distanced with red stickers on the carpet. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

The fallout on mental and physical health as well as academic achievement is already wide and likely to be long lasting. Last fall, high school students were failing classes at rates never before seen in Sonoma County — in some cases double the number recorded in the first six weeks of school last year.

There are reports of severe depression among some young people, and Hopkins said a local pastor recently told her about organizing a COVID-safe funeral for a teenager who died by suicide.

“I think there’s going to be a really significant toll that we are only beginning to grasp right now, that we are only seeing in shadows right now, through emotional disengagement,” said Rumble, with the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. “There’s anecdotally increased rates of child abuse, suicide and depression. That’s very scary to me.”

Shayla Hopkins, 11, center, and her twin cousins, Andrew and Audrey Greene, 5, join parents and other children in a rally being held to pressure local and state officials to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Shayla Hopkins, 11, center, and her twin cousins, Andrew and Audrey Greene, 5, join parents and other children in a rally being held to pressure local and state officials to reopen schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

As more educators are vaccinated, momentum grows daily to reopen campuses and reunite students with their peers and their teachers. Several county schools have recently been approved to open their doors, while the county’s largest district, Santa Rosa City Schools, has reached a tentative agreement with its teachers union that would allow about 5,000 elementary students to return to in-person classes April 1 and 2. Nearly 11,000 secondary students would be back on campuses at the end of the month if the Santa Rosa Teachers Association ratifies the plan.

A newly signed state bill authorizes $6.6 billion in spending on California’s returning students, including $2 billion in incentives for districts that offer in-person instruction by the end of March.

The challenge of distance learning and the loss of structure and socialization has been immense for many households, and the transition back won’t necessarily be a smooth one.

Herrington said teachers and school staff need to allow kids to readjust, and learn how to be in a group and in class again. Some will be bringing emotional trauma with them, he said.

The logistical issues that come with school plans that call for hybrid schedules — combinations of in-person and online classes — will be another hurdle for families.

Santa Rosa architect Robin Stephani would love to send her first grader back to school, for instance, but the additional exposure would jeopardize their participation in a five-student learning pod for which several families have pooled funds to hire a teacher. Her two high school seniors already are looking forward to college, and Stephani doesn’t think the public health picture is clear enough for the kind of social mixing that would happen on campus, so they won’t be going back, either.

“We are 110% ready to go back to school in the fall, but we need it to be 100% school, not a hybrid model,” she said.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Sundari R. Mase, Saturday, March 6, 2021 disinfects between patients as she volunteers at West County Health Center's vaccine clinic at Analy High School in Sebastopol.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Sonoma County Public Health Officer Sundari R. Mase, Saturday, March 6, 2021 disinfects between patients as she volunteers at West County Health Center's vaccine clinic at Analy High School in Sebastopol. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

‘Have some hope’

Mase, like many, said falling COVID-19 cases and the arrival of more vaccines — now administered to more than 1 in 5 Sonoma County residents despite distribution hurdles — means there is truly light on the horizon.

The current direction of local metrics has the county on course to advance out of the most restrictive tier of business activity sometime soon. Economic forecasts favor the kind of domestic tourism that Sonoma County has to offer in spades coming out of the pandemic.

“I feel like we’re close,” said Robinson, the health services director.

Lynn Burkart prays during Mass at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in Sonoma, on Sunday, June 7, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Lynn Burkart prays during Mass at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in Sonoma, on Sunday, June 7, 2020. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

But reality has been altered, and the personal toll remains overwhelming for many — those who lost loved ones, livelihoods — as well as for so many others who missed out on moments in the past year that will never be recovered.

Life, said Hopkins, “will never be the same after this.”

“It’s exhausting,” she said, “and there’s so much anxiety and fear of the unknown, but we’re also at the part where we’re finally able to have some hope. It’s a frustrating place. We have the struggling businesses, and we’re all hurting, but the vaccine is hanging out there just beyond reach.”

For a long time, she said, “everyone was trying so hard to tread water, and there was no rescue ship coming, and finally I can see the life ring. I can see the raft. I can start swimming.”

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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