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Leigh Brandt places a headband onto her 22-month-old daughter, Genesis, in Cloverdale on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Brandt was near the end of her pregnancy when the coronavirus pandemic began, with Genesis being born on April 24, 2020. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

‘I had no idea I had that kind of strength’: How 2 years of the pandemic changed our lives in Sonoma County

Editor’s note: This week marks the two-year anniversary of Sonoma County’s first known COVID-19 death. Since that day, nearly 500 more of our friends, neighbors and loved ones have died from the virus. Today, we explore how our lives have changed in the past two years. In our March 27 edition, we will examine how Sonoma County’s government and health care network responded to the crisis. We also will publish a 16-page section, which will provide an in-depth look at some of those we’ve lost as well and the heroes who worked to save us. Look for our comprehensive coverage all week on pressdemocrat.com.

Leigh Brandt was nine months pregnant in early March 2020. Those were simpler times, before folks started hoarding bathroom tissue, before “please, unmute yourself” entered our lexicon, before Anthony Fauci became a household name. The average American didn’t know an N95 mask from Interstate 95.

They had 99 problems, but COVID wasn’t one.

One day, Brandt was sitting in her Cloverdale home painting a cardboard horse for her upcoming baby shower. The next day, that shower was canceled.

“Everything just stopped,” she recalled.

Leigh Brandt catches her 22-month-old daughter, Genesis, as she leaps into a hug at home in Cloverdale on Thursday, March 17, 2022.  Brandt was near the end of her pregnancy when the coronavirus pandemic began, with Genesis being born on April 24, 2020. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Leigh Brandt catches her 22-month-old daughter, Genesis, as she leaps into a hug at home in Cloverdale on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Brandt was near the end of her pregnancy when the coronavirus pandemic began, with Genesis being born on April 24, 2020. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Like so much else in Sonoma County, maternal care was significantly disrupted by the shelter in place order that took effect on midnight March 18, 2020. The classes Brandt hoped to attend, for breathing and pain management, were canceled. Her sister, who was going to be her doula, couldn’t travel from Oregon. Her mother, a severe asthmatic, couldn’t be there during the birth.

In the end, after a 43-hour labor she described as “extremely difficult and painful,” Brandt gave birth to a baby girl and named her Genesis, signifying “new life, new beginnings.”

Looking back on all those months in “survival mode,” Brandt reflected recently, “I can finally take a deep breath and say, ‘We got through it.’

“I had no idea I had that kind of strength.”

Both mother and daughter embody the resilience many of us were forced to find in the face of the deadliest health crisis in American history. As of March 16, COVID-19 has taken 481 lives in Sonoma County. Nationwide, the toll is closing in on 1 million souls.

At the two-year anniversary of this global contagion, The Press Democrat spoke to economists, psychotherapists, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials and other experts to gauge the ways the pandemic has changed our lives. While the virus may be waning, those differences — in how and where we work, eat and travel, to name a few — aren’t going anywhere.

Like parklets, they’re here to stay.

To work, or telework?

What does it mean to go to work? COVID-19 single-handedly changed the answer to that question.

Before the coronavirus reached these shores, the proportion of Americans who worked primarily from home was just 4%, according to Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom. During the depths of the pandemic, that number spiked to 50%.

That figure is already going down. But how far will it drop?

In their 2021 research paper “Why Working From Home Will Stick,” Bloom, Jose Maria Barrero and Steven J. Davis predicted that 22% of all full workdays would be supplied from home, after the pandemic ends.

So far in 2022, some 56% of Sonoma County’s 4,400 government workers have logged teleworking hours. While that percentage will dip, as virus transmission ebbs and some employees transition back on-site, teleworking is now an established, accepted practice in county government — the area’s largest employer.

“It’s definitely here to stay, long term,” said human resources director Christina Cramer. “Telework options should allow us to be competitive in employee recruitment and retention with private sector.”

Fewer people returning to the office will mean less foot traffic in the restaurants, retail stores, nail salons and fitness clubs “that feed on that flow of commuters,” said Robert Eyler, a professor of economics at Sonoma State University. That downturn will mean more pain for commercial landlords who rent out office space in urban centers.

Ethan Brown, interim executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said many of the employers he talks to never envisioned their workplaces going remote. “It wasn’t even on their radar. But now they’re looking at it as a competitive edge” that could help them retain workers.

Tell us your COVID-19 story

Staff writer Austin Murphy would like to hear about your experiences with the pandemic over the last two years. Email him at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com

The shift to telework explains, in part, why Sonoma County’s housing market shows no signs of cooling off — despite galloping inflation and war in Ukraine. The prevailing dynamic, according to a recent update from Bay Area Market Reports and Compass Real Estate, is currently characterized by strong buyer demand competing with inadequate inventory.

This is what happens when the ability to telecommute gives affluent refugees from San Francisco and Silicon Valley a green light to relocate in Wine Country:

“Crowded open houses, multiple offers, fierce overbidding, fast sales and upward pressure on home prices remain the norm,” according to the report, which added that, on average, homes in Sonoma County sold for 3.5% over their original list price in February.

Boost to broadband

Another silver lining from the plague: COVID-19 put a spotlight on the county’s struggles to provide high-speed internet service to some of its rural, outlying areas.

Last July, as part of the California Comeback Plan, the state agreed to spend $6 billion on bringing broadband to underserved communities — an effort that kicked off with 80 miles of high-capacity internet lines in Lake and Mendocino counties. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November included at least $100 million for broadband service in California.

By spurring state and federal action, the pandemic “supercharged our efforts around broadband,” said Brown. “Good things are coming.”

The summer of 2020 was “unlike anything we’d ever seen,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County’s regional parks, which absorbed a 30% increase in visitors from the previous summer. “It was wild.”

Can the same be said of tourism? Even as transmission rates plunge, Eyler expects to see a “lingering effect” on travel patterns.

For at least a few more years, he believes, American tourists will think twice about booking long-haul flights to Europe and Asia — increasing the likelihood that they’ll choose Sonoma or Napa counties, instead.

Another lingering effect from the pandemic can be seen in the increased numbers of visitors to the North Bay’s parks and open spaces — particularly those on the coast, and along the Russian River.

With indoor recreation options unavailable, nature-lovers from all over the Bay Area practically stampeded to Sonoma County, the moment its parks reopened.

The summer of 2020 was “unlike anything we’d ever seen,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County’s regional parks, which absorbed a 30% increase in visitors from the previous summer. “It was wild.”

The pandemic heightened people’s appreciation of the great outdoors. While park attendance in the summer of 2021 declined slightly from that land-rush peak of 2020, overall attendance has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic — validating, in Whitaker’s view, the decades the county has spent growing the park system and protecting the coast.

I must have died’

Some folks prefer open spaces featuring fairways, greens and bunkers. Among them is Dennis Stankovic, general manager of the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club, just west of the city. Asked how the pandemic changed him, he pauses, to gather his thoughts.

“It’s amazing,” Stankovic said on Thursday. “I had to learn to walk again, feed myself, dress myself, relearn all these motor skills. But the crappy golf swing came right back.”

How didn’t it change him? After contracting COVID-19 in August 2020, Stankovic became very ill. At the emergency room of a Georgia hospital, nurses checked his oxygen level, which had plunged to 31%. A normal reading is 95% or higher.

“If we don’t get you on a ventilator,” a doctor told him, “you’ll be dead in 10 minutes.”

Dennis Stankovic, the new general manager  Thursday, June 10, 2021, of the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club, spent five weeks on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19, three separate times doctors told his family he was at the end of his life. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Dennis Stankovic, the new general manager Thursday, June 10, 2021, of the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club, spent five weeks on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19, three separate times doctors told his family he was at the end of his life. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Stankovic spent five weeks in a medically induced coma from which doctors did not expect him to emerge. On Sept. 23, 2020, he woke up in a hospital room. An announcer on the television mentioned that the San Diego Padres had just clinched a playoff berth. That struck Stankovic, a long-suffering Padres fan, as highly implausible.

“S---,” he thought in that moment. “I must have died.”

In fact, he’d cheated death, and now faced a daunting rehabilitation.

“It’s amazing,” Stankovic said on Thursday. “I had to learn to walk again, feed myself, dress myself, relearn all these motor skills. But the crappy golf swing came right back.”

Dennis Stankovic, the new general manager of the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club, practices with a seven iron during a break from his offices duties, Friday, June 11, 2021. Stankovic spent five weeks on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19, three separate times doctors told his family he was at the end of his life. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Dennis Stankovic, the new general manager of the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club, practices with a seven iron during a break from his offices duties, Friday, June 11, 2021. Stankovic spent five weeks on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19, three separate times doctors told his family he was at the end of his life. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

He was hired at the club a year ago, and it’s been a challenging year, he said, between dealing with labor shortages, changing mandates, pricing going up, and having to pass those increases on to members.

When the grind starts to weigh on him, said Stankovic, he’s learned to remind himself, “Wait a minute. Don’t fall back into old routines. Take a moment to appreciate things. You’re lucky to have these frustrations. You’re lucky to be alive.”

Adieu, FOMO

Toiling from home was old hat to Paul DaCruz, who lives in the Skyhawk Community. An ad salesperson for a music magazine, he’s been teleworking for two decades, and knows well the feelings of isolation that can creep in, “almost like you’re under house arrest.”

All that time handcuffed, figuratively, to his home office left DaCruz grappling with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out.) He often found himself eager to get out of the house — to a concert, or a restaurant, “even karaoke at the local dive bar” — anything to connect with other people.

When COVID-19 hit, that went away. With nothing to miss out on, DaCruz felt oddly peaceful. “I was able to relax,” he said, “and be more present.”

He became a DIY dervish, completing more projects around his house during the two years of the pandemic than he had in the previous 20. Compelled, suddenly, to streamline, he sold unwanted appliances and furniture on Nextdoor.

An ex-New Yorker with nonexistent culinary skills — “New Yorkers use their ovens for storage,” said DaCruz — he had no choice, when restaurants closed, to take up cooking, and mastered half a dozen entrees.

By eating out less, he’s saved a lot of dough, while increasing the value of his house, with all those projects.

And he’s no longer a slave to FOMO. “Life is always right there in front of you,” said DaCruz, who has emerged from the pandemic happier, more balanced, and more rounded. Literally. With all the cooking he’s doing, he’s up 20 pounds.

From a crack to a chasm

For every person floating cheerfully on the surface of the pandemic, there was someone struggling just to keep their head above water.

A mother from Sebastopol told the story of her son, who’d spent a decade building his career selling wine and liquor. When COVID-19 shut down all the bars and restaurants in the Bay Area, he was instantly out of a job.

“His friends moved elsewhere, his world was gone,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “He moved home and collapsed.”

“Anxiety heightened. depression and isolation increased. Loneliness intensified. If there was a crack before, COVID helped make it a chasm.”

The mother was also laid off — a good thing, she judged, because it gave her time to care for her son, who started having panic attacks and needed help finding psychotherapy — a tall order during the pandemic.

Her son is better now, “employed and functioning again,” she said. “But it was a long haul.”

The pandemic had a way of “magnifying most issues,” said Jennifer Westcott, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa.

“Anxiety heightened. depression and isolation increased. Loneliness intensified. If there was a crack before, COVID helped make it a chasm.”

While no demographic was left unscathed by this pandemic, primary caregivers and teenagers in particular “experienced excruciating loss and stress,” Westcott said.

Indeed, the school closures, missed proms and separation from friends endured by today’s teens constituted a kind of cosmic piling on — more trauma for a generation that grew up with school shootings and serial wars.

Michael Loeffler, a psychotherapist in Petaluma, now has a dozen people on his waiting list — “More than I’ve ever had,” he said.

One of his recent clients was 70-something woman with severe depression. After undergoing a divorce late in life, she’d been cut off from her friends by COVID-19, leaving her isolated in her small Sonoma County town. “She was so interesting, but very lonely,” he recalled. “She would come into my office and say, ‘You’re the only connection I have right now.’”

She passed away during the pandemic.

As the virus abates, “people are legitimately getting happier,” said Loeffler, “for the most part.”

It helps, he believes, that they’re emerging from their hermetically sealed COVID-19 bubbles, where they’ve been “stuck in their house, stuck with their family, or themselves, with no chance to bump into a stranger, to have a conversation with someone you didn’t know before.”

Weak little sheeple’

Not everyone was eager to meet new people during the pandemic, or try on new ideas. In addition to being the deadliest plague in the annals of America, this was the most politicized.

As Jen Schwartz noted recently in Scientific American, experts formed “a global hive mind” to deliver a highly effective vaccine for COVID-19 faster than anyone thought possible.

“But more than a year after the shots became available,” she wrote, “the U.S. has one of the lowest vaccination rates among wealthy countries.”

Asked how the pandemic had changed his life, or outlook on life, Ray Green from Petaluma replied, via email: “Well, I now despise my government and fear for the future of the nation. I now view half my fellow citizens as weak little sheeple that have no desire for or need for freedom.”

On the bright side, Ray reported that he’s “in tremendously better physical condition,” two years into the pandemic, that he cooks at home a great deal more, eats healthier, and has come to the realization that “we don’t need” many of the things we used to.

Upgraded parklets

One thing we do need, many Republicans and Democrats agree, is to see our parklets, those doughty symbols of innovation and adaptability — plunked down on public parking spaces and serving as lifelines for many a restaurant — survive and thrive in the post-pandemic era.

Like many cities in Sonoma County, Petaluma is exploring the possibility of a permanent program for parklets, said Nancy Sands, the city’s economic development specialist.

Should that happen, parklets will “look different” moving forward, she promised. They’ll need to “align with our design guidelines for downtown.”

Those slapped together parklets — orange traffic barriers and vinyl tents — will no longer pass muster. They were “a temporary solution to an emergency,” she said.

“It wasn’t the prettiest solution. But it worked.”

Induced pregnancies to control maternity ward

To control the number of women in the maternity unit early in the pandemic, doctors came up with an imperfect solution: they induced many pregnancies — including Leigh Brandt’s. Her labor, lasting nearly two days, was “a nightmare.”

The truth is, she’d been having a rough time before even hearing about the novel coronavirus. Early in her pregnancy the baby’s father had bailed, telling her he wouldn’t be part of the child’s life. At three months, the Kincade fire ignited in the Mayacamas mountains, east of her Cloverdale home.

Leigh Brandt rolls rocks down a ramp with her 22-month-old daughter, Genesis, at home in Cloverdale on Thursday, March 17, 2022.  Brandt was near the end of her pregnancy when the coronavirus pandemic began, with Genesis being born on April 24, 2020. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Leigh Brandt rolls rocks down a ramp with her 22-month-old daughter, Genesis, at home in Cloverdale on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Brandt was near the end of her pregnancy when the coronavirus pandemic began, with Genesis being born on April 24, 2020. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Looking back on all they’ve already been through, Brandt declared, “I have a warrior for a daughter.”

Genesis, not quite two years old, is an uncommonly happy child, according to her mother, bright and preternaturally strong: already doing pullups on a play structure at the park near their home.

Back home two days after giving birth, feeling scared and isolated, Brandt heard what she recalled as “angelic voices.”

Looking out a window, she saw three women standing in her front yard. They were members of the choir at the Living Water Church, where she worships, singing, “Great Are You, Lord.”

She’d kept a stiff upper lip for nearly a year, but now, she allowed herself to have a good cry. For the duration of her pregnancy, she’d “felt really alone in the experience,” Brandt recalled.

In that moment, and since, she said, it’s been the opposite.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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