Looking back at six months of pandemic, and at what lies ahead for Sonoma County
It has been six months. It only feels like a lifetime.
Friday marked the six-month anniversary of Sonoma County’s first stay-at-home order, a public health directive that signaled an end to life as we knew it ― perhaps a temporary end, though that remains to be seen.
The contagion that prompted Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, to issue that directive has since led to the deaths of at least 114 county residents, shredded the local economy and social fabric of Wine Country communities and shaken our collective sense of well being.
“You could tell it was something that could change our lives for a long time,” Frank Chong, Santa Rosa Junior College president, said as he reflected on the rapid emptying of his campus that dramatic week in mid-March. “But people didn’t know how long, right?”
Right. On March 18, the day Mase’s order went into effect, The Press Democrat’s front-page primer ran under the headline, “How life will change for next 3 weeks.” That was the initial duration of the order.
We had no idea.
Six months later, movie theaters, gyms and restaurant dining rooms are gathering dust, and caution tape surrounds playground equipment. Seniors in nursing homes and hospitals live in isolation, unable to receive visitors. Face masks or coverings are ubiquitous ― and mandatory ― in buildings beyond our homes. The “classroom” is a metaphor for 25 kids logging onto a website from 25 locations. And while the unemployment rate in Sonoma County has bounced back to 7.7% from its Dust Bowl-era equivalent in early summer, it remains well above the 2.8% mark recorded in February.
Hardest to fathom has been the explosion in coronavirus infection rates. When Mase’s first shelter order dropped, Sonoma County had four documented homegrown cases. Now we are approaching 7,000 confirmed cases.
Hardest to stomach are the disparities in race and age the pandemic has laid bare. Among local cases where ethnicity is known, more than half are Latino residents. And among those who’ve died from the disease, almost all were 65 or older and lived in some type of care home.
Mase herself had started with Sonoma County on March 10 ― the same day the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. Only a week later, as interim health officer, she would issue the local stay-home order. Two days after that, Gov. Gavin Newsom would proclaim a similar measure statewide.
Having spent a career studying the response to pandemics, including time at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, Mase had an expert’s sense of what the virus could do.
“It spreads person to person. It’s the thing movies are made about,” Mase said Friday. “So officials in public health were concerned early on that we had a big problem on our hands. Was I surprised? Maybe a little at first, but not much. The gamut of outcomes was clear.”
That unforgettable week began March 15, a Sunday, when Newsom announced he was shutting down all bars, tasting rooms and taprooms in the state. The next day, the core Bay Area counties concurrently released the most restrictive shelter orders in the nation in an effort to head off the spreading virus. Two days later, Sonoma County officially followed suit.
Then the weight of the predicament began to settle in.
Sarah Pratt, a Sebastopol resident who sells goods on eBay, was enthusiastic at the start of that week. A dedicated volunteer at the Redwood Gospel Mission, she had just learned that a group from Mississippi was going to fly to California to help with the mission’s Easter coat drive.
“I was so excited, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if we’ll be able to give away the coats at Easter,’” Pratt said. “And obviously, we couldn’t.”
Chong, who was eager to unveil the just-completed $30 million renovation of Burbank Auditorium ― a facelift that few people have been able to behold ― immediately ordered all classes move online at SRJC, emptying his normally vibrant campus.
“It was eerie,” he said. “It went like Grand Central Station to a ghost town.”
There was a sense of non-reality to those early days, as residents debated best- and worst-case scenarios.
“Things were happening fast,” said Natalie Cilurzo, who co-owns Russian River Brewing Company with her husband, Vinnie. “We didn’t know what was coming next. Are we all gonna die? Is this the apocalypse? Then a couple days go by, and everything was changing moment by moment. Our joke was, what’s gonna happen in the next hour?”
Apocalypse averted thus far, but the longevity of the deprivation has been staggering. Some older residents have gone six months without holding their grandchildren. Service workers have gone six months without a paycheck. Kids have gone six months without roughhousing with classmates.