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Looking back at six months of pandemic, and at what lies ahead for Sonoma County

Sonoma County residents and officials look back at the initial shock of March and what might come in the next six months.|

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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.

Amy Huber, a mother of two who lives in Santa Rosa, said the hardest aspect of sheltering, by far, is watching her children struggle with the social disconnection of distance learning. Her younger son, Max, was still just 2 when his preschool shut down. He wasn’t equipped to comprehend what was happening. Huber tried to explain the pandemic and health regulations to her older boy, Zachary. Mostly, he got it, though he broke down a couple times and pleaded for the virus to go away.

“My son is very smart. He likes to check the boxes,” Huber said of Zachary, 7. “At one point, he wanted help with his math. I took a look and was like, ‘You know how to do this.’ He just wanted to call his teacher and get the one-on-one time. That breaks my heart.”

In looking back on an unrivaled span of time, it seems appropriate to look forward, too. The past six months were unimaginable. What about the next six?

On a practical level, the pandemic has taught everyone to plan for the worst.

Chong said that SRJC’s enrollment fell by about 20% during the pandemic, due partly to a constriction in classes offered and partly to a student body facing new challenges with cash flow and housing. The college will be almost exclusively online through the spring, as will Sonoma State University, and Chong doesn’t envision enrollment bouncing back anytime soon.

Cilurzo said Russian River had furloughed 82% of its employees within a week of the March stay-at-home order. The company was able to bring back many of those workers when the county greenlighted outdoor seating, but not nearly enough to placate Cilurzo. On March 17, she and her husband had 204 employees. Today they have 114.

The hardest part of long-term planning right now, for business owners and parents alike, is that so much remains out of their control. Restrictions follow the infection numbers, and those will be determined by testing capacity, public compliance and, most of all, the odds of a coronavirus vaccine becoming available sometime soon.

Few are banking on a quick fix at this point. CDC officials have said wide availability of any vaccine isn’t expected until next spring.

“I don’t see us being in a substantively different place in March 2021,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “It’s been challenging enough for government to provide timely tests for COVID. The idea of providing vaccines for millions and millions in the country is a huge challenge. I don’t see that moving at lightning speed.”

Huber said she anticipates distance learning for the rest of this school year, and maybe even into fall of 2021. She doesn’t see her skin care business reopening by spring. She doesn’t see her husband, an engineer, returning to his office.

“I feel it will all be the same, but the anxiety levels will be higher,” Huber said. “And people will be more impatient.”

Mase agrees. One of her primary worries as she looks ahead is what she referred to as “COVID fatigue mode.”

“And I totally understand it,” Mase said. “They’re sick and tired of facial coverings and social distancing. Not being able to go out and enjoy this beautiful weather, even when the hazardous air from the fires has cleared up, not being able to go to our favorite restaurants. Nobody likes this.”

That includes Mase’s parents, who live in the Bay Area. They want to go to baby showers and big-box stores, but their daughter insists they don’t. Mase has been shopping for them during the pandemic. They are in their 70s and 80s, and the risk is just too high. That danger hit personally for Mase’s mother when her best friend from elementary school died of COVID-19.

Mase doubts we’ll have a workable vaccine by the end of the year, pointing out that it would have to be fully vetted for effectiveness, side effects and unintended consequences. The biotechnology company Moderna, she said, is aiming to enroll 300,000 people as it tests its version in clinical trials.

Mase did note that Sonoma County, as it waits for a vaccine, has received a number of rapid antigen tests, which have a turnaround time of 15 minutes. Those tests might allow someone to visit a loved one in a skilled nursing facility without fear of infecting them.

Imagining six more months of semi-isolation is crushing. And yet we have already learned to accommodate so much during the pandemic. Pessimist or optimist, most people sound determined to roll with whatever punches this stealthy enemy can throw over the next half a year — better prepared, certainly, than they were in early March, a time of carefree hugs and shared bites and live basketball. Maybe the coronavirus has toughened us even as it has diminished us.

“It’s almost like leading soldiers onto the battlefield and not knowing what you’re gonna find,” Cilurzo said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’re doing this. We’re all in it together. We have our Clorox wipes in one hand and our hand sanitizer in the other, and we’re going in.’”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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