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A look back: How COVID-19 changed Sonoma County in one year

A year after a resident returning from a cruise became the first local person to test positive for the coronavirus, our lives have changed dramatically. Here’s a look back.|

A Year Like No Other — Coronavirus Pandemic in Sonoma County

As Sonoma County nears the one-year anniversary of its first, unprecedented stay-home order that marked the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, The Press Democrat set out to tell the stories of how our lives have been changed in a year like no other.

In a series that begins Sunday and continues through March, we are chronicling the evolution of the pandemic and its fallout through the eyes of people who live and work here.

Read all the stories here.

When it arrived in California, the coronavirus changed near every aspect of our daily existence. Home, work and school life, consumer habits, civic spaces and social activities were all inconceivably altered by efforts to constrain the spread of the frightening and mysterious new disease.

The fallout was disparate, revealing stark inequities and fostering deep divisions across the nation, even as the response drew on some of our best instincts to help and protect others.

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.

Here is a timeline chronicling how the past year unfolded:

March 2, 2020: A Sonoma County resident who recently returned from a cruise on the Grand Princess to Mexico is the first local person to test positive for the new coronavirus, prompting county officials to declare a local public health emergency. A second passenger from the cruise living locally would later test positive for the virus.

March 11: The World Health Organization declares the coronavirus a global pandemic. President Donald Trump suspends most travel from continental Europe to the United States during an address from the White House. Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, advises canceling or postponing gatherings for two weeks.

The Grand Princess docks at the Port of Oakland in Oakland on Monday, March 9, 2020. The cruise ship, which had maintained a holding pattern off the coast for days, is carrying multiple people who tested positive for COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus. (Noah Berger / Associated Press)
The Grand Princess docks at the Port of Oakland in Oakland on Monday, March 9, 2020. The cruise ship, which had maintained a holding pattern off the coast for days, is carrying multiple people who tested positive for COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus. (Noah Berger / Associated Press)

March 12: Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College suspend classes. The stock market posts its worst one-day loss since 1987, with the S&P 500 losing 9.5% of its value.

March 13: President Trump declares a national emergency and announces he will free up $50 billion in federal resources to combat coronavirus. Mase bans family visits to senior care facilities and public gatherings with more than 250 people.

March 14: Sonoma County reports its first case of coronavirus not linked to a cruise ship or travel to China. Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services and the county Office of Education recommend canceling classes for two weeks. Public school districts in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Sonoma and Healdsburg announce they will not resume in-person classes after spring break.

Dr. Sundari R. Mase, the Sonoma County health officer, right, and Barbie Robinson, the health services director, left, attend a press conference about the first community spread case of the coronavirus and the local response. Photo taken outside the Sonoma County administration building in Santa Rosa on Sunday, March 15, 2020. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Dr. Sundari R. Mase, the Sonoma County health officer, right, and Barbie Robinson, the health services director, left, attend a press conference about the first community spread case of the coronavirus and the local response. Photo taken outside the Sonoma County administration building in Santa Rosa on Sunday, March 15, 2020. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

March 17: Mase orders county residents to stay home and limits all but essential business and government operations. The mandatory and unprecedented directive goes into effect March 18.

March 19: Gov. Gavin Newsom orders all 40 million Californians to stay home indefinitely and venture outside only for essential jobs, errands and exercise.

March 20: Sonoma County marks its first known death from the coronavirus.

March 23: All parks in Sonoma County are closed to the public. The order includes all city, county, state and federal parks, and comes as health officials try to stem public gatherings.

March 30: With coronavirus cases rising, the county moves to extend the shelter-in-place order through May 1 to follow what the state is suggesting.

Police Detective Marylou Armer is the first member of Sonoma County law enforcement to die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. (Family photo)
Police Detective Marylou Armer is the first member of Sonoma County law enforcement to die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. (Family photo)

March 31: Veteran Santa Rosa police detective Marylou Armer dies from complications caused by the coronavirus. Armer, 43, lived in Napa County and had served in the Santa Rosa Police Department for more than 20 years.

April 1: All of Sonoma County's colleges and public schools cancel in-person classes through the rest of the school year, shifting entirely to online instruction.

April 2: Capt. Brett Crozier, a Santa Rosa native, is removed as captain of the stricken aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The move comes days after Crozier implored his superior officers for more help as a coronavirus outbreak spread aboard the ship.

April 13: Sonoma County requires the use of face coverings in public and indoors outside of home, effective April 17.

Amelia Lopez, left, and Debbie Lundberg complied with the new face mask requirements at the Petaluma Market on Friday, April 17, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Amelia Lopez, left, and Debbie Lundberg complied with the new face mask requirements at the Petaluma Market on Friday, April 17, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

April 26: Sonoma County tests 450 health care workers for the coronavirus in Santa Rosa via its new drive-thru program. Work begins to house at-risk homeless people in Sonoma State University student housing and prepare surge space in the campus gymnasium.

April 28: Parks are reopened to those walking, running or biking in. Full access resumes May 12. Beaches reopen June 2. The Sonoma County Fair set for August is canceled for the first time since World War II.

April 30: Joblessness in Sonoma County hits a nearly 80-year high, with 14.5% unemployment and more than 35,000 lost jobs, marking the highest figures of the local pandemic-induced recession. The hardest hit sectors including hospitality, food service and other service industries.

Sonoma County Public Health RN Kim Walker gives a throat swab test to health care worker Anna Camilleri of Santa Rosa as public health nurses Jacob Soled  and Julianne Ballard assist, Saturday, April 25, 2020 as those in the health care profession are tested for the coronavirus. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Sonoma County Public Health RN Kim Walker gives a throat swab test to health care worker Anna Camilleri of Santa Rosa as public health nurses Jacob Soled and Julianne Ballard assist, Saturday, April 25, 2020 as those in the health care profession are tested for the coronavirus. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

May 1: County health officials begin relaxing coronavirus restrictions, paving the way for more people to go back to work in areas such as construction, auto sales, landscaping and other outdoor businesses while maintaining key limits, including on religious services and other large gatherings.

May 3: Sonoma County records its third coronavirus death as officials prepare to launch the county's first testing sites open to all residents. The three local residents who have died from COVID-19 complications shared at least one thing in common: all were age 65 or older, Mase announces on May 4.

May 8: NASCAR calls off Sonoma Raceway events for 2020, dealing the facility a major blow with its biggest weekend — and the county’s largest sporting event — wiped from the slate.

May 12: Press Democrat reporting and public health data show Latino residents in Sonoma County are 4½ times more likely than white residents to contract the coronavirus. The finding reflects a national trend showing the virus disproportionately affects minorities.

May 16: The city of Santa Rosa opens its first managed homeless encampment, a move geared to reduce unsanctioned sites and mitigate some of the spread of the coronavirus.

May 22: The county allows outdoor dining to resume at restaurants as well as drive-thru graduations and religious activities.

Montgomery senior Cole Hallin gives two “congratulations graduate” signs to fellow senior Jaime Morales and his twin, William, in the parking lot of the school on Monday, April 25, 2020. Seniors won't be holding an official graduation this year and are trying to celebrate while social distancing. (John Burgess /The Press Democrat)
Montgomery senior Cole Hallin gives two “congratulations graduate” signs to fellow senior Jaime Morales and his twin, William, in the parking lot of the school on Monday, April 25, 2020. Seniors won't be holding an official graduation this year and are trying to celebrate while social distancing. (John Burgess /The Press Democrat)

May 28: In sharply worded public comments, Sheriff Mark Essick says his agency will no longer enforce the county’s stay-at-home order, citing its economic impact and questioning its scope and purpose. He backtracks days later after a heated public standoff with county and state officials. County health authorities pledge to communicate more closely with his office.

June 5: Indoor dining, retail and religious services are allowed to resume, with modifications. Bars and wineries without food service are allowed to reopen June 10.

June 18: More businesses are allowed to reopen, including gyms, movie theaters and hotels, marking the peak of reopening in Sonoma County in 2020.

Patti Davi of Sonoma Outfitters paints a sandwich board to place in front of the Montgomery Village store, Saturday, June 6, 2020 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Patti Davi of Sonoma Outfitters paints a sandwich board to place in front of the Montgomery Village store, Saturday, June 6, 2020 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

July 12: Under state guidance, some indoor businesses are again required to close, including restaurants and movie theaters as cases begin to climb amid higher local spread of the virus.

Aug. 2: Of the 37 coronavirus-related deaths in the county by this time, at least 30, or more than 80%, have been among residents of skilled nursing homes and residential care facilities.

Aug. 6: The Board of Supervisors approves fines for noncompliance with health orders. Individuals can be cited and fined $100 for non-commercial violations. Commercial violations may be subject to civil penalties of $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000.

Aug. 11: Sonoma County’s COVID-19 death toll hits 50 at the start of a weekslong surge in cases and deaths. By Sept. 13, confirmed cases and deaths have doubled, to 6,666 cases and 108 deaths.

Aug. 16-17: Lightning storms across Northern California spark dozens of wildland blazes, including the Walbridge fire in western Sonoma County and the Hennessey fire in Napa County, both part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex that would burn 363,220 acres, destroy nearly 1,500 structures and kill six people. Weeks later, on Sept. 10, amid California’s worst-ever wildfire season, the Bay Area wakes up to a sky turned apocalyptic orange by wildfire smoke.

Aug. 30: The state launches a four tier-system for reopening. Barber shops, hair salons and malls are allowed to reopen in the county. (They will be required to close once again later in the year.) Sonoma County will remain stuck in the most restrictive, purple tier through 2020 and into early March of 2021, hampered by progress toward several public health benchmarks.

Smoke from California's massive wildfires chokes the morning sunrise in downtown Santa Rosa, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Smoke from California's massive wildfires chokes the morning sunrise in downtown Santa Rosa, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Sept. 23: California’s workplace safety agency announces a $32,000 fine against the Santa Rosa Police Department, citing the department’s failure to safeguard its employees from the coronavirus, which afflicted at least nine Santa Rosa officers in the earliest weeks of the pandemic and killed Armer.

Sept. 27: The Glass fire erupts in Napa County and storms into eastern Sonoma County, forcing thousands to evacuate in Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa and crowd together in evacuation centers. The inferno, together with the Walbridge fire in west county in August, destroy nearly 500 homes, displacing hundreds of families weeks before the worst months of the pandemic.

Healdsburg High School senior Izabel Soto helps her sister Liliana, 2, with an activity at their home in Healdsburg, California, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Healdsburg High School senior Izabel Soto helps her sister Liliana, 2, with an activity at their home in Healdsburg, California, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Oct. 25: With campuses set to stay shut through at least winter break, high school students are 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.

Nov. 23: With local virus transmission soaring to summertime highs and case rates exploding across California, Mase warns against holiday travel and cautions that last-minute diagnostic tests do not provide the clean bill of health that would allow mixing households indoors. “You could be infectious after getting your negative results, when you're meeting with family and friends,” she says, warning of a potentially calamitous end-of-year surge in infections.

Dec. 10: Sonoma County joins the regional stay-home order before it goes into effect for the entire Bay Area on Dec. 16, banning outdoor dining and requiring hair salons and other personal service business to again close. COVID-19 deaths in the county reach 162, with more than 15,000 confirmed cases — figures that will skyrocket in the coming weeks.

Dec. 14: Following FDA approval on Dec. 11, the first coronavirus vaccines are administered to health care workers in the United States, with nearly 5,000 doses arriving to hospitals in Sonoma County for the first local inoculations.

Dec. 18: The first vaccines are administered to health care workers in Sonoma County. Intensive care beds in hospitals across the state are rapidly filling, with hospitals in Southern California reporting overwhelming patient loads.

Dec. 27: Of the county’s 181 deaths, at least 124 or about 70%, are elderly individuals, predominantly non-Latinos, living in senior care homes. Latinos, who comprise about 27% of the county population, make up nearly 25% of the pandemic deaths but almost 70% of the nearly 18,000 local COVID-19 cases at this point. Nationwide, Latinos are four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus and nearly three times more likely to die from related complications.

Dec. 29: Vaccinations begin for the county’s first senior care home residents.

Apple Valley Post-Acute Rehab resident Linda Moore, 73, gives a thumbs up to staff after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from CVS pharmacist Crystal Pham, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020 in Sebastopol.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Apple Valley Post-Acute Rehab resident Linda Moore, 73, gives a thumbs up to staff after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from CVS pharmacist Crystal Pham, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020 in Sebastopol. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Jan. 1, 2021: 10,545 households in Sonoma County have amassed rent debt of $36.5 million in 2020, equating to $3,460 per household. Households with income below $50,000 account for 60% of the total debt. In California, renter debt was an estimated $3.7 billion through December across 1.1 million households, according to Bay Area Equity Atlas and Housing NOW California.

Jan. 4: COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases hit record levels in Sonoma County, with 98 people hospitalized and a single-day high of 629 new virus cases, the most infections reported in a single day during the pandemic.

Jan. 6: COVID-19 deaths top 200 in Sonoma County. By Jan. 7, the toll is 214. In the the first seven days of the year, county health officials report 22 deaths linked to COVID-19. In the preceding days, the Sheriff’s Office acquires a refrigeration trailer that can hold 56 bodies if the county morgue gets overwhelmed.

Jan. 9: California health authorities report a record one-day total of 695 coronavirus deaths, reaching 29,233 deaths since start of pandemic.

Jan. 12: Sonoma County partners with Safeway Pharmacy employees to begin inoculating about 5,000 county caregivers who help low-income seniors and people with disabilities remain in their homes.

Jan. 18. January COVID-19 deaths in Sonoma County reach 47, making the month the deadliest of the pandemic. The new mark surpasses the 43 virus-related fatalities in August and 42 in September.

Jan. 21: Fewer than 26,237 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine have been administered in Sonoma County since the vaccination campaign began, excluding doses taken into nursing homes by the CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains. Mase says in a meeting with county supervisors that 5,033 people had received both ends of a two-dose course at that point, the equivalent of about 1% of the county’s population.

Jan. 25: The state lifts regional stay-home orders, clearing Sonoma County officials to allow restaurants, tap and tasting rooms and nail and hair salons to resume limited business. Still, Sonoma County remains in the most restrictive purple tier under the state’s reopening framework. It remains there through early March.

Jan. 30: New daily coronavirus cases in Sonoma County begin a slow decline, suggesting the deadliest and most widespread period of transmission is beginning to wane. More than half of nearly 26,000 local residents who have contracted the virus have been infected during the winter surge. Also, 103 residents have lost their lives in the deadly two-month stretch, or 40% of the 260-person pandemic death toll by this point.

People walk through the parking lot between services at Spring Hills Church in Santa Rosa on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (The Press Democrat)
People walk through the parking lot between services at Spring Hills Church in Santa Rosa on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (The Press Democrat)

Jan. 31: Spring Hills Church in north Santa Rosa, which refused to curtail large, indoor services in defiance of Sonoma County health orders and state guidelines, agrees to change course after the county fined the church three times in less than a week.

Feb. 3: Sonoma County officials step in to address a “debacle” with the largest public inoculation clinic, stemming from a screening problem that allowed those younger than 75 to sign up for vaccinations though the county at this point has not cleared those ages for shots. Thousands of appointments are canceled.

Feb. 8: Sonoma County’s network of vaccination clinics is expanded to include 11 new sites in local Safeway pharmacies. The county also begins its effort to vaccinate teachers, school staff and day-care providers, administering first doses to about 100 people through a clinic set up by the county Office of Education.

Feb. 10: 76,936 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine have been administered to Sonoma County residents, the equivalent of one dose going to 15.4% of the total population. The county and its partners have delivered vaccine to a larger share of its residents than nine other California counties most similar in size, according to the county vaccine chief Dr. Urmila Shende.

Sonoma Country Day School first-grade teacher Alexandra Ruiz, left, receives a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Rohnert Park public safety officer/EMT Mike Werle at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Sonoma Country Day School first-grade teacher Alexandra Ruiz, left, receives a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Rohnert Park public safety officer/EMT Mike Werle at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Feb. 14: Public records and Press Democrat reporting show that since July 1, the Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest law enforcement agency, has logged just one enforcement case involving the public health order. Since that time it has issued no citations for violations of the health order.

Feb. 18: The volume of COVID-19 tests countywide falls by about 28% since the end of December, from roughly 3,400 daily to about 2,400 tests a day, imperiling county efforts to advance into a less restrictive reopening tier.

Feb. 19: Sonoma County opens its affiliated clinics to everyone 65 and older, as well as grocery, restaurant and food production workers starting Feb. 22. Nearly 34,000 county residents will gain eligibility based on age, joined by an estimated 29,000 working in food-related jobs, making it the biggest one-day expansion of eligibility standards since the beginning of the rollout on Dec. 14.

Feb. 26: Faced with lingering shortages of the coronavirus vaccine, Sonoma County cancels vaccinations over the following week for people who had signed up to get their first shots and shuts down clinics set to immunize teachers and others who work with children.

First-grader Silvana Rodriguez, 7, raises her hand to answer a question about what to do during a fire or natural disaster on the first day of in-person learning Sonoma Charter School in Sonoma on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
First-grader Silvana Rodriguez, 7, raises her hand to answer a question about what to do during a fire or natural disaster on the first day of in-person learning Sonoma Charter School in Sonoma on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)

March 1: Sonoma Charter School opens its doors to kindergartners and first and second graders, the first public school in a county district to resume in-person classes since mid-March 2020. A handful of other schools open days later, with some of the largest districts in the county, including Santa Rosa, aiming for an April 1 return.

March 2: The U.K. variant of the coronavirus, a more contagious strain of the infectious disease, has been detected in Sonoma County. The county adds three more COVID-19 deaths, to hit 301 since the beginning of the pandemic.

March 3: North Bay prep athletes return to competitions in boys tennis, girls golf and coed cross-country, marking the first interscholastic contests in a year.

A Year Like No Other — Coronavirus Pandemic in Sonoma County

As Sonoma County nears the one-year anniversary of its first, unprecedented stay-home order that marked the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, The Press Democrat set out to tell the stories of how our lives have been changed in a year like no other.

In a series that begins Sunday and continues through March, we are chronicling the evolution of the pandemic and its fallout through the eyes of people who live and work here.

Read all the stories here.

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