How Bolinas worked to screen itself from coronavirus
BOLINAS, Calif. — When the coronavirus outbreak appeared likely to rage through the Bay Area weeks ago, residents of this hermitlike beach community tried to protect themselves by doing what they do best — keeping out strangers.
Despite a regional stay-home order, outsiders were inundating Bolinas, which sits just south of Point Reyes National Seashore in west Marin County. Yelling matches ensued. Residents posted themselves at the entrance to town and shouted at drivers, “Go home!”
Under a homemade “Bernie 2020” sign painted in red, residents hung two others: “Bolinas closed to visitors for duration of pandemic. Residents, deliveries only.”
Jyri Engestrom, 42, a venture capitalist who owns a home here, worried that the pandemic would rage through town, which has about 1,600 residents, many of them seniors. Some residents had symptoms but could not get tested.
“I was getting scared because frankly this is a town of aging hippies whose idea of social distancing is not to hug each other as much,” he said.
Working with volunteer and nonprofit groups, Engestrom organized a testing project for all willing residents, Bolinas employees and front-line workers. On Friday, the University of California, San Francisco, which processed the samples, announced the results of 1,845 nasal and oral swab tests. No one was infected.
Surrounded by the sea on three sides and reachable from San Francisco by a long, windy, cliff-edged, two-lane road, this hamlet is best known for its disdain of development and outsiders. Bolinas leaders limited water hookups decades ago to keep the community small and tore down traffic signs that pointed the way to town.
Still, high-tech entrepreneurs managed to purchase homes, and property values and rents skyrocketed. The entrepreneurs ingratiated themselves, donating money for local causes, including a park. Residents said they have also helped pay for free meals and masks during the pandemic. The town has come to appreciate the beneficence.
“They don’t understand the town,” said Bolinas resident Rudy, 69, chatting with another man on a street overlooking a lagoon. “But they are exceedingly generous.”
Rudy declined to give his last name. “Bolinas is a secretive place, you know,” he said.
A city sign in front of a trail leading to the water reads: “All non-residents may be subject to fines. Shelter at home.”
Engestrom said the mass testing a week ago proved surprisingly easy. Even though hospitals were short of the components needed for tests, the organizers improvised and used what was plentiful. They are planning to publish a blueprint for other communities that want to follow their example.
He and Cyrus Harmon, 49, who founded a pharmaceutical startup and moved to Bolinas 10 years ago, got the idea for community-wide testing after reading about the northern Italian town of Vo. It tested nearly all its 3,000 residents at the height of the coronavirus outbreak. The two men said they wanted to give something back to the town.
Mark Pincus, who founded online game maker Zynga and also owns a home in Bolinas, donated the first $100,000.
Volunteers flocked to help. “It is not about tech executives doing this,” Harmon said. “It is about the community coming together and doing it.”
Engestrom knows the optics of rich people being tested while poor people go without are disturbing, but he said most residents in Bolinas live modestly.
The median household income is about $58,000 and the median age is 62.5. More than 16% of the residents, mostly 65 and older, live below the poverty line, according to census data.