In just two weeks, all that has changed here in the golden heart of California wine country and across the West, again overwhelmed by a swelling pandemic. This surge, though, has been like no other in how quickly the number of cases has climbed, hospitals have filled, and the improvised relationships that have kept businesses afloat have been re-created in crisis.
From Washington state, south into California and east to New Mexico, the coronavirus is carving a fresh path through already battered communities and economies, forcing a new round of government-imposed shutdown orders, curfews and mask mandates.
As recently as last month, the West had reason to believe that it had the coronavirus under control. But as the rest of the nation saw infection rates surge, so, too, did a region of destinations like this city north of the San Francisco Bay, if a few weeks later.
Unlike the Midwest and the East Coast, the weather here has not shifted drastically from hot to cold, meaning seasonal change can only explain some of the spike. Also contributing to the accelerated rise here are a series of celebrations — especially in Southern California, where professional basketball and baseball teams recently won world championships — and a mounting case of regulation fatigue.
“You put those factors together and you can go from zero to 60 very fast,” said Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services. “And because we are a place with a lot of people coming and going, we are going to see the impact of the transmissions in other parts of the country make it here.”
To some Western states, the rapid surge has spun exhausted residents back to the beginning of the pandemic, even as public officials look for ways to keep the economy from collapsing.
Earlier this month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced $130 million in emergency aid to businesses forced recently to close again. Oregon, along with Washington and California, issued a travel advisory asking visitors to quarantine for two weeks on arrival. Last week, New Mexico announced new highs in hospitalizations, infections and deaths, including that of a child.
In California, the speed of the new surge has taken nearly everyone by surprise. The state does not have the worst numbers in the nation but it is perhaps the most whiplashed, enduring two previous cycles of spikes and recovery only to fall into a third.
The number of new daily cases statewide has doubled in just the past two weeks, and there are signs that more people are ending up in the hospital than during previous surges. The state had never reported more than 13,000 daily cases until last week, when it did so three times.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has pushed 41 of the state’s 58 counties, accounting for 94 percent of the state’s population, back into the most restrictive regulatory tier, required masks outside the home, and imposed an overnight curfew. The number is likely to rise this week, when San Francisco is expected to be returned to near-shutdown status.
In Los Angeles, where streets filled with Lakers and Dodgers fans last month after those teams won championships, the number of daily infections has tripled in a month. Hospitals are straining with new cases, amounting to what Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) called “a different kind of moment, a new level of danger” for the city. On Sunday, Los Angeles County health officials suspended outdoor dining at restaurants, effectively closing most of them.
Newsom’s month-long overnight curfew took effect Saturday, and the reaction underscored the challenge. In conservative Huntington Beach, hundreds of mostly maskless demonstrators took to the street to protest the curfew, among them a group called “Latinos for Trump.” Latinos account for 60 percent of the coronavirus cases statewide.
“It’s just the sheer experience now where we know getting ahead of it in significant ways, when you see signs of exponential rapid growth, is the only thing you can do,” Ghaly said of the regulations. “That is unless you’re willing to just have it play out the way it does, which California has not been and probably won’t become a state that does it that way.”
The only glimmer of good news is the comparatively low rate that people here are testing positive for the virus, which at about 6 percent is well below the national average.
That, too, could shift quickly. Officials say the recent acceleration of restrictions, imposed after only a week’s review of data rather than two weeks, is an attempt to corral the spread, with a vaccine on the not-too-distant horizon. Last week, the board of supervisors here authorized the purchase of a freezer capable of storing vaccines at the right temperature.
Several public officials have expressed dismay at the rapid rise of infections in a state where, at least along its thickly populated and more liberal coast, mask-wearing has become habitual. Among all the explanations, one cuts across demographic lines, just as the virus is doing this time around.
People are tired.
“We’ve done floods, we’ve experienced earthquakes, we’ve experienced fires,” said Alfredo Pedroza, a Napa County supervisor and native. “This is a community that can withstand emergencies. But I think the duration of this pandemic is really taxing people.”
On Oct. 21, Napa was placed in the second-least-restrictive tier, reviving an economy reliant in large part on indoor dining, wine drinking and shopping. Then, on Nov. 16, Newsom announced that he was “pulling the emergency brake.” Napa was one of only nine counties that dropped two regulatory levels, falling back into the most restrictive.
Wine country has been ravaged this year by fire, just as it was three years ago. This city flooded in 1986 and was shaken badly six years ago by a 6.0-magnitude earthquake, causing damages that kept the historic courthouse building closed until earlier this fall.
“You want to give your community hope,” Pedroza said. “You want to give them a purpose. You want to show that these sacrifices are worthwhile, that their sacrifices and hard work is going to produce better outcomes. I do see this community capable of stepping up, getting a second wind, and embracing these new preventive measures.”
Cross Napa Creek over the 1st Street Bridge into downtown and the signs start with a flashing one: “Stop covid-19. Wear a Mask. ” Smaller ones follow on nearly every shop and tasting room door.
Even the man dancing along 1st Street to “Roxanne” — a sign reading “Trump for Prison 2020” in his hands, a radio strapped across his shoulders — adheres to the rule.
But Newsom, who for weeks has delivered a near-daily message to wear masks and remain home if possible, did not. The governor recently stepped in for a famed many-course meal here, and the virus’s speed helped magnify what he called “a bad mistake.”
On Nov. 6, Newsom attended a birthday dinner for a friend at The French Laundry, a Michelin three-star restaurant in nearby Yountville. There were more than 10 people around a table, one wall open to the outdoors. No one wore masks, according to pictures that surfaced later.
Technically, when he attended the dinner, the gathering was allowed under state rules that applied to Napa. But news of the dinner came days later, as Newsom announced tougher regulations, and he acknowledged his obvious practice-and-preaching problem.
Compounding matters was a guest list loaded with lobbyists, including two executives from the California Medical Association.
The apparent hypocrisy infuriated many across the state. It even prompted outgoing San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, to announce that he is considering a challenge to Newsom in 2022 as a result of the dinner and the elite entitlement it seemed to represent.
In a public apology, Newsom said that “the spirit of what I’m preaching all the time was contradicted.”
“I need to preach and practice,” he said, “not just preach.”
On Sunday evening, Newsom announced that he and his family are in quarantine after learning that three of his four children were exposed late last week to a California Highway Patrol officer, part of the family security detail, who tested positive for the virus.
At the entrance to Overland Co., a high-end clothing store in a historic corner building, sits a bottle of hand sanitizer and the aspirational sign warning that only five customers are allowed in at once. On a recent weekend morning there was no threat to that limit, the store empty except for its two employees.
“It’s the uncertainty that we have now,” said Janise Dawson, manager of the Napa Valley Hotel and Suites downtown here. “Groups are calling and canceling because they have no idea what to expect.”
Earlier this month, in the days before the new regulations were imposed, Dawson said the hotel was 75 percent full. Now, she said, not even a quarter of the rooms have guests.
“This is by far the worst situation we’ve ever seen,” said Dawson, who has been in the hotel business for three decades. “My positive side believes they are just shutting us down for the holidays to be careful, then will slowly open us back up. Hopefully we can start the new year strong.”
The Wildcat Vintage Clothing Store is empty except for Thea Witsil, the owner behind the protective plexiglass and counter. Patrons must use hand sanitizer before entering and wear a mask, which Witsil has been making for months from vintage cloth.
She is not surprised by the spike.
“I mean, people are idiots,” Witsil said. “Wear a mask, wash your hands — I mean, these are basic concepts people seem to be struggling with.”
Witsil has been in business here for 21 years and feels “like I’ve seen it all and lived through it all.”
“But this has been unlike any other event,” she said.
Witsil said it is not Napa residents who are responsible for the rise in cases but the tourists who continue to trickle in. Outside her shop window is a man wearing a Pittsburgh T-shirt, a camera around his neck, and no mask.
“The problem is not with our community,” she said. “But people from out of town are challenged, to say the least.”
Pera Leather is going out of business along 1st Street. Tasting rooms, from the fancy to the funny, are mostly empty.
A chalk-written sign in the window of Rebel Vintners reads: “Wine is the answer. What was the question?” A masked Sabrina Jawer, who recently received her master’s degree in wine management, sits on a stool behind the counter.
“It has definitely cut down on our foot traffic,” Jawer said. “Now we’re about to enter the rainy season, so it will be interesting to see what happens when we have to be inside.”
Like other tasting rooms, Rebel, a collective owned by three Napa winemakers, has an outdoor “parklet,” a tented area where tasting can take place.
But Rebel tried to make its mark by being the fun guys on a block of more stuffy vintners, offering board games and vinyl nights to patrons. Those are on hold, even as Jawer continues to dread having to clean every piece of every board game in the age of the coronavirus.
“We were doing better when we started up the indoor stuff again,” she said. “But I guess it’s not that surprising that because of it we have backslid a bit.”