The ebbs and flows of the virus here have changed frequently from region to region in recent months. Some rural counties have seen their infection rates flatten, while others are reporting record highs. The inconsistencies have created a patchwork of public health rules, now governing a patchwork economy that happens to be the fifth-largest in the world.
“We’re still in the swamp,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore in an interview. “And as a result, it is very hard to get people to look up and not see a lot of uncertainty in the direction we are heading.”
The rise is particularly puzzling — and polarizing — here in the usually come-for-fun upper reaches of the Bay Area.
Early, aggressive government stay-at-home orders made public health officers from Silicon Valley to Wine Country household names as coronavirus infection rates stayed low relative to the East Coast. Science-based decisions, for a time, appeared to win the argument over those worried foremost about the death of the California economy.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who extended the stay-at-home order statewide in early March, has declared that there is no turning back after more than three weeks of incremental economic opening.
“As we phase in — in a responsible way — a reopening of the economy, we’ve made it abundantly clear that we anticipate an increase in the total number of positive cases,” Newsom told an audience in Oakland last week, citing an increase in masks as the chief reason the reopening was publicly responsible despite the virus spreading in places such as Oakland.
On Thursday, he mandated that Californians wear face masks in all indoor and outdoor public areas, placing him at odds with conservative regions such as Orange County that have framed the masks as an infringement on personal liberty.
California recorded two straight days of record-high new infections last weekend, and recently it sailed past the milestone of 5,000 people killed by the virus. The state has recorded 167,000 total infections, and it is now reporting the highest weekly average of new cases — roughly 2,785 — since the virus began.
County by county, the numbers are more startling, especially in the Bay Area, where strict early March isolation policies kept infection rates relatively low for months.
Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo counties are seeing infection rates bounce up and down. Doctors say increased testing only partially explains the jumps. Hospitals and ICUs have been filling up with new cases in many parts of the state. Infection rates in the Central Valley and along the southern border are also on the rise.
In Southern California, Los Angeles and Orange counties are in the process of opening their economies entirely, perhaps by the end of the month, despite recording some of their highest numbers of new cases in months. Los Angeles County reported 2,056 new cases and 48 deaths Saturday.
Orange County, which has resisted the stay at home regulations for weeks now, announced Saturday a record-high 413 new coronavirus cases, nearly 40 percent above its previous peak. The Orange County public health officer resigned earlier this month after her order that people should wear masks outdoors generated large protests at her home and personal threats.
Only Santa Barbara County, which reported a near-record 81 new cases on Thursday, has decided to stop opening new businesses until health officials can better understand the spike. Many of the new cases ended up in hospitals, straining local capacity.
Here in Santa Rosa, the frequent first stop into California’s wine country, the science dictating the virus’s spread and the tensions around the staging of the economic openings first flashed into view. In the last week alone, the number of new infections has risen 18 percent, igniting tensions around the staging of the economic reopening.
This town of about 180,000 people centers on a historic town square of boutiques and breweries, most of them locally owned. Very early on, there were concerns among county supervisors about a policy that seemed, without much evidence, to allow some businesses to remain open and force others to shut down. The reopening appeared to be managed in that same way, which struck some as arbitrary and beyond an otherwise liberal local government’s authority.
“It gave me this uneasy sense we were picking winners and losers,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “The vaccine is months away, and now it’s really about how we live with the covid virus. This is one of the aspects of doing so, and frankly it makes me very uncomfortable.”
In early May, as infection rates declined in the county, Public Health Officer Sundari Mase began easing the stay-at-home rules along with other counties that met certain state criteria. The county was antsy with some local businesses shutting down for good.
But within weeks, the county’s infection rates had nearly doubled.
Mase, who had only begun the job on March 10, decided that the county would not allow any more businesses to open, would prohibit the loosening of the rules on public gatherings and would basically freeze other aspects of the next reopening phase. The pause would last at least for 14 days, the high end of the virus incubation period.
Mase said that, during the initial reopening, spikes in new cases had occurred primarily in a local winery, among a group of farmworkers and within a water filtration plant.
She also warned supervisors that 75 percent of new coronavirus cases were Latino, similar to the trend statewide. The supervisors agreed with Mase’s decision.
But some who support Mase also worry about the emotional toll that months of isolation are taking on the county’s residents.
“How do we save people’s lives based on good science and then lose them in these diseases of despair?” Zane said.
“Science has got to be the foundation of our policy, and we have science to support our policies in this case,” she continued. “But I have a lot of friends in the business world, in the wineries and tourism industries, and we have been listening very carefully.”
Not everyone supported Mase’s reopening pause. Sheriff Mark Essick, a 26-year veteran, announced almost immediately that he would not enforce the rules placed back on Sonoma County, saying they infringed on the rights afforded to the county’s citizens.
Essick declined an interview request, but he told the Press-Democrat that he would not follow the order, and “my original statement that we’re done on June 1 stands until Dr. Mase is able to provide me with enough information that we’re on the right path.”
The argument continued behind closed doors, but eventually the sheriff and health officer started working together, Gore said.
“This whole thing with the sheriff was more a soap opera than anything else,” he said.
But the dispute was a clear warning for public health officers statewide that they have more than just the infection numbers to answer to. The pause put the county about 10 days behind others in opening.
“There was a lack of communication of sorts and we have agreed to a risk-based approach that the sheriff seems to be on board with now,” Mase said. “We have to offset what we are doing with these other repercussions — and all of that is public health. At the same time, we have to give our businesses a chance to show they can open safely.”
But Mase added, “Make no mistake, our numbers are still rising.”
The agreement, roughly, is that the county will wait two weeks from one opening phase to the next to ensure the numbers are not rising too quickly. In addition, rather than a blanket closing and a tightening of the stay-at-home order, only those businesses or sectors identified as problems would be shut down.
At Bernie Schwartz’s California Luggage Co. — a four-decade resident of Fourth Street, near a prime downtown corner — there were no customers among the roller boards and backpacks on a recent perfect-weather weekday afternoon.
“We were getting confused with our county health officer about the delays in opening,” Schwartz said.
But at 69 years old, he’s an optimist.
“Our business was decimated,” Schwartz said. “The whole zeitgeist is to stay in place, which of course is antithetical to a luggage store. But I know lots of people who just want to get out. So, I don’t know, this might recover. We’ll see how it shakes out.”
A couple doors down, Treehorn Books also just opened its doors. The Fourth Street fixture has been available for curbside pickup, but it wasn’t the same without the long afternoon browse in a showroom that smells like musty old books.
It is lunchtime. There are no customers. Many downtown merchants are waiting for the government workers to return, perhaps in a few weeks, barring another delay.
“Our officials have been very deliberate about how this should happen,” said Grant Hotaling, 37, the store manager with a bandanna covering his face, of the reopening. “I know there are some businesses that see the whole thing as a waste of time. I’m not one of them.”