'It's emotional whiplash’: California is once again at the center of the virus crisis

Tim Arango and Sarah Mervosh, The New York Times

Posted at Jul 24 2020 12:24 PM

People at an anti-lockdown protest demonstrate against restrictions by the state designed to slow spread of the coronavirus, by the pier in Huntington Beach, Calif., May 9, 2020. There have now been more than 422,000 coronavirus cases announced in California, according to The New York Times’s database - more cases than New York, the early epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., where the spread of the virus has since slowed. New York Times

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LOS ANGELES — When everything shut down in March as the coronavirus took off in California, Canter’s Deli, a mainstay in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, laid off dozens of employees.

A few months later, it called them back to work. By then, the state appeared to have emerged from the initial virus crisis in much better shape than other parts of the country.

But now California’s caseload is exploding, with rising deaths and hospitalizations. As quickly as things had opened up, they have shut down again.

"To have to call those people up so many times, starting March 15, to say, ‘I’m sorry, we have to lay you off, we have to furlough you,’” said Jacqueline Canter, 59, among the third generation of her family to run the restaurant. “Then call them back: ‘Oh, guess what, we’re opening again, come back.’ Then call them back: ‘Guess what, you don’t have a job anymore.’ It’s just a devastating experience for me.

“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” she added. “It’s emotional whiplash.”

If America is now experiencing a sense of national déjà vu, with coronavirus deaths rising and hospitalizations at a level similar to the spring peak, that feeling is perhaps nowhere more intense than in California.

In the Northeast, the crisis that was so acute this spring in places like New York and Connecticut has now abated and shifted to the Sun Belt, where states like Texas and Florida had managed at first to escape the worst of the virus. But California is now in the unwelcome position of having found itself at the center of the pandemic twice over.

California was the first state to issue a stay-at-home order this spring, helping to control an early outbreak. But after a reopening that some health officials warned was too fast, cases surged, leading to a new statewide mask mandate and the closure of bars and indoor dining again. With more than 420,000 known cases, California has surpassed New York to have the most recorded cases of any state, and it set a single-day record Wednesday with more than 12,100 new cases and 155 new deaths.

And as California struggles once again to contain the virus, the multitude of challenges playing out across America has collided in every corner of the state, as if it were a microcosm of the country itself.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is wrestling with how to convey a consistent message while dealing with local officials who have resisted both new shutdowns and enforcing a mandatory mask order. Some rural areas of the state remain relatively unscathed with low case counts, while cases in Los Angeles are skyrocketing. The city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, has warned that a new stay-at-home order could come down in the coming days.

In many parts of San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, people do not leave home without a mask. In Huntington Beach and across Orange County, residents have openly defied mask orders and protested against them.

In Los Angeles and San Diego, classrooms will be empty this fall, after public school officials decided they were unwilling to risk in-person instruction. But in Orange County, a recommendation by the Board of Education that children return to school without masks became political fodder for debate, even as the governor announced that most California schools would not be able to teach in person.

The contradictions span the state, creating a sense of regional dissonance. In Imperial County, on the southern border with Mexico, hospitals have been so overwhelmed with virus cases that patients have had to be airlifted elsewhere. But in the northernmost tip, the virus has yet to hit Modoc County, an agricultural community of around 9,000, where there were zero known cases as of Thursday.

“It’s a small town,” said Cynthia Peña, owner of Java Doc, a coffee shop in Alturas, California, where seasonal fires were the most pressing issue for local officials. “Everyone is pretty much social distancing; we already know a cow’s length.” Still, she has shut down her dining room and asked her employees to wear masks when customers arrive at the drive-thru window.

In recent weeks, Newsom has walked a fine line between justifying the state’s reopening and imploring Californians to stay home and refrain from gathering. He has pleaded with residents to wear masks and chided them for allowing their children to hug their cousins or grandparents.

He has repeatedly pointed out that conditions across a huge state are varied, saying, “None of us live in the aggregate; it’s a very different picture you can paint depending on where you live in the state.”

It is in some ways California’s sprawling nature, with 40 million residents spread across urban downtowns and rural areas, liberal strongholds and conservative alcoves, that has aggravated the feeling of back and forth. What applies in one area may not feel necessary in another, even as residents live under statewide orders. And the sense of confusion is often made worse by conflicting political messages from local leaders, the governor and the White House.

“It’s very hard to go backwards,” said Jonathan Fielding, a professor of health policy and management at UCLA and former public health director for Los Angeles County, who worried that a lack of consistent messaging had allowed many Californians to choose which message they wanted to hear at various points in the pandemic.

“When people have been isolated and in some cases lost a job and are hearing all of these different things, what is the message?” he said. “What is the message when you are hearing, basically, a cacophony?”

In Los Angeles — which has seen the most cases in California and where hospitals are filling up — parts of the city feel under siege, and in other areas, there is little palpable sense of the severity of the situation. Unlike in New York City during the height of the outbreak, most Angelenos have not had to absorb the piercing wail of ambulance sirens at all hours, a sound that came to define the pandemic there.

California’s numbers are in part a reflection of its vast population, about double that of New York state, and testing is far more available now than in the spring. Antibody tests suggest that far more people than previously reported were infected in New York City at its peak. But because Los Angeles is so less dense than New York City, there are parts of Los Angeles where the reality of the virus at this stage of the pandemic can go unnoticed.

“It feels as normal as it always did,” said Michael Lee, the owner of a hair salon, Bang Bang LA, in the Los Feliz neighborhood.

For Lee, the past several months have been turbulent in the extreme. He was set to open his business just as the pandemic gained a hold in the country, forcing shutdowns.

“We opened March 19 and got shut down March 20,” he said.

Lee, who rents space to other hair stylists, did not collect any rent for the first months of the shutdown. Now he is charging tenants just 35% of their rent “just to keep the doors open for when we can go back to work.”

He was allowed to open for about five weeks beginning in early June, but many of his clients stayed away, saying they feared another coronavirus wave. “They were right, I guess,” he said.

The salon shut down again last week, and Lee has been spending his time cleaning it, touching up the paint on the walls and researching business loans to help him stay afloat. “I’ve just been watching the numbers every day, hoping to see them start dropping,” he said.

For essential workers, many of whom are people of color who have faced the risk of the virus on a daily basis for months, the latest upticks were especially worrisome.

“It’s scary,” said Christina Lockyer-White, a nursing assistant at a nursing home in Kern County, who watched as dozens of patients and fellow employees fell ill in April. “Nobody should have to go through or see what I experienced.”

As cases rise, Lockyer-White, who said she tested negative this spring, once again worries about contracting the virus and taking it home to her son. “You always wonder if a second wave can come back, because you hear that they can,” Lockyer-White said Thursday during a break from a shift at the nursing home. “It’s always, make sure you don’t let your guard down.”

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