Today, we have another dispatch from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, written by Robin Estrin.
SANTA CRUZ — On a Sunday in mid-July, Dr. Gail Newel tried to take a “Covid Sabbath.” Dr. Newel, the Santa Cruz County health officer, put away her laptop, ignoring the hundreds of emails piling up. Instead, she meditated, played piano and spent time with her family — including her wife, an OB-GYN, and their adult daughter.
The peace didn’t last. Before dinner, Dr. Newel’s phone buzzed, summoning her to a conference call. She and other county health officers were told that Gov. Gavin Newsom was “dimming the switch” on the state’s long-awaited reopening. All bars and dine-in restaurants would shutter again. Counties on the state’s watch list would have further closures. Two weeks later, when Santa Cruz landed on that list, Dr. Newel would have to explain the whiplash to an increasingly frustrated public.
In the nearly five months since shelter-in-place orders began, Dr. Newel has taken the heat as Santa Cruz went from being one of the safest coastal counties in the state to the site of a recent surge. As the rate of infection has grown, she’s endured a torrent of abuse and threats. More and more, she is questioning her ability to curb the spread of Covid-19 with a state leadership that is sometimes inconsistent and a population that, she said with exasperation, is increasingly “not willing to be governed.”
She’s not alone. Public health officers, often messengers of bad news, have faced harassment and mistrust while communicating California’s alarming downturn to an increasingly polarized public. At least seven health officials in the state have resigned or retired since April. Dr. Newel has stayed the course so far, but her experience provides a window into the difficulty of managing a community’s health in a time of unprecedented stress and public unrest.
In May 2019, when Dr. Newel accepted the health officer job, she looked forward to serving the community in which she planned to spend the rest of her life. Dr. Newel, 63, had already retired once, in 2012, from a 14-year private practice as an OB-GYN. She had worked in the past in public health. But nothing could have prepared her to be hurled into the path of a pandemic.
At first, the way seemed clear. Dr. Newel declared a state of emergency on March 4. Two weeks later, she joined Bay Area health officers in rolling out the nation’s first shelter-in-place order. By the end of April, she’d closed indoor restaurants, prohibited gatherings and mandated face coverings. Santa Cruz stood as a model of preparedness; only 132 people in the county of a quarter-million had tested positive for Covid-19.
With summer tourism looming, she acted preemptively, signing an order in late April that closed beaches from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (Surfers were allowed to head directly into the water.) At first, it worked. Law enforcement patrolled the shoreline in A.T.V.s and pickup trucks, issuing few citations, according to Bernie Escalante, the deputy chief of police. “Early on, the mind-set was very different,” he said. “There was a lot more willingness to cooperate.”
Soon, that changed. In May, Santa Cruzans flooded Dr. Newel’s inbox and voice mail. Control freak, they called her. Nazi. Power mongerer. Freedom trampler. Dr. Newel read and listened to every message. “Those are voices from the community,” she said. During a public hearing, a man moved toward her so aggressively that the county administrative officer evacuated the room. After that, the sheriff asked Dr. Newel to stop attending in-person meetings. “He didn’t feel it was possible to ensure my physical safety.”
Then came June. After George Floyd’s death, protesters gathered outside the police station. Others stormed the beaches. On June 6, a man alleged to be an anti-government extremist ambushed and killed a 38-year-old sheriff’s deputy in Boulder Creek, a mountain town to the north. More than a thousand people stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the deputy’s vigil — many without masks. Officers, spread thin, needed to triage. “We no longer had the bandwidth to go enforce an ordinance down on the beach,” Mr. Escalante said.
Dr. Newel began to think differently about what she was asking the police to enforce. What if an officer asked someone to get off the sand, and that person didn’t comply? She imagined a scenario where that officer might physically drag the person to a police car. “The optics of trying to enforce a beach closure became impossible,” she said.
Further complicating matters, on June 12, Mr. Newsom reopened hotels to tourism without lifting the shelter-in-place order. The following weekend, flouting Dr. Newel’s closure order, some 55,000 people filled the three-quarter-mile stretch of sand on Santa Cruz’s main beaches. At a news conference on June 25, she announced a spike in Covid-19 cases so drastic the county redesigned its online epidemiologic graph. “It has become impossible for law enforcement to continue to enforce that closure,” she said. “People are not willing to be governed anymore.”
The statement reverberated in the blue state. More angry messages ensued, uglier than before. Murderer, one wrote. Our deaths will be on your hands. Another read: If any of my family members or friends die, I’m coming for you.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 6, 2020
Why are bars linked to outbreaks?
- Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
- Employers have to provide a safe workplace with policies that protect everyone equally. And if one of your co-workers tests positive for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has said that employers should tell their employees — without giving you the sick employee’s name — that they may have been exposed to the virus.
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Dr. Newel is no stranger to crises. She beat cancer in 2010, and lost her eldest son to an opioid overdose in 2016. Weeks ago, her aunt died after catching Covid-19 in an Ohio nursing home. Though she admitted to “feeling weary,” she said, she intends to stick it out. “I feel like I’m the right person in the right place at the right time to do this job,” she said, standing near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in late July.
Since then, the situation has grown increasingly dire. Santa Cruz County recently recorded more cases in one week than in all of April and May combined. More than 20 outbreaks are being tracked across the county, including outbreaks in four skilled nursing facilities and a homeless shelter. The county expanded the number of agencies empowered to enforce local and state health orders — but not in time to keep Santa Cruz off the governor’s watch list. On July 28, the county’s indoor gyms, hair salons and places of worship were once again forced to close.
This time, though, Dr. Newel didn’t announce the closures with a local health order. She defaulted to the state health department. It wasn’t that she was afraid of the inevitable backlash, she insisted. She just thought that if she issued the order herself, the outcome would be insignificant.
“I don’t think that there’s really much that the public will listen to in terms of local health officer orders,” she said. “They’re just not willing to do more than they’re already doing.”
[Track coronavirus cases in California by county.]
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