Newsletter: How we think about the coronavirus

Protective masks were sold out and protective gloves in low supply in late February at a CVS Pharmacy in Oakland.
(John G Mabanglo / EPA-Shutterstock)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, March 11 and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the day’s news, I wanted to take a minute to look at things more broadly.

As the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus intensifies, the majority of Californians occupy a strange, liminal state.

There are parts of the state, particularly the Bay Area, where daily life is already markedly different. But for many Californians, the rippling effects of the virus have yet to drastically alter our routines, give or take an extra trip to Costco.


We pull disinfecting wipes across the screens of our phones before swiping through notifications about death tolls and closures, and then we scrub our hands and go to work. Nothing is all that different yet — except for the ambient panic and the distinct sense that our lives are about to be upended.

Part of what makes this so hard to wrap our heads around is the unknown. This is a novel coronavirus — meaning that no one had seen it before late December, when people started getting sick in the capital city of a province in central China. That was less than three months ago.

The experts are still grappling with the actual fatality rate, the true number of people infected (which is believed to be far higher than official tallies) and many other questions.

But it’s not just the scientific unknowns that unsettle us. We also have no easy frame of reference for processing the situation at hand.

The mind scrambles to make sense of it, to group like with like and then imbue it all with meaning. But there is no precedent for a global outbreak of this scale in the 21st century.

We have never seen quarantines like those imposed in China and Italy, or modern-era American cities urging social distancing en masse.

This is also “an uneven epidemic at the global level,” with different countries in different scenarios, as the director of the World Health Organization said Monday. None of the expert models or hypotheses can tell us exactly what will happen next, but those scenarios around the globe can at least suggest potential futures.


What’s happening in Italy — where an entire Western democracy is essentially under quarantine, with people able to travel only for work, medical reasons or emergencies — could offer a preview of what eventually happens here. But it’s also possible that such drastic measures never come to pass in the U.S.

[See also: “How bad could this coronavirus outbreak get?” in the Los Angeles Times]

Even within the U.S., things are happening at varying speeds. “The gap between East Coast and West Coast perceptions of the illness is striking,” as my Washington, D.C.-based colleague David Lauter wrote on Twitter a few days ago. “In DC, it’s still seen as a political problem. In CA, people view it as a death threat.”

For Californians in parts of the state where aggressive action has yet to be taken, the Bay Area might serve as a proxy for predicting what comes next.

[Read the story: “Why the Bay Area is issuing more severe coronavirus warnings than the L.A. area” in the Los Angeles Times]

Several counties there have instituted extraordinary measures to implement social distancing after it became clear the virus was spreading in the community. Large companies have told everyone to work from home, and many nonessential events are being canceled.

Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County, which has the most known cases of any county in the state, has issued a rare legal order, enforceable by the sheriff, banning mass gatherings of 1,000 or more people.

Half a state away in Los Angeles, there is still a construction crew hammering away at the apartment below mine and plenty of commuters on the subway, amid a landscape of increasingly dire-sounding warnings. It feels a bit like how Ernest Hemingway described going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly.

The smartest people in the world can’t tell us exactly how the next few weeks and months will unfold. So what should we be feeling and doing? The best we can.

We’re often presented with a false dichotomy between all-out panic and willful obliviousness — as if our only two choices are receding from the world after elbowing a few people out of the way for the last ton of toilet paper, or behaving as if nothing has changed. But that’s far from the case. We can act responsibly without descending into panic. The precautions we take may reshape our lives in the near term, but we’ll still be the same people living them. The bottom is not going to fall out. Our communities will remain our communities, even if we’re waving through a smartphone screen.

“If the plan works in San Francisco, it may even seem like an overreaction. Because the virus spread will be reduced and fewer people will get sick,” Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of health, said. That’s the grand hope for all of us — that in hindsight much of this will seem far too drastic.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of COVID-19 cases are mild. A great many people will get this and be completely fine. But the elderly and those with underlying conditions are much more likely to develop serious outcomes.

If you are young and healthy enough to believe that nothing about this applies to you, please remember that you are still a person in the broader world. You are not washing your hands or staying home after potential exposure to protect yourself. You’re doing it for the most vulnerable among us, for whom this disease could be deadly.

And as you grapple with plans and precautions in your own life, know that we are doing the same. Our newsroom is planning for worst-case scenarios while remaining dedicated to keeping our readers informed. We will do everything possible to continue covering this outbreak, while working to protect the health of the hundreds of journalists at the paper. We’ll also never stop reporting on the rest of the news in the region, as The Times has done every day for the last 139 years.

And now, here’s the latest on the outbreak, and what’s happening across California:

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that California has 157 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and thousands of residents who may have come in contact with the disease. The state marked a turning point in its fight against the virus in recent days, with counties all over California beginning to implement social distancing measures, advising residents not to meet in large groups to prevent widespread transmission, as mentioned above. Los Angeles Times

More coverage on the coronavirus:

  • An elderly patient in a Northern California nursing home has died from COVID-19, sparking fears of an outbreak among other residents of the facility and renewing concerns about statewide availability of testing kits to detect the virus. Los Angeles Times
  • The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday declared a state of emergency, giving Supt. Austin Beutner the authority to take action to close schools if necessary in response to the outbreak. Los Angeles Times
  • The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has been postponed to October after weeks of nervous speculation. Los Angeles Times
  • Likewise, the Los Angeles Times has postponed its Festival of Books and Food Bowl events. Los Angeles Times
  • In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent the National Guard to a suburban enclave northeast of New York City to prevent COVID-19 from infecting more people there, after 108 residents tested positive in recent days. Los Angeles Times

Sign up for Coronavirus Today, a new special edition of the Los Angeles Times’ Health and Science newsletter that will help you understand more about COVID-19.


A runoff is looking increasingly likely in the L.A. D.A.’s race. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s share of the vote from last week’s primary election slipped below 50% on Tuesday, moving her further from the mark she needs to avoid a runoff. Los Angeles Times

Inside Corey Feldman’s wild screening of his sexual abuse film as it went off the rails: On Monday night, actor Corey Feldman hosted an industry screening of his new documentary, which reiterates previous allegations that Hollywood figures had sexually abused him and his best friend, fellow actor Corey Haim, when the two were boys. The documentary was supposed to begin streaming simultaneously Monday night. But paying customers were met with an error message, as Feldman pointed fingers at alleged hackers, calling them “terrorists and pedo-protectors.” Los Angeles Times

An L.A. Korean barbecue chain was fined more than $2 million for wage theft. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office issued the fine to the couple that owns the Genwa Korean BBQ restaurants after determining they had stolen wages from 325 of their workers. LAist

The L.A. Opera said that its investigation found the Plácido Domingo sexual harassment allegations to be credible, closing another chapter in the dramatic downfall of opera’s biggest star. Los Angeles Times

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Joe Biden won the Michigan primary and three other states Tuesday, cementing his status atop the Democratic presidential field and dealing a serious blow to Bernie Sanders’ hopes to reverse the former vice president’s momentum and launch a comeback. Los Angeles Times

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had a heated confrontation over gun rights as he toured the Fiat Chrysler plant in Detroit ahead of Tuesday’s Michigan primary.
(MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Six weeks after SB 50’s defeat, the California lawmaker behind the proposal has introduced what he called a “light touch” approach — still pushing for more housing units in many single-family neighborhoods while also offering other communities the ability to skip lengthy environmental review for larger projects. Los Angeles Times


A jury in the Nia Wilson murder case found defendant John Lee Cowell guilty of murder and attempted murder. Wilson was fatally stabbed at an Oakland BART station in July 2018. San Francisco Chronicle

Three police officers acted lawfully when they shot a gunman who opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival last year, according to a Santa Clara County district attorney report released Tuesday. The gunman’s rampage killed three people, including two children, and wounded 17 others. Los Angeles Times


“I want Cool to stay cool.” In a rural California town called Cool, gentrification means a Dollar General store and new campsites. Los Angeles Times

A no-savings generation is cashing in its sneaker collections. “I’ve literally heard every story in the book,” said the owner of a Melrose Avenue shoe store that has handled a raft of emergency sneaker-collection sales. “First reason for sure is bills, things like rent money. Second would be more personal reasons, someone’s brother or sister is in jail and they needed bail money. Another I’ve heard is emergency hospital bills.” Los Angeles Times


Los Angeles: rain, 69. San Diego: partly sunny, 68. San Francisco: partly sunny, 64. San Jose: partly sunny, 70. Fresno: rain, 70. Sacramento: sunny, 73. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Linda Sciaroni:

“For a kid with a bike in San Pedro in the 1970s, adventure was just a downhill glide away. [On] Sundays in 5th grade my friend and I would ride to Royal Palms, explore the tide-pools looking for hermit crabs, marvel at the surfers and throw rocks into the surf. The ride home was grueling, straight up hill. My bike remained my transportation to work that stretched into the night at Ports o’ Call and at Cabrillo Aquarium; gratefully my mom would fetch me home. To be by the water late into the night is still one of my favorite things.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.