Newsletter: An unbearable milestone

A driver at a drive-through coronavirus testing site at Hansen Dam Recreation Area.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, May 28, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

“For the modern mind, especially the everyday modern mind now so adept at dismissing the memories of the great wars of this century with all those deaths, the notion that great numbers of human beings can die all at once from a single cause is as far away and alien as the pyramids.”

Lewis Thomas — a preeminent doctor and former dean of the medical schools at New York University and Yale — wrote those words in the late 1980s, in the context of the AIDS epidemic. The world had been grappling with “a brand-new infectious disease,” where the unknown far outweighed the known.


We have since entered a new century, and Thomas himself has passed from this world. But his sentiment remains unblunted, with achingly precise aim right to the heart of things.

Dying, as Thomas put it, “is now the exceptional thing to do, almost an aberration, in our culture. We concede the possibility, even in our bad moments the inevitability, but never before its time.” And certainly not en masse. Not here, not now.

On Wednesday, the nation’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000, marking a staggering loss of life in less than four months. Despite its wealth and scientific prowess, the United States now has the world’s highest numbers of cases and deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s widely cited global tracker.

How does one even begin to comprehend that number? It is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Bend, Ore., or Albany, N.Y., gone off the map at once. It surpasses the number of Americans killed in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. It is, to put it simply, an unbearable loss. Publicly unbearable in the aggregate, and intimately unbearable at the human scale, for the tens of thousands of families ruptured by grief. It is also widely believed to be an undercount.

The numbers, as my colleague Thomas Curwen wrote last month, “consume us. Captured on dashboards, bar charts, straight lines and curves, they record and document the virus’ reach and force us to ask whether we value one life more than thousands of lives. Can we grieve for strangers as we grieve for those we know?”

[Read the story: “Numbers help craft the coronavirus pandemic narrative” in the Los Angeles Times]

Pastor Alex Bernard, 57, ran the food delivery program at Desert Reign Church in Downey, married couples and conducted funeral services. But he was really “the guy you could call in the middle of the night if you needed to find shelter, a drug rehab program or just a last-minute airport pickup.”

Valeria Viveros, 21, didn’t have the heart to stay home after she got her first job as an assistant nurse taking care of elderly patients at a specialized nursing home in Riverside. So she kept working, despite knowing that several patients were infected with the coronavirus.


Rita Clausen, 92, was a woman of great conviction. Imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, she refused to comply with commands to say, “Heil Hitler!” even if it meant she missed out on that day’s rations of bread and water. Later, she built a life in Salinas, working in the lettuce-packing industry and raising six children and scores of foster children.

Arcelia Martinez, 65, lived paycheck to paycheck, but when young coworkers at the FoodMaxx grocery store where she worked in San Jose were hungry, she would insist on buying them food and spreading out the groceries in the break room.

Carolina Tovar, 86, and Letty Ramirez, 54, were an inseparable mother-and-daughter duo — the twin matriarchs of their Rowland Heights family. They died on the same day, hours apart in separate hospitals.

These details are only tip of the iceberg of their lives. And these six Californians represent an infinitely small fraction of the lives lost. But each of them will be desperately missed.


[The above stories come from “The pandemic’s toll: Lives lost in California” in the Los Angeles Times]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Another jarring milestone: The number of coronavirus infections in California surpassed 100,000 on Wednesday, as the state is rapidly moving to reopen its economy. California is the fourth state to surpass 100,000 confirmed cases. New York leads with more than 300,000 cases. California has recorded more than 3,800 deaths, far fewer than New York, which has 29,000; New Jersey, which has 11,000; or Massachusetts, which has recorded 6,400. The rising cases don’t necessarily mean outbreaks are spreading. California has dramatically increased testing, which some officials credit for the rise in confirmed cases. Los Angeles Times

Tens of thousands of L.A. renters facing pandemic-related economic struggles could receive financial assistance under a plan unveiled Wednesday by City Council President Nury Martinez. The $100 million in proposed rent relief is necessary to keep financially strapped Angelenos in their homes, Martinez said. Though the funding could assist more than 70,000 renters, that would still be just a fraction of the population struggling to pay rent, according to some estimates. Los Angeles Times



Protesters temporarily blocked the 101 Freeway downtown Wednesday evening during protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed Monday after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee. Los Angeles Times

Protesters in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday evening.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

A former aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar has agreed to plead guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge in the ongoing federal “pay-to-play” corruption probe at City Hall. Los Angeles Times

As restrictions are eased, here’s the latest look at which outdoor spaces are open and closed in Southern California. Runyon Canyon is now open, but Eaton Canyon will remain closed through Sunday. Los Angeles Times


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Family separation returns under cover of the coronavirus, two years after taking kids from their parents at the border blew up into a crisis for the Trump administration: Citing the coronavirus to seal the border to an unprecedented extent, the administration is engaged in a pressure campaign against immigrant parents to get them to give up either their kids or their legal claims to protection in the U.S. Los Angeles Times


For the first time in U.S. history, House members on Wednesday voted without being physically present in the Capitol, a change in congressional rules brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that Republicans are already turning into a campaign issue. The Senate has continued to operate in person during the pandemic. Los Angeles Times


Gov. Gavin Newsom said rules for reopening California fitness centers are coming “in a week or so.” Newsom cautioned that the state directives will be tailored to the unique characteristics of each business, from large fitness chains to small studios, and will rely heavily on the advice of public health officials in each county. Los Angeles Times

A key architect of the nation’s first coronavirus shelter-in-place order is criticizing California’s increasingly fast pace of lifting stay-at-home restrictions. Dr. Sara Cody, health officer for Santa Clara County — home to Silicon Valley and Northern California’s most populous county — said she was concerned by the decision to allow gatherings of up to 100 people for religious, political and cultural reasons. Los Angeles Times


The battle between Trump and California over car pollution heads to court: California and nearly two dozen other states on Wednesday filed suit against the Trump administration, arguing that its decision to weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks puts the public’s health at risk and is based on flawed science. Los Angeles Times


When Harry Sentoso got called back to work at an Amazon delivery center in Irvine in late March, he was excited. Two weeks later he was dead. Los Angeles Times



The Huntington Beach Pier and its businesses are now open. The pier is open for active use, which means people must keep moving. Orange County Register

Cooling centers are hard to find in the Bay Area, as temperatures there approach triple digits. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues brought up by the year’s first heat wave. San Francisco Chronicle

“Like a paid therapist.” The role of baseball agents has broadened during the crisis. Los Angeles Times


California just made it easier for bars, wineries and distilleries to offer to-go drinks. Bars, wineries, distilleries and breweries that don’t have their own kitchens can now sell alcoholic drinks to go, as long as they partner with a meal provider to offer the drinks with food. Los Angeles Times


A Stockton teen’s special graduation present — custom-made sneakers bedazzled with faux-pearls, and her name and graduation year — was stolen from the family’s front steps. With her prom and commencement ceremony already cancelled, the burglary only added to Chasity Williams’ disappointment — as chronicled in the local paper. But then, a happy ending: The shoes were anonymously returned to the home, along with a note that read, “To The Williams Family, We saw the article regarding the stolen shoes. We seen a man selling the shoes so we purchased them & wanted to return them to you. Thanks & have a blessed day.” Were they actually for sale, or did the publicity just spark remorse? We’ll never know, but either way, Williams has her graduation gift back. Stockton Record

A poem to start your Thursday: “Losses” by Randall Jarrell. Poem of the Day

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Los Angeles: sunny, 80. San Diego: sunny, 73. San Francisco: sunny, 69. San Jose: sunny, 89. Fresno: sunny, 107. Sacramento: sunny, 100. More weather is here.



Today’s California memory comes from Fred Emmer:

In 1978, I was practicing law in Valencia and was sometimes appointed to represent criminal defendants when the public defender had a conflict. When my son was born in April, I occasionally took him with me to my office where I had a playpen. Once I got a call to go to court when my son was with me. At court the clerk held my son while I went into lock-up to interview my client and then I held my son as I appeared before the judge to make a motion and to get a date for the arraignment. I doubt this would happen today.

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.