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‘I’ve never seen the O.C. so quiet.’ Coronavirus slows Orange County life to a crawl

Seats with “social distancing” signs on them
Social distancing signs on seats as the Orange County supervisors meet March 17.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In Huntington Beach, Sandy Lopez cut a lonely figure along the boardwalk, where on Wednesday, before cooking dinner with family members at home in Santa Ana, she sneaked out, escaping to the ocean for a long-awaited walk.

“I need space to think, you know. The world is racing by, and I’m confused with so many people saying do this, do that, don’t do this or that,” said the office clerk, whose hours had been reduced at a real estate business. “Information is changing every day, and I want to be by myself to think through it. First, we heard that Orange County has a curfew. But I found out I misheard that, but there could be a curfew — maybe, next week. Who can predict? I don’t know where it’s safe to go, so I thought, let’s just go to the beach.”

Lopez, 29, stood yards away from the famed Surf City Pier, about to snap some selfies to post an update to share with East Coast friends. “They’re stuck, too, but at least I have access to the water,” she said.

Lopez and Orange County’s more than 3 million residents awoke to sweeping new restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.

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The county now has 29 confirmed cases of coronavirus and so far, there have been no deaths.

Lopez lives with her parents and a younger sibling. While her mother and diabetic father must remain indoors under medical advice, she and her sister plan to take turns standing in line weekly for groceries. They are eating more soup, less fried food and trying to stay away from too many sweets — all for the sake of their health.

She isn’t a cook but has started to watch the Food Channel to find tips and inspiration for quick meals. Her mom usually takes care of kitchen “stuff,” she said, adding: “I am so used to just driving a few blocks to the taqueria to grab some snacks — but again, I don’t know where it’s safe.”

In Fountain Valley, Charlie Lewis paid a visit to his father’s elderly cousin, carrying a grocery bag packed with canned corn, bread, lunch meats, condiments and soda. The Los Angeles contractor said he stopped by Aldi, a bargain outlet along Magnolia Street, a normally clogged thoroughfare that has transformed into “a city on permanent spring break. This isn’t a big metro type of area, but I always see tons of families with kids and their sporting equipment and now, the neighborhood looks like a scene from cable TV. Eerie. Silent. You can let your dogs run around and never fear that cars will come up.”

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Lewis said his relative doesn’t use electronics that allow others to video chat with him, so the only alternative is to drive an hour and a half.

“So the grocery store, I thought that would be like an hour to pick up nine or 10 items, and it was double. But I gained the time back since my commute was cut way, way down. I’ve never seen the O.C. so quiet,” he said.

In Westminster, some young people outside T & K Food Market saved their face masks to give to their parents and grandparents who rushed in and out, laying their gloved hands on everything from custard pastry and ong choy to oyster sauce and aloe juice, not even looking for sales tags. The Little Saigon crowd was deep into crisis planning, with some shoppers comparing data broadcast on Vietnamese radio to the latest death tolls updated on CNN.

“The numbers from Vietnamese news include numbers and information from China and other parts of Asia — which are so important at this point because some countries in the world are an epicenter. I’m keeping tabs on the press in different languages,” said Tuan Nguyen, an IT specialist taking his son out to find milk tea. With his two kids home from school, he took advantage of being able to motivate them to do their homework faster. Whoever did earned $5 to cover an outing to get boba.

“Are we stir-crazy? Yes, but you have to push them, and we’re going to different cafes each time we leave the house to make it more interesting,” said Nguyen, 43. “Of course, I bring the Lysol wipes. But I am worried. I don’t have much left.”

In Anaheim, with both Disneyland and Downtown Disney shuttered, Sami Ruiz and her sister initially thought they could get together with their girlfriends at Denny’s instead of a favorite spot at their favorite amusement park. They were craving a Grand Slam breakfast, anyway. But their parents warned them that O.C. officials mandated that they couldn’t leave the house for “social activities.”

“I went online to try and research what’s true. I didn’t know about any permanent orders to stay home,” said Ruiz, a part-time retail worker in her 20s. “I had to tell my dad that it’s ‘highly recommended’ that we be indoors — but we’re old enough to make our decisions. I can’t be inside. I feel like, caged. There’s no traffic at all, so we should feel free to just hang out and explore whatever’s open.”

The Orange County restrictions:

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Gatherings: Gatherings of any size outside of a single living unit are prohibited.

Ordered to close: All bars and other establishments that serve alcohol and not food.

Restaurants: May offer food only by delivery, pickup or drive-through.

Effective: Now through March 31.


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