In rural Northern California, dread and denial greet coronavirus’ slower creep
From her bakery in the Gold Rush town of Quincy, Calif., Amy Carey said the last few weeks have felt like the great wait.
On Tuesday afternoon, no confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been announced in rural Plumas County. But it was getting closer: a few cases in neighboring Butte County, the first death just announced in Reno — the nearest city, at 82 winding-mountain-road miles away.
“We’re just waiting to hear when the first case will be,” said Carey, co-owner of Quincy Provisions.
A few hours later, her nephew broke the news: Plumas County had just announced its first confirmed case. On Facebook, locals were already sleuthing, trying to figure out who the sick person was. The tension in this Sierra Nevada town rose.
“I think it shocked some people because maybe they didn’t think it would come,” Carey said. “But it’s here.”
In Northern California, the COVID-19 pandemic has felt both real and surreal. It has shut down schools, closed businesses, canceled events. But the virus’ creep into the vast, sparsely populated region has been much slower than in urban locales farther south, where confirmed cases have skyrocketed into the thousands. As of Friday, five counties north of Sacramento had yet to report a single confirmed case of COVID-19.
In the northern reaches of the Golden State, the slower spread has caused a creeping sense of dread — and skepticism. In towns where a conservative spirit reigns in opposition to California’s famously liberal ethos, distrust of the government is in no short supply. Still, for the most part, people here seem to be taking the threat seriously, officials and townspeople said.
“Most of the residents are doing a great job staying at home and social distancing,” said Kerri Schuette, community relations program manager with the Health and Human Services Agency in Shasta County, which had 11 confirmed cases as of Friday. “Unfortunately, there is a smaller group that believes this is overblown, and they’re not following the guidelines while putting others at risk.
These are some of the unusual new scenes across the Southland during the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re not like other counties where the numbers are high,” she added. “Most residents don’t know anyone in quarantine or with COVID-19, and so we have to continue to educate them about the seriousness of this disease.”
Rural hospitals nationwide, which already faced a scarcity of doctors and dwindling resources, are bracing for a wave of high-risk coronavirus patients. Experts say the virus could inflict disproportionate damage in rural America because its population is generally older, heavier and has more underlying health conditions.
Hospital administrators in conservative rural areas say they fear residents were slow to take the threat seriously because President Trump initially downplayed it, saying Democrats and the news media were over-hyping the danger.
Across the Golden State, images of desolate roadways — especially striking in cities that are infamous for clogged freeways — have highlighted people’s unprecedented efforts to restrict their movement to slow the virus’ spread.
The amount Californians have reduced their travel varies by county, according to an interactive map released last week by Unacast, a New York-based technology company. The company’s social distancing scoreboard uses data from millions of anonymous mobile phones to compare the distances that people traveled before the outbreak began and after it took hold.
The company’s data show Californians overall reduced their average distance traveled by at least 40% since late February, earning a C grade. Los Angeles County received a B grade after residents reduced their average distance traveled by at least 55%.
The data show that counties with few or no confirmed cases were less likely to reduce their average travel distance. But officials in those areas say there’s a caveat in rural places: Traveling long distances to get groceries or takeout is just a way of life. And in areas where agriculture and more physical labor are more common, people are still going to work.
State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), who represents seven counties stretching from Marin north to Del Norte, said the virus has steadily been “making its way up the Highway 101 corridor for the last three weeks.”
“There’s deep concern in rural California because, even in the best of times, we don’t have the resources that exist in suburban and more metropolitan areas of this state,” McGuire said.
Along the economically distressed North Coast, where the future lies not in the logging jobs that once defined it but, increasingly, in tourism, the closure of small businesses during the pandemic has been especially painful.
While major school districts such as Los Angeles Unified have set up sites for grab-and-go meals during school closures, bus drivers in some far-flung rural districts are continuing their routes, delivering two meals a day to families who can’t afford to keep driving to town, McGuire said. In Trinity County, some bus routes along winding mountain roads are 1½ hours each way, he said.
As of Friday, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in mountainous Trinity County, home to about 12,000 people in a place four times larger than Orange County. This week, the county health agency asked nonresidents to stay out and banned recreational camping and hotel stays.
Donna Friedman, who owns Mamma Llama Eatery and Cafe in Weaverville, a tiny Gold Rush town, said that even with no confirmed cases, people are heeding the orders.
“The streets are pretty empty now, and outside of essential workers, you just don’t see anyone,” she said. “People are staying home.”
The only areas that seem loosely regulated, she said, are the trails surrounding nearby campgrounds. She hasn’t seen big groups of hikers, “but you still see people out there, and I don’t know if anyone is checking.”
Del Norte County also closed hotels, campsites and vacation rentals to nonessential, short-term travelers. The county confirmed its first COVID-19 case Thursday afternoon.
This week, Charlie Helms, harbor master for the Crescent City Harbor District, said everyone knew the virus would spread to their remote corner of the state. It was just a matter of time.
“It’s like the old cartoons where you have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other,” he said. “The angel says, ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ And the devil laughs and says, ‘Just wait.’”
Helms said the beaches in Crescent City — unlike many in Southern California — are still open because they are uncrowded even when there is no pandemic. From his harbor office window, Helms could see the “crowd” at nearby South Beach on a sunny afternoon this week: one paddleboarder.
Helms said the virus already has devastated the region’s lucrative Dungeness crab season. Prices have plummeted, he said, because dine-in restaurants are closed and exports to once-reliable foreign markets have stopped.
In rural Shasta County, Terry Rapoza said he thinks the reaction to COVID-19 has been overblown. An organizer for the State of Jefferson movement that seeks to carve a separate state out of California’s rural northern counties, Rapoza said he’s alarmed by the government-ordered shutdowns of businesses and bans on gatherings.
“I think coronavirus is serious. Don’t get me wrong,” Rapoza said. “But to trample on people’s constitutional rights, that’s a good way to control them. You control the food line, you control the pipeline on medicine.”
Rapoza said the answer to stopping the spread of COVID-19 is personal responsibility, not government orders. He and his wife, Sally, keep their distance from others on walks around their Redding home and canceled meetings of their Redding Patriots group two weeks ago.
A meme shared by his wife, known on Facebook as Rally Sally, featured a yellow Gadsden flag often used by the tea party. The coiled rattlesnake was wearing a surgical mask, and the words “Don’t tread on me” were replaced with “Don’t cough on me.”
Redding residents Richard and Fran Wilkinson are coping with the pandemic with humor. He’s 88. She’s 82. He took a picture of her sitting in a recliner, wearing a camouflage jacket and clutching a huge pump-action shotgun to protect valuable property: a basket full of toilet paper rolls.
They, too, figure it’s all a bit of an overreaction, but they’re staying inside. They even let an ex-neighbor pick up some groceries for them a few days ago.
“I’m a Trump supporter myself, and a lot of Democrats, they’re trying to blame Trump for this,” Richard Wilkinson said. “But we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve been given.”
Wilkinson is no stranger to devastating disease. In 1949, his younger sister, a freshman in high school, was stricken with polio. The family lived in tiny Strathmore in Tulare County. He drove her to the doctor, who told him to take her to the hospital right away. The whole drive, she screamed, “I don’t want to have polio!”
She was put in an iron lung. She died days later.
Wilkinson and his siblings were quarantined. They couldn’t attend her funeral.
Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.
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