Column: The year Orange County reminded us it’s still Orange County

Protesters rally at the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier against COVID-related restrictions on May 1.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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When it comes to Orange County and crazy, I always paraphrase Michael Corleone’s memorable quote about his involvement with organized crime in “The Godfather Part III”:

Just when I thought we were out, we pull ourselves back in.

Over the last two decades, as Orange County’s politics turned increasingly purple, and scripted and reality television shows broadcast my homeland to an international audience, the rest of the country began to see the county as almost … normal.

Sure, the avarice and bunker mentality vis-a-vis the rest of Southern California remained. But largely gone were the politicians whose pronouncements from Capitol Hill or Sacramento were embarrassments to democracy. Off to Arizona and Tennessee went most of the angry voters that birthed anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-tax ballot initiatives and laws that had an undue influence on American politics.

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In their place rose a kinder, more diverse O.C. eager to join the rest of California.

But 2020 had other ideas.

And the O.C. crazy — which county lifers like me know still courses through our civic veins — easily burst forth.

Our gift to America this unfathomable year? A Murderers’ Row of COVID-19 nitwits.

In the early days of the pandemic, cities and residents sought to keep coronavirus patients away from their paradises. In April, Supervisor Michelle Steel sent out a press release with a straight face that Orange County was “flattening the curve” on coronavirus cases and had kept hospitalization rates stable. A month later, both figures skyrocketed; right now, we’re even worse.

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Next month, Steel will be sworn in as a member of Congress.

The Orange County Board of Education sued California for closing school campuses and endorsed guidelines that suggested students return to class with next-to-no coronavirus protocol — never mind that the move went against the guidelines from the state Department of Education.

O.C. Sheriff Don Barnes yaps every couple of months about how his department won’t enforce any coronavirus shutdowns because he thinks they might be unconstitutional — never mind that he runs a department accused of violating the constitutional rights of inmates for decades by extracting illegal jailhouse confessions.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, right, attends an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, right, at a Board of Supervisors meeting, has refused to enforce some COVID-related restrictions.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Huntington Beach has become a ground zero for protests against the state’s coronavirus shutdown, the type of place where a restaurant bars people from wearing a mask inside. Surf City earned widespread ridicule for a viral video in which two comedians offered face coverings near the city’s iconic pier to anyone who wanted them (no one wanted them).

But there’s coronavirus ignorance, and then there’s hundreds of people who burned their masks at a San Clemente beachside bonfire.

Newport Beach police officers enforce beach closure at the Wedge.
Newport Beach police officers enforce a beach closure at the Wedge, a famed surfing and bodysurfing spot.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The stupidity of 2020 didn’t just limit itself to the rich or the white or the coast in Orange County, either. In Santa Ana and Anaheim, two Latino-majority cities that account for about 35% of all of O.C.’s coronavirus cases, weekend parties remain the mariachi-scored rule rather than the exception.

Pandejos all around in Orange County, I’m telling you. We have become a reminder of how other parts of the country are behaving and — rightfully so — both a warning and a freak show for the rest of Southern California to point at and snicker.

An aerial view of outdoor dining as restaurants moved onto Main Street in Huntington Beach.
Public health orders against indoor restaurant dining moved tables onto Main Street in downtown Huntington Beach in July.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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Gotta love this place — and I wholeheartedly do. I’ve lived in O.C. my entire life, and plan to stay here because I’m no California quitter. But as Sinclair Lewis knew, you can’t truly love where you’re from unless you eviscerate its sins at all times.

So that’s why I feel a certain schadenfreude any time we earn nationwide shade for our coronavirus sins. Because that’s what Orange County needs. It’s that shame of being from here, from a bad O.C., that has motivated a generation to fight for change. These good people recognize coronavirus is a threat and, disgusted by the deniers, are using their time sheltering in place to plan a new O.C. in the aftermath of COVID-19.

And that’s why as 2020 comes to a close I remain optimistic for the future of Orange County in the face of this damned disease. The worst days may still yet come — but things will get better, because they always do. Even here.

They have to. Because we’ll have to face our crazy anew.

Fireworks during the Drive-Up 4th of July Spectacular at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base.
Southern California residents sit on the roofs of their vehicles to watch the fireworks during the Drive-Up 4th of July Spectacular at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)