Turning off Highway 101 onto 20 West the day before St. Patrick’s Day brought a foreboding chill, maybe even a shiver. When we left Ukiah the hammer had just come down and public spaces were shutting down. We didn’t know what to expect in Fort Bragg assuming we survived the wet, winding, foggy slog through Highway 20’s dense, dripping evergreens as we chased the fading light to the coast. This is not the greatest road to travel any day at dusk, let alone on this day when it felt like driving underwater headlong into the murk. When the road finally leveled out and the tang of the sharp salty air made it through the vents it was a relief to get out of the car and stretch.
Had we entered a time warp?
Everything was open. People were blithely going about their business, eating companionably in restaurants and bellying up to local bars. There was not a mask to be seen on Fort Bragg’s pedestrians, and what gloves there were appeared to be for the comfort of the wearer rather than for protection against the plague.
Hungry after skipping lunch, we drove down the steep road to Noyo Harbor and pulled into a parking spot in front of The Wharf. A cheerful old hippie-looking couple climbing into their pick-up turned to say, “You won’t have any trouble getting a table.” After climbing the steep steps to the dining room we settled into the best table in the house overlooking the sunset over Noyo Harbor. The Miss Kelley III glided below, her crew displaying an impressive haul of silvery fish as the trawler maneuvered around the buoys leading into the harbor.
Ah, serenity and calm, so refreshing after the jabbering talking heads in the cities prophesying the end of life on Earth as we know it. “The coronavirus is nothing like the flu we usually get,” they warned ominously over the airwaves as we tucked into our crab cakes and scallops.
The Travelodge wasn’t as full as I’ve seen it while covering other AVA stories but it wasn’t deserted, either. By Day Two Fort Bragg restaurants were still open but preparing to close their in-dining services to offer only curbside deliveries beginning the next day as the new official buzz-phrase, “social distancing,” took effect.
Becky Parrish owns a popular North Main Street restaurant where lines for breakfast frequently snake down the block. Like any good citizen soldier, Parrish said she’s following the official guidelines right now but isn’t afraid to question what she sees as the unequal application and inherent unfairness of the restrictions. “We’re not in China, we’re in America,” she said. “We need to be able to ask questions and the government needs to answer them.” Parrish said that providing hot food for people is within the allowed-business guidelines but that restaurants have been reduced to curbside and take-out deliveries while people are crowded cheek by jowl in long lines at big corporate grocery stores like Safeway. “What has happened in the local economy is that people are standing in crowded lines in grocery stores exposing themselves to one another while small independent restaurants are only allowed to do curbside service and their businesses are down 75 to 100 percent,” she said. “Business is going to the big grocery stores. Please don’t forget about us.” So much for Trump’s crocodile tears about supporting small businesses because they are “the engine of the American economy.”
Bruce McEwen: As I was collecting our purchases at Purity Market, I overheard the next customer in line complain about the shortage of paper products, namely toilet paper, and the checker, a manager I think, said that he was somewhat disappointed in his supplier because after thirty years of business the supplier had given all the toilet paper to Safeway and left none for Purity Market. “It just goes to show,” the manager commented acidly, “how little we matter when it comes right down to it.”
Later, as I was in line at Coast Hardware, I heard the checker Wally comment to a local, in reference to the expected shelter in place order Wednesday evening that “They won’t be asking me to stay at home” – Wally appeared to have been working overtime already and was expecting to log long hours in the coming days.
On Wednesday evening and again on Thursday morning, foot and bicycle traffic on the Haul Road and over the Pudding Creek trestle was moderate, not to say light, and the headlands and beaches were peopled as heavily as I recall they used to be a dozen years ago when I lived in Fort Bragg and walked the Haul Road regularly; people were every bit as friendly as ever before and, this being migration season, many were equipped with binoculars for whale spotting.
Back at our motel I chatted with a college student on spring break from Chico State, Michael, who seemed unconcerned about the pandemic. Another fellow, an older guy with dreadlocks down to his knees, almost, said his sister had rented a room at this motel for him on Sunday. This guy, who asked his name not be used, said his sister had inherited all the family fortune, and that she very stingily doled out minimal amounts to him, and that she must have felt a tinge of guilt about the prospect of him being on the streets during the pandemic crisis, so she booked the room for him.
Marilyn: By Thursday morning every single business on normally busy Laurel Street was closed: galleries, coffee shops, upscale clothing stores, the cool sock shop. Like other restaurants, Cucina Verona was only doing take-out. A lone chair right inside the door was for customers awaiting their orders. All the other chairs were stacked upside-down on the dining room tables. Riley, who said she’s worked at the Laurel Street restaurant for three years, was taking orders and answering the phone while wiping down menus and check trays with disposable sanitizing wipes. She said that three or four servers usually work at the restaurant, along with at least two or three cooks. With takeout only, that’s down to herself on the floor and two cooks. Riley was clearly sad that everyone else had been laid off and would have to apply for unemployment because there were no other restaurant jobs around. “In 2008 I was laid off during the financial crisis,” she said. “It took months for me to get unemployment.”
At that point Ben, one of the (surviving) chefs, came out to the dining room to deliver more grim news. “I just heard that we could be closed for six months,” he said. “By that time, I’ll be homeless.” He added that his grandmother, a local therapist, helps him out but that overnight her daily appointments had gone from five or six to zero. “It’s scary,” he said. “I don’t understand why every business has to shut down. The social and economic fallout is the only effect I can see from this virus.”
At this point it’s hard not to speculate that an admittedly more difficult targeted approach to managing the coronavirus may have better served the good people of Fort Bragg than the economic neutron bomb that blindsided them this week. What are these people, who lost their jobs and their businesses overnight, supposed to do? As impotent, hand-wringing debate rages in Congress over what to do, whether to send everybody a thousand-buck check someday, extend unemployment, yada-yada… Rome burns. And we haven’t heard much from basic services forgiving payments, just a lot of hooey like “We’re helping our valued customers manage their payments. We’re here for you.” Manage their payments with what? Kick them down the road a few months then demand payment in full, probably with interest? And, just as the downtown chef fears, if you do end up homeless, then what?
When I stopped by Hospitality House, refuge for many of Fort Bragg’s homeless, there was no room at the inn; all the beds were taken. Twenty-four-bed Hospitality House and beds at three other much smaller sites are nearly always full. If a tsunami of human need for shelter hits town in the wake of mass lay-offs and shuttered businesses, where will those in need lay their heads at night?
That’s a question that’s keeping Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center Executive Director Carla Harris up at night.
A 30-year-plus veteran of working with the homeless, the addicted, the poor, and the victims of social injustice─including post 9/11 in her native New York─she said she took her Mendo job in Fort Bragg two years ago because life here fits her better than in the big cities. When I sat down to talk with her in her orderly office in the elegant Old Coast Hotel on Franklin Street, she said that county organizations representing different facets of emergency response had just formed a task force with state and federal resources to make sure everyone stays current in this rapidly evolving situation.
“What was true yesterday may not be true today,” she explained. Harris said no services have been cut, and that food supplies and other resources have not been affected. Which doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. For one, Hospitality House abruptly lost many of the 25 to 50 volunteers who keep many programs going. “More than half of our volunteers are seniors,” Harris said. “And as a vulnerable population they are now sheltering in place at home. We need help, and my request is that younger, healthy people reach out to us.” Harris said that she believes the threat of the virus is real, that the emergency measures either recommended or mandated by county, state, and federal governments are being made in good faith. Reassuring her fragile residents, many of whom experienced trauma before becoming homeless (which brings its own trauma), is part of her job. She said that fear is often felt most intensely by the most vulnerable, to the point now where some of her homeless residents feel uniquely exposed to and fearful of extreme measures like forced quarantine or even martial law.
If all of this upheaval is enough to throw someone into God’s arms for hope and spiritual succor that, too, is suffering its own brand of social distancing. I caught the tail-end of the last in-church noon mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church on South Harold Street. The church’s 14 rows of wooden pews held only a dozen or so worshippers, some of whom told me they were worried about replacing the daily mass with televised versions.
Devout Catholic and 30-year Fort Bragg resident Jose Mendoza stopped to speak with other attendees after the mass. “My concern is that people will eventually stop coming to church,” he said. “There have always been masses on TV but this is an experiment. I worry about the people who depend on coming here every week.” The church has expanded its lunch program from its regular Wednesday rotation to every day.
As I walked back to our car an exuberant young woman ran up to me after mass. A physician’s assistant and pre-med student, Jacqueline Lee said she’s most concerned about social unrest.
“Mass panic scares me more than anything else,” she said. But her response is to engage with helping the world, not hiding from it. She said she’s helping prepare the church’s daily hot takeaway meals. For Lent, instead of giving up something like meat or chocolate, she’s “praying a rosary for the world. I decided to do more instead of giving [something] up,” she said.
Bruce: Friday morning at the Ten Mile Court in Fort Bragg, Bailiff Mark McNelly informed me that the only courtrooms in Ukiah still operating were Departments A, Judge Keith Faulder’s; C, Judge Cindee Mayfield’s (Family Court); and H, Judge Carly Dolan’s Criminal Court, for video arraignments from the jail. The Ten Mile Court has adopted a policy of seating people in the gallery three seats apart, but no one besides myself came in, except a woman there for a case management hearing; and she was told by the clerk that all such cases had been continued for 90 days, by order of the presiding judge, Hon. Ann Moorman.
The court reporter, Kimberly Foster congratulated me on my recent marriage and said it must be difficult for a journalist to get around in these trying circumstances where only essential workers are supposed to be out of their houses and going about their business. I responded, perhaps too heatedly, that the only one who would tell a journo that his work was not essential during a crisis was a dictator.
There was nothing on the calendar but family law cases featuring lawyers Bart Kronfeld and Greg Petersen, and they were there only for the formality of continuing their cases to a later date. I had hoped to see the Ten Mile prosecutor, Josh Rosenfeld, but was told he wouldn’t be in until Monday; and, maybe, depending on developments, not even then.
There’s a crew remodeling some of the rooms at the Travelodge and I spoke with two of them on Friday during break. Their work was deemed essential, one man in every other room, an empty room in between, the tile setter in one, the carpenter in another, the plumber in a third one. This is all within the guidelines, even more so, the general contractor, Guero, told me.
Pete, the tile-setter, said it looked to him like we were one step away from martial law. We were all out of range of each other, more than the prescribed six feet, but we were all on the same page on this idea, the likely onset of martial law, especially considering Sheriff Matt Kendall’s comment that he didn’t want to enforce the stay at home order, but would if he had to. As to one man per room, this meant only a journeyman could work, since apprentices, by definition, would have to be supervised, to some extent, six-feet notwithstanding.
Marilyn: Laws, like revenge, are best served cold – or in this case, enacted. Remember the Patriot Act where our collective fears distracted us long enough for our government to throw away our civil liberties with both hands? We find ourselves at a similar crossroads. When I was walking down Laurel Street at high noon, the only person out on the street, a city police car, slowed beside me and the cop took a good look at me snapping photos of the street’s closed shops and eerie emptiness. I must have passed some test because the cop slowly moved on to look for somebody else. Maybe for a group chatting in somebody’s backyard? Freedom of assembly could be next on the chopping block.
As I write this from the Travelodge, Trump is live on CNN, droning on about how hard everybody is working to solve this unrest and pummel the virus into submission. The California Department of Public Health just announced that statewide there are 675 confirmed cases and 16 deaths from the coronavirus. In 2018, 3,651 Californians perished in traffic accidents. This is not to say that death should be taken lightly.
But there is an issue of perspective, here. That perspective is fear. A fear of the unknown that the leaders we elected to protect us are frantically fanning through their domination of the airwaves and a compliant media who believe everything they’re told and question nothing. About the Travelodge? I dropped by the office to chat with the woman in the office who checked us in to see how the corona virus restrictions were affecting business. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I just signed a paper from headquarters saying that I wouldn’t talk with the media.” When I called their customer service number to ask a PR-type about it she wouldn’t refer me to anyone without screening me first. Wouldn’t even give me the HQ phone number. “It’s our protocol when reporters call,” she said, reading none too apologetically from a script.
(Bruce and Marilyn reporting from Fort Bragg, with more regional coverage to follow barring arrest for “non-essential” newspaper reporting.)