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Fort Bragg Faces the Virus

In some ways, Fort Bragg has seen this before.

This scrappy former mill town of 7,000 perched on the edge of a continent, a few miles from the San Andreas fault, has seen its share of shocks — power outages, mill closures, tsunamis, economic apocalypse. But Fort Bragg is now chock full of senior citizens with a hospital barely keeping up on its best days.

Covid is different.

Fort Bragg never had to tell tourists to get the hell out before, but it did this week. The bars never closed before either but, to all appearances anyway, they are now. The first Baptist Church, in town since 1887, never had to go full Facebook for services before either. It did this week. And ravens outnumbered people on Franklin Street. 

Covid is different.

Whether local systems and agencies are enough, whether we have all done enough, is Jenny Shattuck's concern. She's seen the numbers, some saying 40% of people could become infected or more. She knows from her and her son’s intimate experience with the local healthcare system what a catastrophe that would be. That's what moved her, she said, to make her sign saying, “COAST CLOSED; IF YOU DON’T LIVE HERE, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY."

"I feel like people being upset about the sign," — there was a small backlash — "and not being upset about people not paying attention to the rules or other people’s health — I think that's telling."

A sympathetic friend planted the sign in the grassy bank that faces Highway 20 just past Fort Bragg’s city limits in full view of arriving motorists.

Other less civil messages cropped up at a couple of other roadside vantage points. All were removed by the California Highway Patrol within hours.

"Enough is enough! People need to shelter in place. And if their primary residence isn't here, they need to go," Shattuck explained on her facebook page. "Nicely done, girl," replied her interlocutor, reflecting broad sentiment about Shattuck’s action.

But talk of roadblocks and other more energetic methods of discouraging tourism did not spark enthusiasm among local officials.

Fort Bragg city manager Tabatha Miller said on KOZT radio Tuesday morning that closing roads has ripple effects. Food and medicine, not just tourists, have a hard time getting through.

But, Miller added, several things are being done to discourage new arrivals. By Friday she said, the parking lots to the Coastal Trail and Glass Beach will be closed. "We really need to not create an attraction that brings people here," she said Tuesday morning.

Fort Bragg police chief John Naulty and his Department have been getting ready for this for three weeks, repeatedly warning businesses — especially motels, that they would likely have to close in a shutdown. Nearly all have, he said. For any stragglers, Naulty said he was expecting a stricter order from the county's public health officer on Tuesday that would give law enforcement something more to back them up.

Naulty said law enforcement’s response countywide is being coordinated through an Emergency Operations Center based in the sheriff's office in Ukiah. He was pretty emphatic that economic considerations are not part of his mindset now. "This is all new to everyone, to the nation," he said. "We are trying to stop the spread of this infection and that's all we're trying to do."

Naulty said he was hopeful based on what he's seeing of the community's response that Fort Bragg and any coast communities that follow social distancing guidelines can avoid the worst of the Covid surge that is starting to wrack the Bay Area’s health care system.

Fort Bragg's mayor, Will Lee, is also medical staff services director at the 25-bed Mendocino Coast District Hospital. He said Tuesday the hospital has four ventilators (supervisor Ted Williams said at Tuesday's supervisors’ meeting that Coast Hospital had requested six more) and has set up a triage tent and made other preparations for a Covid surge that they hope will not come. Lee said coronavirus tests have been done at the hospital with no positives yet.

"We expect our first patient within the week," he said Tuesday on KOZT.

Lee said that like the police department, "we've been planning for this for weeks. We know we're not going to get any outside help here in Fort Bragg."

While people settle uneasily — no, fearfully — into a strange, leisurely unpleasant new lifestyle under weather conditions almost eerily beautiful on the coast, Fort Bragg’s accustomed laid-back cheerfulness in the face of adversity seemed to be carrying the day so far.

Fire Chief Steve Orsi said calls have dropped sharply with the new quieter coast lifestyle. He said he also has the impression that dispatchers are sending fire department crews much less frequently to medical calls, letting ambulances handle as much as they can by themselves. Firefighters, like police officers, are operating under a new set of guidelines to limit contact with potentially infected people. 

For the police, Naulty said, it means dealing with more situations over the phone. For the fire department, Orsi said, it has also meant overall less physical contact with the public. Supplies, he said, were a big part of what his department had been working on the past few weeks. It hasn't been easy, he said. The department had just that day been told there was a large parcel of protective masks waiting for them in Ukiah. Now, he said, he thought they would have enough.

Fort Bragg Vice Mayor Bernie Norvell is a lifelong resident, paint store owner, and wrestling coach (on hiatus) and the city council member probably most at home in Fort Bragg. He struck a balance between pretty deep concern and optimism. "We need to be strong, smart and diligent," he wrote Tuesday. "We could have it (the virus) here in Fort Bragg already. We don't know what we don't know. So acting like you have it and don't want to spread it is key. We are strong. We are Fort Bragg. Together as a team we will do what is right, we will take care of each other and we are not going anywhere. No pun intended."

The humorous note balanced out the note of stark concern that came just before: "If the worst happens here, we will be on our own."


  1. Carrina April 1, 2020

    As a former resident of Fort Bragg, and a current resident of another small coastal town, I understand how Jenny feels. We have tourists still coming from the valley in Morro Bay. Even with the beach parking closed,they still show up, and instead are parking on the road in the neighborhoods. I could only imagine how bad it is up there.

    Stay safe, everyone.

  2. Sabine Swallow April 1, 2020

    We exist because of tourism. We might not want to be rude to them because he day will come, hopefully soon, when we will welcome them back with open arms.

    • George Hollister April 1, 2020

      Good point. The tourist industry, for better or worse, is the economic engine of the coast, and to a lessor extent Anderson Valley. So be careful what what is wished for, it just might happen.

      • Cosette April 1, 2020

        You got that right George. Thank you.

    • Cosette April 1, 2020

      I agree with you Sabine completely. People need to realize who pays their wages and without tourism, there is no income. I lived there for 20 years and have family there still and Jenny best not keep me out.

  3. Vittoria Catelli April 1, 2020

    In this time of adversity we must remain strong and vigilant. I applaud Jenny for her standing strong for her community. Light a candle for your community tonite. Don’t be afraid to show your support. We will get through this together. Vittoria

  4. David Wolf April 2, 2020

    I can’t imagine tourists holding a grudge and boycotting us in the future. It’s not like they’re a ‘group mind’, and Mendo coast will always have its charm.
    More likely, I think, would be some envy that we are able to isolate our small region and a respect for our having done it.

  5. Frank D Hartzell April 3, 2020

    Nice snapshot of Fort Bragg on April Fools Day. Hopefully one day we will look back bemused but it’s hard to imagine looking back and laughing at this moment.

  6. Flynn Washburne April 3, 2020

    Bemused means puzzled. Amused means amused.

  7. Jess April 7, 2020

    Jenny won’t keep you out, but the shelter in place order should. The fact that tourist concerns are even coming into play when lives are on the line and we are totally on our own in FB is beyond immoral. People were still coming up here (and probably still are) even though county public health has been asking them not to for weeks now. A little rudeness won’t keep them away. Treating tourists like children whose feelings you can’t hurt when there are so many other things to be concerned with right now and they really may bring the virus here to our remote community, is what seems to me to be unhelpful. And not everyone lives off tourism here. Many do, but not everyone.

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