COVID Diary #2: On a trip to California, reality slowly begins to make its own plans

Coronavirus news conference in Ukiah, California, on March 5. Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy.

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

They say that crises come at you gradually, then all at once. At least I think that’s what they say. I know that’s how I experienced the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this installment, I’ll talk about the gradual part. Following that, the all-at-once.

For a long time, the coronavirus was a real but distant threat. At a faculty meeting in early February, we talked about trying to have some sort of get-together for our Asian students to acknowledge what their families were going through back home. A month later, as we were about to go on spring break the first week of March, I remember telling someone that we probably wouldn’t have any problems when we came back because our Chinese students would no doubt stay in Boston rather than hazard a trip abroad.

My own spring break was spent in Mendocino County, California. It was a reporting and research trip aimed at learning as much as I could about The Mendocino Voice, a two-person digital news organization that was transitioning from a for-profit model to cooperative ownership. On Monday I landed at San Francisco International Airport, picked up a rental car, and began the two-and-a-half-hour drive north — a drive I won’t describe to you because the Voice’s managing editor and co-founder, Adrian Fernandez Baumann, told me that’s the clichéd opening written by every reporter who parachutes in for a few days.

Photo by Adrian Fernandez Baumann. Used by permission.

The trip was exactly what I was hoping for. Baumann and the other co-founder, publisher Kate Maxwell, are the sort of hard-working, idealistic young journalists who are well-suited to coming up with new ideas for independent local journalism. I hung out at a small Super Tuesday event the Voice sponsored upstairs at the Ukiah Brewing Company, accompanied them on a few stories, and spent more than three hours interviewing them in a windowless upstairs office in downtown Ukiah that they rent from a public radio station. I also got to drive through the redwood forest and out to the Pacific coast for interviews in Fort Bragg and Philo.

But when I wasn’t working, I was checking my phone — and the news about the new coronavirus (I don’t think they were calling COVID-19 yet) was becoming ominous. The New York Times was reporting that so many people were dropping their travel plans that airlines were canceling flights. I wondered if I’d be able to get back on Friday. As I was reading this, I was in a bar-restaurant next to my hotel that was filled, cheek by jowl, with customers in various states of inebriation. They obviously weren’t concerned about getting sick, and at that point neither was I.

Things started to get more real on Thursday, March 5. I showed up a few minutes before 9 a.m. for a news conference at the county offices in Ukiah, which are contained within a modern one-story building a bit outside the city’s center. Kate and Adrian had told me such news conferences are generally held outside — not because of the threat of disease, but, I imagine, to take advantage of the nice California weather. This morning, though, about 50 reporters and county employees crowded into a harshly lit meeting room.

“We have been working 24/7 since January,” said Dr. Noemi Doohan, the interim public health officer. And though there were no cases in Mendocino County at that time, she urged “no more handshaking for a while.” She displayed a poster recommending fist bumps (these days, I’m sure, not even elbow bumps would be recommended), stocking up on nonperishable food, getting to know your neighbors, and staying six feet away from each other.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy

As she spoke, we were all about six inches from each other, but no one seemed concerned. And I should note that even though California has been a hotbed of COVID-19, Mendocino County is so remote and sparsely populated (about 88,000 people live in an area that’s two-thirds the size of Connecticut) that, even as of this past Monday, only 11 people had been diagnosed, with no reported deaths.

Later that day I interviewed Kate and Adrian about their plans for the Voice. I don’t think it occurred to any of us that whatever plans they were making were about to be upended.

I flew home to Boston on Friday. In contrast to the packed plane I had taken to San Francisco, there were a lot of empty seats. I appreciated the extra room and, yes, given that the coronavirus was becoming a bigger and bigger news story, I was relieved that the seat next to me was empty.

As we were about to get off the plane, I struck up a conversation with an older woman from Guatemala who had flown to Boston to visit her family. I asked her what she was planning to do for fun. Her response: Probably visit the casino.

I hope she made it before it was shut down — and that she and everyone close to her have remained healthy.

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