An ominous week in California — followed by a year of unimaginable loss

Previously published at GBH News.

Sometime in the evening on Thursday, March 5, 2020, I settled in at the bar of the Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, California. I’d had a long day of interviews, driving out to the Pacific coast and back through the redwood forests of Mendocino County, and I wanted dessert, a glass of wine and a chance to decompress.

Throughout the week, the news about the novel coronavirus had been getting more ominous. Flights were being canceled, and I told my wife I was concerned about making it home. But at that early stage of what would become a worldwide pandemic, I wasn’t worried about getting sick — not even when a half-dozen laughing, inebriated young women pressed up behind me.

I’d begun my day at the county offices in Ukiah, where officials held their first coronavirus news conference. The World Health Organization had named the illness “COVID-19” several weeks earlier, but my memory is that no one was calling it that yet. I was there to catch up with Kate Maxwell and Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the founders of The Mendocino Voice, a community website in the process of transforming itself into a news co-op. I was reporting on the Voice as part of a book project, and this was a chance to see them in action.

The county generally held its news events outside, I was told — not out of health concerns but just because the weather was usually nice. It was quite nice on this particular morning, but for some reason about 50 of us were crowded into a brightly lit, windowless conference room.

“We have been working 24/7 since January,” said Dr. Noemi Doohan, the interim public health officer. Up to that point, no coronavirus cases had been reported in Mendocino County. There were no masks and no thought of masks. But still, she urged “no more handshaking for a while.” She displayed a poster recommending fist bumps — which would soon look hopelessly naive — along with stocking up on nonperishable food, getting to know your neighbors and staying six feet away from each other.

I made it back to Boston on a half-empty flight, just before the entire country shut down during those early, terrifying days of the pandemic. And I’m grateful that I have been far less affected than many people.

I’m on the journalism faculty at Northeastern University. I’ve been teaching partly in person since last September, getting tested twice a week and, so far, remaining healthy. My wife teaches in the public schools and is in person four days a week. She, too, is healthy. I’m 64 and she’s 63, so we haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet. Soon, though, we hope.

But what a strange, lost year we’ve all lived through. Even though the end is in sight, we’ve got months to go — and we still don’t really know what the new normal will look like. It’s been an especially difficult experience for our students. Hers are elementary-age kids who have been in school half-time while trying to keep up on Zoom the rest of the week. Mine are undergrads and grads. In one of my classes, they have the option of attending in person, but often just one or two show up, the rest coming in on a big screen over — yes — Zoom. (After this is over, I never want to Zoom again.)

We know we’ve been relatively lucky, even though a member of our family died of COVID-19 last year. So many people have suffered even worse losses, such as the deaths of multiple family members and lingering illness. So many people are unemployed and hungry. We’ve donated to food programs, and we drive around our community restocking pop-up food pantries. It’s not enough. I just hope President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package will carry us all through until most of the pandemic restrictions have ended.

Spring break at Northeastern is usually the first week of March. That’s why I was in California last year. I’ve taken advantage of spring break over the years to schedule reporting trips, preferably in warm places (I wholeheartedly recommend Orange County, California), although I’ve also spent the week in New Haven after a historic snowstorm and in northern Vermont, where a friend’s mother had lent me the use of her cottage so I could finish writing the last two chapters of a book.

This year there was no spring break, as school started a week later in January to avoid the post-holiday coronavirus surge. So that’s one more experience my students will miss out on. Last year, a dozen of them went on a reporting trip to Panama. This year they got ready for midterms.

The Mendo Voice, fortunately, seems to be going strong. The site now has a Report for America fellow and is chock full of stories about the pandemic, the pot industry and the seemingly never-ending wildfire season.

As for my book project, well, that got put off a year. My research partner and I had planned out an ambitious travel schedule, all of which had to be delayed. I hope we can resume this summer, at least with a couple of places that are within driving distance.

But Zoom looms, too.