LIVERMORE, Calif. — I made the drive from Flagstaff to my hometown of Livermore, California, early in the morning March 13. When I stopped for gas, I cleaned the pump handles and my car doors with the few remaining disinfecting wipes I had. I also took note of the number of people doing exactly what I was doing: traveling.
NAU and other schools, from the university to the K-12 level, had announced online instruction for at least two weeks post-spring break so, many people were heading home. Hours after I stopped for gas, I pulled into Livermore and everything appeared to be normal; businesses were open and booming with people. However, everything changed drastically over the course of the next week.
On March 15, I was at a local brewery with a few friends. The establishment was full, which was expected on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The news was streaming on the TV in the brewery and in the afternoon, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the strong recommendation to close down bars and to limit restaurant capacities.
After the announcement, the brewery remained mostly active. Many people formed lines out the door to fill up growlers and buy beer by the case. People were stocking up as much alcohol as they could carry. Eventually, the entire brewery was empty.
This was the beginning of the closures the Bay Area first experienced and that has now expanded to other states.
Alameda County health and government officials joined with other Bay Area counties in issuing a shelter-in-place order on March 16. Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place executive order, which was issued March 19.
The original county-wide order didn’t initially affect the buzz of everyday life in my county.
Businesses and schools closed, and non-essential work was placed on hold or given notice to be completely remote. However, foot traffic at grocery stores soared, as people formed serpentine lines out the door at weird times — some at 10 p.m. and others at 1 a.m. — hoping to be there when a new shipment of toilet paper or water was delivered. The shelves are still mostly empty of medicine, cleaning supplies and other necessities, as some residents have hoarded enough supplies for months. People who work at grocery stores and hospitals are on the frontlines of susceptibility to COVID-19.
Individuals who have been required to go to work in person — since remote work is not an option for everyone — have been given letters from their employer in the event they are pulled over and questioned by police as to why they are outside of their home. Courtney Shirley, a 21-year-old Livermore resident and an administrator at a refrigeration company, received one of these letters from her employer dated March 18.
Although there have been no public announcements by the Livermore Police Department, the seriousness of the original order is indicated by a line that states that “the violation of any provision of this Order constitutes an imminent threat to public health.”
No one I know has been questioned by police, but the anxiety of being fined for going to the store or picking up food is in the back of my mind.
After the governor’s announcement on March 19, the streets have become more empty with each passing day. The number of people walking their pets or riding bikes on local trails has increased, despite this going directly against the statewide orders. As the virus continues to progress and the severity of the issue becomes more widely known, life is drastically changing.
Shirley was given a one day notice that she needed to stay home. Her income was frozen with practically no warning.
Shirley said that after she spoke to her supervisor to list the tasks she still needed to complete, she was allowed to go into work for one more week. Shirley was technically violating the ordinance and now a statewide order, just so she could have another week of pay before having to file for unemployment.
“This will take a massive toll on my livelihood and I believe it will not go back to normal for some time,” Shirley said. “I will have to be smart with my money and budget even more than before.”
Shirley's experience is not uncommon for many people in California right now. Only essential businesses are in operation, meaning many people are being asked to stay home with no pay and no guarantees about what the future holds for their livelihood. Some businesses are still in operation. Many employees in construction are still working, restaurants are doing curbside pickup, grocery stores and pharmacies are still open, but the way they’re operating is anything but normal.
When I went to pick up food at a local sushi restaurant March 21, I was not allowed in the store. There was a small booth set up just outside complete with a jar of isopropyl rubbing alcohol for pens to marinate in after customers finished signing their bill. The workers were all wearing masks and gloves and there was a stack of disposable, one-time-use hand sanitizer wipes for customers to take. The woman helping me placed the bill and pen on the booth and slid it my way, careful not to make physical contact and to remain the required 6 feet away. I could see her smile with her eyes as I thanked her and took my food.
Grocery store clerks in the Bay Area now serve their customers from behind a wall of plexiglass, while an article on the website Civil Eats indicated that in the last week, some employees at essential stores such as Amazon, Trader Joe’s and Albertsons are being offered higher wages as a means of hazard pay.
This is California's new reality now. It’s scary for many obvious reasons but as I have already seen first-hand, it’s a reality that will leave thousands of people in financial despair and bring both the state and national economies to a halt.
While California has been the trailblazer of proactive measures and protocols, a California government employee who wished to remain anonymous, spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their job and pay.
“I was told to go completely remote on [March 20] and [the statewide shelter-in-place order] started that same day,” the government employee said. "It has not affected my pay, and I don’t anticipate it to affect my pay as long as I can continue working from home. If I can’t, or if I get sick, then I will have to use sick leave or vacation time, otherwise, I will likely have to take leave without pay.”
The anonymous source said they do not have a set date to return to their office, but that April 13 has been suggested as a possibility. Like everything else right now, the return to normalcy is entirely dependent on the severity of the outbreak and whether the statewide orders have been lifted.
The quick progression of the virus, the hectic environment it has led to and the reactions from elected officials have been truly unprecedented. Although many have been taking the protocols seriously, some of the orders set in place in California have been detrimental to the economic stability of those in seriously vulnerable situations with seemingly no feasible way to make up for the loss.
Through the eyes of someone watching the world change at the very beginning stages of this pandemic, I have seen the opportunity for compassion and empathy to take center stage. As this opportunity becomes a lived reality to some, it has given others an equal opportunity to show selfishness and antipathy.
During this time, choose empathy and compassion. In addition to staying informed, washing your hands and practicing social distancing, everyone should also create a space that is giving, trusting and loving at a time when we are all vulnerable.