West Marin feels impacts of pandemic

David Briggs
The checkout line at the Palace Market reached back to the milk section on Monday, shortly after a shelter-in-place order was announced for Marin and other Bay Area counties. The Palace said its supply chain is intact, but that suppliers are struggling to keep up.  

Life in West Marin upended on Monday following a regional decision to keep residents of seven Bay Area counties at home for three weeks. The order from health officials was soon replicated by others in California, which is now leading the nation’s mitigation efforts. 

These were the basics of the directive: hunker down where you live and leave only for the most necessary activities, including obtaining food or medical supplies, caring for a family member, visiting a doctor, engaging in an outdoor activity or performing work if you provide an essential service. Even for these activities, social distancing requirements, such as six feet of separation, are in place. 

Violations, which are considered a threat to public health, qualify as misdemeanors punishable by fines or imprisonment; the sheriff’s office is tasked with enforcement on the coast. According to the order, the restrictions are necessary to stop the spread. 

“We haven’t gotten to a point where it’s a lockdown and no one is out,” District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni told the Light on Tuesday. “That’s another step, that’s a heavy step. We are hoping that if people mind this order, we don’t have to take any other steps.” 

There were 15 confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday in Marin, and no deaths. That day, California reported 598 positive cases and 13 deaths. The county’s health department cautions that the numbers “[do] not account for the rapidly increasing number of assumed cases of community transmission,” and is investigating the positive cases, contacting everyone who came in close contact with the patients.

As residents grapple with the innumerable implications that the pandemic is having on their daily lives, county health officials are focused on testing, despite a continued shortage of kits. In collaboration with local hospitals, the health department piloted a new drive-through field testing site in central Marin last week. 

Anyone experiencing symptoms is advised to first call his or her health provider. Kaiser patients should dial (415) 444.2940, but both the Coastal Health Alliance and the West Marin Medical Center will take calls. Those who qualify for testing will likely be referred to the county’s testing site, which is the best prepared.  

Both local providers have a handful of testing kits: Coastal Health has 27, and West Marin has 12 with another 100 arriving on March 20. Neither provider has conducted a test yet, though Coastal Health made one referral. Laine Hendricks, a county public information officer, told the Light she couldn’t disclose whether anyone on the coast had tested positive.

In another monitoring effort, the health department is receiving regular updates from all emergency departments and from Emergency Medical Services, the countywide 9-1-1 ambulance response system, on the number of respiratory illness cases. There is currently no sign of generally increased incidence of respiratory illness in Marin (visit MarinHHS.org/Coronavirus/Data to see the data).

“We track these [numbers] over time and evaluate these trends by age because older adults infected with COVID-19 experience more severe disease,” Dr. Matt Willis said in a press release on Tuesday night. “Knowing there’s always ups and downs in our usual activity, we’re looking for significant changes. This is mainly intended for our clinicians, but others may be interested in seeing the trends.”

Health providers are doing their best to prepare. On Monday, Steven Siegel, C.E.O. of the Coastal Health Alliance, announced a new mode of operating: all non-urgent medical visits would convert to phone visits and the Bolinas clinic would close. 

“We’re having to solve problems in real time, things that no one has experienced so far,” Mr. Siegel said. “We have been kind of focusing on staff recently; we have to keep them safe or we can’t help patients. We expect a surge, and then we have to still be here, and we have to be able to maintain staff and services.”

Nicole Lavelle, a Lagunitas resident who came into contact with a family member in San Francisco who tested positive for COVID-19, self-quarantined and is nearing the end of her 14 days without showing symptoms. She plans to continue quarantining. 

“I’ve talked to some elder friends on the phone back home, and I’m not sure people really have a grip on the severity of the situation yet,” she said. “You have to be told, and then told again. You think what you hear is the craziest thing you’ve ever heard, and then by the end of the afternoon, it’s normal. I have no point of reference for this.”

She added, “So far every crazy thing that we thought has been correct. I have to stop speculating.”

As far as human-to-human contact, the Bay Area order provides strict guidance, while allowing the gathering of members of a household or living unit. “All public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a household or living unit are prohibited, except for the limited purposes as expressly permitted [as essential activities],” it states. 

To the extent that people are using shared or outdoor spaces, social distancing requirements include that they must remain six feet apart, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash hands as frequently as possible. 

At the same time, the order “strongly encouraged” 21 types of businesses that provide essential services to stay open, though subject to the same distancing requirements. Over the past few days, West Marin has scrambled to follow suit. The businesses deemed essential include health care operations, grocery stores and farm stands, farms, businesses that provide services for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals, newspapers and other media services, gas stations and auto-repairs, banks, laundromats, airlines and private transportation providers, legal and accounting services, hardware stores, post offices, and plumbers, electricians and other service providers that help maintain the safety and sanitation of residences. 

Businesses whose services are not considered essential are only allowed to continue operations if employees are working from their own residences, or for minimum basic operations.

Schools, colleges and universities are permitted to stay open for the purpose of facilitating “distance learning or performing essential functions provided that social distancing is maintained.” 

As of last Friday, the Marin County Office of Education closed all public-school campuses for classroom instruction. The coastal K-12 districts are figuring out how to offer remote instruction, and are still providing meals for those that participate in the National School Lunch Program. 

Bob Raines, superintendent of the Shoreline Unified School District, and John Carroll, who helms both the Bolinas-Stinson Union and Lagunitas School Districts, said they are testing out online programs. 

“We’ve gone through two levels of response so far: a voluntary cancellation of classes and now compliance with the shelter-in-place order from the health department,” Mr. Carroll said. “That includes having all employees except for essential staff stay away from school.” Essential staff includes cooks, those in charge of basic continued functions like payroll, and custodial crews that sanitized classrooms before locking them for the duration of the order.

Restaurants and other businesses that prepare and serve food can continue under the new order, but only for delivery or takeout. In West Marin, some establishments have adapted and others have closed. 

The impact on businesses and employees is immeasurable. The United States Small Business Administration is offering low-interest economic injury disaster loans, which may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the impacts of the order. 

Workers who have had their hours reduced or whose employer is not operating due to the shelter-in-place order can file an unemployment insurance claim; parents who miss work due to their child’s school closure may be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits; and all California workers who can’t work and who are medically certified to either have COVID-19 themselves or to have been exposed to it can file a disability insurance claim.

With so many unknowns, many over the past week have taken to grocery stores to stock up for the worst. 

Britany Hartwell, the director of the Palace Market, spoke to the Light on Tuesday morning in a rare moment of calm as she waited for a new shipment. Over the past week, she’s been coming to the store hours before it opens to help stock shelves. 

“We are staying open, we’re getting deliveries and we are doing our best to try to keep our shelves full,” she said. “We will be here for our community.”

Ms. Hartwell said all of the distributors that supply the Palace—there are a few hundred, of varying sizes—have reported skyrocketing demand, some by 1,000 percent. Now, distributors are prioritizing filling orders for shelf-stable goods. 

“Our supply chain is intact: our distributors and their vendors have supply,” Ms. Hartwell explained, “but the missing link is that their workers can’t keep up.”

She said she continues to put “massive orders through, hoping to get at least half of what we are requesting. We will keep repeating that process until our shelves are full.” She hopes to be caught up by the end of the week, to “recoup from a lot of panic buying.”

Market staff are sanitizing all surfaces on an hourly basis and the floor near the check-out counters is marked with green tape every six feet, per state guidelines. Any employees who are sick or who have sick family members will go home with paid leave, though none have yet to do so.

The market  will soon implement senior shopping hours for people 70 or older, a move that Stinson Beach Market has also taken and that the county has recommended. Beginning on March 24, these folks will have the store to themselves between 8 and 9 a.m. on Tuesdays. Beginning on March 27, Fridays will be added during the same time. 

Ms. Hartwell said staff is not sanitizing the food containers that come in, but correctly cited the Food and Drug Administration’s determination that there is no evidence the virus is transmitted by food or food packaging. That agency recommends washing your hands before handling food.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, told the New York Times yesterday that packed supermarkets could be the “site of the greatest risk to having social distancing work.”

But when you have to visit a market, the professor emphasized that coronavirus is “very susceptible” to soap and water as disinfectants. Precautions after a store visit could include showering and washing your clothes. 

A food safety expert interviewed in the same story suggested additional measures: touch as little as possible while you’re in the store, sanitize what you bring into your home (a diluted bleach solution works), and wash any reusable grocery bags. 

Marin’s local food producers are also adapting to changing circumstances. 

Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery reported that retail business has risen substantially, with people buying more in the stores. At the same time, overall demand in volume is down, as restaurants shutter. He said he is most concerned about keeping his employees safe and healthy; although many of the new necessary health precautions were already in place at the creamery, he is airing on the side of overcommunication.  

Mr. Straus remained positive. “We’re still milking the cows every day,” he said.

Arron Wilder, owner of Table Top Farm in Point Reyes Station, said he is anticipating more demand for local food, and plans to double production this season.  

“I’m like everybody else: I can’t grow all the food for myself or my family,” he said. “There’s so much we all need to buy. But wow, there are so many people that are in this situation, and I just feel it on an instinctual level. Yeah, I’m going to plant a lot.” 

Table Top sells up to 80 percent of its produce to restaurants over the hill, but Mr. Wilder said he’s reconsidering that model this year. Instead, he encouraged residents to contact the farm if they are interested in his community-supported agriculture program; an investment now would support his efforts to expand production. 

Molly Meyerson, who owns Little Wing Farm, said she’s greatly expanding her acreage this season, though that was in the works before anyone was talking about the coronavirus. It’s been hard for her to keep up with the incredible demand at her farm stand over the past several weeks, and she too is considering adding a C.S.A., even if only to give people a greater sense of security. 

“It’s a good wake-up call for everyone to have more food independence and sovereignty,” she said. “We have to learn how to grow food. We are relying on these very unstable infrastructure systems to bring food from elsewhere. We see how easily those things can be disrupted, and that causes people to panic. We all need food, and we all have to figure out how to make that a more reliable, safe, economic thing for everyone.”

For local school districts adapting to the order, food security rose high on their list of priorities.  Mr. Raines said the district is still providing breakfast and lunch to students enrolled in the lunch program, with four bus drivers delivering those meals to students either at their homes or at bus stops. With many students living so remotely, Mr. Raines said, that he felt this was his only option. 

Mr. Carroll said his two districts plan to provide bagged lunches, though distribution and coordination was still in the works. 

Last week, county health officials said they wouldn’t close a district unless a test from a student was positive. Instead, as a mitigation measure, all Marin public schools closed their campuses last Friday. 

Ben Lowrance, who drives the school bus and helps maintain the grounds at Bolinas School, described his experience last week before the campus closed. 

“Coronavirus was a conversation among the kids on the bus in the morning, and it was a conversation on the bus in the afternoon,” he said. “This all really hit home for me when, last Wednesday, the WHO declared this a global pandemic. On Thursday and Friday, we had school and I walked around campus, talking to people and I watched kids wrestling in the grass, playing touch football, being all over each other. You can see, behind the scenes, this virus is invisible. It’s going to kill a lot of people.”