As COVID killed, it also tore us apart, say Southern Californians
In March 2020, as the nascent pandemic was gaining a foothold in the United States, a friend kept nudging Michelle Bernier to make masks.
A reluctant Bernier — owner of an apron-making business — finally gave in, making a few and showing her friend how to do it. She posted the results on social media, and within days demand skyrocketed.
For Bernier, and many who mobilized in those early days of unprecedented shut downs, it was a 9/11 moment. Unity. Together. A common enemy. It was a chance for American Baby Boomers and Generations X, Y and Z, to have their own “Greatest Generation” — just substitute the coronavirus for World War II and Bernier for Rosie the Riveter.
Except it wasn’t.
“That’s not what it feels like this time,” Bernier said, reflecting on the year since California shutdown orders began. “After 9/11, everybody was friendlier to each other,” said Bernier, who in those early days of March 2020 got the help of her family as her La Habra-based production of aprons turned to masks. “They were actually talking to each other. It’s not like that now. … It’s really built a wedge between everybody.”
A year after Bernier started making her masks, Americans are as divided as ever — fractured over a love for liberty, which has become tangled in steps to assure the health of the larger community.
The very pieces of cloth that Bernier was making would soon become flashpoint symbols. They would both hobble the battle against the virus and fuel a poltical fight that made its way to a fatal riot at the Capitol.
You could see the fractures play out in real time over the last year in ways large, small, subtle and noisy.
In Orange County, in the pandemic’s early days of shutdown, the county’s top public health official Nichole Quick recommended mandatory face masks for all residents, only to be met with fierce public outcry and personal attacks. She would ultimately leave her role.
In Los Angeles County, Grace Community Church, in the San Fernando Valley, defied public health orders, standing steadfast on the right to worship indoors — a right bolstered after a string of U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
In Riverside County, back in October, with case rates threatening to explode, defiant supervisors voted in favor of a revised COVID-19 reopening plan to put the county on a faster track than the state recommended.
Anti-mask tirades erupted in grocery stores, an anti-vaccination rally briefly closed down Dodger Stadium’s massive vaccination site, massive gatherings stormed Orange County beaches.
And then, worst of all, there were the elevated hate incidents against Asian-Americans. A year later, such incidents continue. The pandemic didn’t unite the nation; it simply became a reflection of the politically divided nation, on a mammoth scale.
Liberty, Trump and mixed messages
Rex Parris has no regrets about the celebration his city held for the Fourth of July 2020.
Parris — the mayor of Lancaster and an outspoken critic of the county’s public health response — was not going to let the city’s annual bash just not happen.
L.A. County had required the cancellation of all fireworks displays — including the giant ones. And everyone from Gov. Gavin Newsom to the county’s public health chief Barbara Ferrer were urging local cities to refrain.
Parris remained defiant all the way to the moment he himself flipped the switch for the show at the city’s giant soccer facility, despite the state’s fire marshal telling him the show was being shut down.
“For more than 200 years, every Fourth of July we have celebrated our independence, and we have done this with fireworks,” Parris said at the time. “What the (expletive) is the matter with these people? If I thought that one more person was going to get sick because of us doing this, I wouldn’t do it.”
Others were even more blunt.
“I was being forced and told, and in America that’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” Councilman Darrell Dorris, a pastor, said to the Southern California News Group at the time. “Anything that feels like tyranny, we have the right to rebel against it.”
A year later, Parris, who was the first local dignitary among a crowd of Republicans to meet then-President Donald Trump on the LAX tarmac on his February 2020 trip to L.A., is very much for masks and physical distancing. But he defends his July 4 display.
“The Fourth of July was not in any way foregoing safety,” he said. “We weren’t bringing people into an assembly of any kind. They were in their cars. They were told to wear their masks.”
But even Parris took note of the politicalization of the pandemic.
Masks — or the lack of wearing them — became a “macho thing,” he said, bolstered by an American president who rarely wore one.
“He used it as a unifying symbol for his base,” Parris said.
The narrative became “they can’t take your freedom away. We have to fight these liberals on the coasts. Then that became a political symbol.”
But the fractured response from a polarized nation is not all on Trump, say leaders and officials who’ve been on the front line of the response.
A series of mixed messages from leaders to an audience of Americans already skeptical didn’t help.
Even Dr. Paul Simon, L.A. County’s chief science officer, acknowledged that initial public messaging was not ideal.
“I remember back in February and March, I was not very receptive to face masks,” he said. “But over time … and with evidence from other countries, it became very quickly apparent that masks could be very effective.”
“We were learning as we were going, so some of the messaging had to be fine-tuned and altered over time, and then that fed some of the doubt among some segments of our society,” Simon said, adding that even under the best of circumstances, a fully unified response may not have even been possible.
But for a nation already divided, that doubt was a huge catalyst.
Frantic business owners’ livelihoods were on the line. Theme parks were closing. Sports: done. Schools: closing. The economy was cratering.
And by May, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors was fed up with state mandates. Eager for businesses to re-open, they voted to rescind a mandate for residents to cover their faces and practice social distancing while in public.
At the time, Supervisor Jeff Hewitt put an exclamation point on it: “We have a moral authority to save our dead — and they’re dying out there … (Gov. Gavin Newsom) is destroying so many lives. … There are times when people have to say enough is enough. … I will not be complicit in following any of the governor’s orders.”
‘The sweet spot of controversy’
By the time the supervisors took their vote, COVID-19 had effectively “hit a sweet spot of controversy,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a professor of epidemiology and community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
“Had that number been 10 times less — 0.1%, back down to like influenza, we would have been saying, ‘Oh, this is interesting. We have a new virus and we don’t have to close down society,’” Kim-Farley said.
A number 10 times higher, closer to SARS, and people would have more fully embraced the public health measures, maybe even offered to do more, Kim-Farley surmised.
“However at this 1% level, you have legitimately arising two different camps,” he said. “One saying yes it is 1% every life is precious but there are other things that are important too.”
Meanwhile, scientists were stuck trying to explain it all between the two bitterly divided sides.
“But it’s really hard to explain when you’re dealing with shades of gray,” said Andrew Noymer, professor of public health at UC Irvine.
Elected leaders tried. But in a politically charged climate, it was an uphill climb.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti appeared on CNN, lamenting the division that was hindering the response and fueling the spread.
“This virus preys on our division,” he said.
Still, a year after local and state Safe-at-Home orders first took effect, Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner isn’t sold on the World War II analogy.
“The war analogy — it doesn’t track,” he said. “During a war, you know who the enemy is. You know the capacity you have to go after it. In this case, we were inventing stuff on the fly. No. 2: The burdens didn’t seem to be all shared. You could go to a Target, buy you can’t go to the mom-and-pop down the street. It’s like if during World War II, you know where bad guys are and you’re attacking the bad guys three beaches over.”
Wagner — roiled by inconsistences in the state response and still simmering over Newsom’s French Laundry dinner — is leading the push to recall the governor.
“I am one who does believe that the government has a responsibility for public heath,” he said. “When you get to the liberty question, I believe they have overstepped that authority.”
Newsom acknowledged mistakes in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic but insists the recall effort against him has more to do with politics than the public health crisis.
“It’s about immigration. It’s about our health care policies. It’s about our criminal justice reform. It’s about the diversity of the state. It’s about our clean air, clean water programs, meeting our environmental strategies,” he told radio station KQED in San Francisco.
Recall organizers are Republicans and say they have collected nearly 2 million signatures, well above the 1.5 million needed by March 17 to force an election. The GOP has only 24% of registered California voters, but organizers say they are attracting Democrats and independents.
Newsom, meanwhile, said “of course” he regrets attending that infamous unmasked dinner.
“That’s those things you can never get back,” he said. “And, you know, I owned up to that. And no one hid from that. And that was a mistake. Crystal clear.”
‘I’m right. You’re evil’
Kambiz “Kamy” Akhavan, executive director at USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, said the nation is facing a waning of “centripetal” forces that bring us together — and a troubling jump in the “centrifugal” forces pulling us apart.
“People have always disagreed on issues. That’s not new. That’s not even bad,” Akhaven said. “We welcome it. What’s different, he said that now the tone is: ‘I’m right. You’re evil.”
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco says he knows that kind of demonization.
He says because he’s been branded a “denier” who believes the outbreak is make-believe. He countered: “It’s so far from the truth. I lost two employees in one day. And people are saying I don’t take this seriously?”
L.A. County Public Health Chief Ferrer can relate, herself the object of scorn — even death threats — via emails, letters and social media posts.
“It is deeply worrisome to imagine that our hard-working infectious-disease physicians, nurses, epidemiologists and environmental health specialists or any of our other team members would have to face this level of hatred,” she said in a statement in June.
“And it’s happening at a time when it’s harder to distinguish good information from bad information,” Akhavan said. “It’s harder to have honest, vulnerable conversions with people. … They often break down and become nasty.”
Akhavan laments that the nation squandered the opportunity to embrace its own Greatest Generation moment. But he has hope.
He aspires to a future where education systems re-focus on civics, critical thinking and media literacy, and where political incentives lead to non-partisan drawing of legislative districts and social media algorithms that reward thoughtful points of view.
Akhavan and others say it’s not about disagreeing less but “disagreeing better.”
Akhavan used a sports analogy: “You like the Angels, I like the Dodgers, we both like baseball; you like baseball, I like football, we both like sports; you like sports, I like politics, we both like competition.”
Meanwhile, Bernier moves on with what is now a mask-making business — her aprons set aside for now.
Some have unfriended her on Facebook because of her masks.
Her mom, Irene, died in January — from COVID-19. Her father recovered from the virus.
She believes we’ll learn to talk to one another with civility again.
“I think there’s more good people than we think,” she said.