March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago. COVID-19 has warped our sense of time, and though there are firm event markers – among them Sonoma County’s first Shelter in Place order almost exactly two years ago – the experience as a whole has been incredibly disorienting. Our lives have both slowed down, with fewer social interactions, events, less travel; and accelerated, with the rapid developments and the high demands of navigating an ever-changing present as we move through new technology. This makes it difficult to reflect, to try to encapsulate the loss, the trauma, the ups, the downs of an event I never imagined could occur in my lifetime: a global pandemic.
I first think about loss: lost livelihoods, lost time, and most significantly, lost lives. At the time of writing, Sonoma County has lost 475 residents to COVID-19. The United States is approaching a staggering one million deaths. I think about the families who have lost loved ones, some of whom did not get the chance to say goodbye. I think about the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on the Latinx community in our county. I think about the first responders, front line workers, parents, students, business owners, caregivers, and more who have had their day-to-day lives disrupted, again and again, to fight back the waves of this pandemic.
As I contemplate loss, I also look for ways to turn towards hope. Two years into this pandemic, our county has administered over one million vaccine doses, with over 80% of our eligible population fully vaccinated. At this time, all residents five years of age and older are eligible for vaccination against COVID-19. Full vaccination and booster shots provide protection against the worst outcomes of COVID-19: severe illness, hospitalization, and death. I want to extend my gratitude to the countless community organizations, especially those serving the First District, that have worked tirelessly to support the vaccination effort in our county and provide wraparound support. The list includes, but is not limited to: our Community Health Centers and hospitals throughout the County, Food for All/Comida Para Todos, La Luz Center, FISH, Vintage House, Boys and Girls Club and so many more. Your partnership means the world to me.
In the wake of the surge of cases brought on by the Omicron variant, Sonoma County’s case rate has swiftly declined, as has our rate of hospitalization. As of Tuesday, March 1, masks are no longer required, though still strongly recommended, for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in California, with the exception of high transmission settings such as public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters,and long-term care facilities. And, as of March 11, masks are no longer required, but still strongly recommended, in schools and childcare facilities.
Even with these changes, I know many people who will still be wearing their masks in public settings. In some cases businesses, venue operators, or event hosts and organizers may still require masks. This pandemic has required that we be respectful of our varying comfort levels choices, as long as they comply with current health orders, and I hope that we do not judge those who continue to wear masks even though they are no longer required. Please continue to be understanding of your fellow community members, who may be concerned for their own health, the health of friends, family members, or coworkers with preexisting conditions, or have any other reason for which they feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask.
While the mask requirement is relaxing, the pandemic is not yet over. We must still be vigilant, and the county still has plenty of work to do as we enter a third year of this pandemic. Our Department of Health Services is focused on booster shots and pediatric vaccinations as a means of providing greater protection to a greater number of members of our community, and thus greater protection for our community as a whole.
Nevertheless, we are entering a new phase. Last month, Governor Newsom described this formally as an endemic phase, with California becoming the first state to shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus. The endemic phase is a shift in a way we understand COVID-19: as a manageable risk, that is with us indefinitely, not as an emergency with a beginning and an ending.
The endemic phase brings its own uncertainties. When will we ever feel “normal” again? Is it even appropriate to feel normal, after two years of unimaginable pain and suffering? I know the answers to these questions will be different for everyone. As long as we continue to listen to the experts and do our part for our community, I remain hopeful for the future.
New home for the County Center
On the topic of the future, I would be remiss if I did not mention the recent Board discussions about redeveloping our county center.
On March 1, the Board of Supervisors engaged in a marathon discussion on the acquisition of the Sears building in downtown Santa Rosa, as part of an ongoing conversation on the future of the county’s governmental center. This has been ongoing for a decade or more, as we have significantly outgrown our current campus. The fact is that the buildings at the county center were not built to last 100+ years like many of our historic buildings and city halls in cities like Sonoma — they were built in the 1950s and are inadequate for a modern workforce, and not able to be renovated.
The buildings are in poor condition, and difficult to access via public transit without multiple transfers. We do not need to continue a model that contributes to suburban sprawl, especially when we have an opportunity to think smarter for the future of our county.
I am sensitive to the concerns of the community and of my fellow board members, including financial feasibility and satellite services for the more far-flung reaches of our county; but I believe these concerns can and should be addressed. Our board should come together to make the forward-thinking, climate-smart decision. I have been advocating for years for a service center in the Springs area and will continue to do so, and appreciate concerns about living within our means and being good stewards of taxpayer funds.
However, I am frustrated and disappointed with the direction this conversation has taken. I remain supportive of the Sears site and of a county governmental center in downtown Santa Rosa, close to public transit, in a walkable core. I still have hope that we may be able to realize a transformational project for our county that helps us to achieve environmental, organizational, and housing development goals by acquiring the downtown site. But it appears now that we do not have the votes to choose to move the County Center to downtown Santa Rosa – that we will continue our suburban model of the County Center at its current location, far from the transit hub and SMART station of downtown Santa Rosa.
The fact remains, however, that a new County center needs to be built, and it is going to be expensive; it is just a question of where. Regardless of the location, these are new offices that I myself will never occupy, I will be leaving at the end of my term. But every day we delay this decision the price tag for any project gets higher, and I hope we can come together and commit to move a project forward that will set the County up for success and resiliency into the future. In the interim I will continue exploring potential locations in Sonoma Valley for a regional service center – a front door for the County to provide services and meet the increasing health and human service needs for the Valley.