Shasta County’s COVID Report Card: Education Gets an ‘F’

Lately, when it comes to the North State and the pandemic, Shasta County acts like a runaway train. The true safety engineers and dedicated experts have been tossed overboard. The train is now under the control of a crazed clown-car full of loud-mouthed reckless characters so intoxicated with their own agendas and egos that they’d rather see the entire locomotive crash and burn than consider the fate of its passengers: more than 180,000 men, women and children.

Have you seen Shasta County’s latest numbers from Friday and Saturday, 220 and 98, respectively?

How high must Shasta County’s COVID case counts climb before even the anti-maskers and virus-deniers take things seriously? How many hospitalizations? How many deaths? How many closed businesses as COVID numbers climb because many of the people who complain the most about shutdowns refuse to do their part to keep the virus at bay, which then guarantees that we’ll be thrust into the purple tier?

Yes, Shasta County is a deeply divided county located in an even more deeply divided country. Even so, we need to join forces for this unified cause: to beat this virus into submission by accepting the most basic public health mandates. If not, we risk falling so deeply submerged into the purple tier that we’ll end up in an even darker place.

According to Shasta County Health and Human Service Agency’s last press release, “Our adjusted case rate increased from 20.2 to 34.0 daily cases per 100,000 residents, exceeding the purple tier limit of 7.0. Our positivity rate also increased from 6.1% to 8.4%, which is also now in the purple tier.” 

Although Shasta County has a lot of purple company throughout California, our county has the dubious distinction of having some of the most alarming COVID numbers in the state.

Plus, 27 COVID patients are now hospitalized. Eight are in the ICU.

How, pray tell, do many Shasta County residents respond to this grim news? With their thumbs firmly below their noses and a gleeful wiggle of their fingers.

Consequently, it’s a joke when the governor hands down COVID-19 directives, whether it’s a mandate about closing bars or a ban on indoor dining, or the new order that requires that citizens wear masks when they leave their homes. I say it’s a joke because many of Shasta County residents still do not take the pandemic seriously, despite the evidence of our growing COVID case numbers.

The point of purple is not punitive, but protective. It’s designed to help slow the spread of the virus so health-care facilities and providers are not overwhelmed with too many COVID cases at one. Just think, if we were complying properly with purple-tier state mandates all along, Shasta County could be as orange as Humboldt County, where residents enjoy minor restrictions, simply because they behave as if they take the coronavirus seriously.

In some ways, it feels as if the deck is stacked against us. It seems as if Shasta County has more than our fair share of dud cards.

We’ve got District 5 Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh, who eggs on his anti-mask, open-the-county friends, followers and State of Jefferson folks by posting definitions of words like “non-essential” — just in case those people weren’t feeling bad enough already.We’ve got militia guys too cool and macho for face masks, like Carlos Zapata of Palo Cedro, who owns the Palomino Room in Red Bluff, where he’s made it clear that there will be hell to pay for anyone or any agency that attempts to close his bar and restaurant.

And if Zapata’s personal rebellion isn’t enough, he taunts, bullies and intimidates the compliant businesses.

We’ve got leaders of mega-congregation Bethel Church, such as Kris Vallotton, the Bethel’s No. 2 pastor who held a huge wedding in the little town of Shingletown, despite giving lip service days earlier about how much he believes in following the state’s COVID-prevention guidelines.

And there’s Beni Johnson, wife of Bethel pastor No. 1 of the 11,000-member Bethel Church, the umbrella over the super-rich super-virus-spreader, Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.

Johnson is a vocal, open Trump supporter (IRS? Hello? Anybody home?) who has thousands upon thousands of followers. She’s recently embraced her patriot side and is on the record for describing masks as “frickin’ stupid”. She fancies herself a medical connoisseur of sorts by dispensing nuggets of Beni wisdom about the dangers of having a temperature taken on the forehead, because doing so is unhealthy for the “brian”.

And speaking of brains, there are BSSM students who openly flaunt the concept of testing for COVID, because more positive cases would just make Bethel look worse than it already does (if that’s possible). They continue to gather in large groups for things like Bible studies and Halloween parties. Overall this is a youthful group of students who are convinced that 1., Jesus will protect them from becoming infected, but 2., if they did become ill, Jesus would heal them. So they party on, and if they feel sick they ignore it, going about their lives and business in the community, shedding virus droplets like unholy water wherever they go.

Which reminds me, I’d be remiss if I failed to take this opportunity to mention that as of last weekend’s Shasta County COVID numbers, the two highest age groups were 67 infected people in their 20s, and 55 infected people in their 30s. On the other end of the spectrum, the two lowest age-group categories were four infected people in their 80s, and one infected person older than 89.

So much for the virus being an old-folk’s disease.

I could fill thousands of additional column inches with the entire sorry cast of bad actors who’ve thrown spike strips along our path to protecting ourselves and others.

As entertaining as writing up that list would be, we have a dire situation at hand that needs everyone’s full, immediate attention: Our COVID case numbers are careening out of control. If we don’t turn things around soon, we’re going to appear on headlines the world over as a cautionary tale of the semi-rural California county that was overtaken by the coronavirus.

We are at a fork in the tracks. We can split the car into two sections and continue fighting about whether masks work or not. Or we can unite with a single goal and direction: Emulate places like Humboldt County by following the state’s basic public health guidelines. If we do that, our numbers will drop, and if our numbers drop low enough for a few weeks, then we have a shot at beating COVID-19 in our communities, and opening up to less restrictive tiers of red, orange, and even one day, yellow. And best of all, our change of heart and behavior might save lives along the way.

Businesses that comply, and those that don’t

Like thousands of small business owners across California, the family who owns and operates La Cabana Mexican Restaurant in Redding has endured their white-knuckle coronavirus rollercoaster ride since spring. They’ve suffered a frightening experience that’s included stressful ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns.

They’ve opened and they’ve closed. They’ve installed plastic booth barriers. They’ve ordered cases of face coverings and disposable food containers. They’ve catered to their customers with delivery (for a time), take-out, pick-up and parking-lot dining. They abandoned all hand-held menus, and put their menus online and on the wall. And even when dine-in was an option, back in the state’s red tier, tables were absent of salt, pepper, hot sauce and even their usual vases of pretty flowers.

When Shasta County’s COVID cases rose for the second time at that point where the North State transitioned from red to purple, and all dine-in options were banned, La Cabana complied and served customers outside on an asphalt parking lot when it was blazing hot and also during howling wind storms.

Now, as 2020 seems to have robbed the North State of even a decent fall, it seems we’re skipping autumn and going straight to wet weather and dropping temperatures; the lousiest of conditions for al fresco dining.

Even so, with each new set of guidelines, with each wave of governor mandates and every state-tier proclamation, my favorite Mexican restaurant, like other compliant businesses, has obeyed.

They’re hanging in there. Barely. Just like many other Shasta County businesses.

But here in Shasta County, there’s a problem that goes hand in hand with our skyrocketing COVID numbers: Many restaurant owners are openly refusing to obey the purple tier mandates that forbid dine-in options. Some bars and gyms have never closed.

The inequity of the situation is heartbreaking and frustrating as compliant businesses and restaurant owners watch in dismay as other restaurants – some of which may be literally right across the street – are packed with dine-in customers who eat, drink and be merry, seemingly oblivious to our rising COVID numbers.

The more the non-compliant businesses openly carry on as if it’s business as usual, the more the compliant business owners wonder what kind of an alternate universe Shasta County must be, where rules and warnings exist, but consequences don’t.

It’s the cruelest of uneven playing field where one side operates as if there is no pandemic, and the other side is hobbled by scruples and obedience.

There is no way for the compliant restaurants that are not open to in-person dining to fairly compete with non-compliant restaurants who ignore the rules and remain open to in-person dining.

Once again we’re reminded that we do live in the wild west, where rugged individualism translates to: “I’ll do whatever I damn well please, and screw you, grandma. You’re old and your life is over anyway. You may as well die of COVID as anything else.”

This is not a column where I will tattle about all the non-compliant businesses I know. You could probably name some, too, and go ahead, if you wish, to name the known biggest offenders, if you know for a fact to be true. I won’t stop you.

But do you know who else knows about these non-compliant businesses? Our law enforcement. Do you know what many of our law enforcement deputies and officers do with this knowledge? They walk right in, sit right down, and enjoy their dine-in experience.

Purple tier be damned. COVID cases be damned. ICU’s be damned. Deaths be damned.

I wish I could say it’s an open secret that Shasta County law enforcement refuses to enforce state COVID-19 mandates. No secrets here, because both our Shasta County Sheriff Magrini and Redding Police Department Chief Bill Schueller are on the record saying they’re not into COVID-mandate law enforcement, but rather, they claim that education is their thing.

One look at Shasta County’s COVID report card tells us everything we need to know: Our so-called educational approach has failed. We can blame our educators, or we can blame our students, or we can blame both. But anyway we look at it, we’ve got a whole lot of stupid going on. Anyone can see that we’re flunking. Anyone can see that COVID-19 is gaining on us.

Education didn’t work. It’s time for enforcement. If law enforcement still refuses to enforce the COVID mandates, then our North State leaders need to step up and over the incapacitated law enforcement folks and collaborate with authorized agencies that have the stomach to enforce unpopular mandates.

Here’s another bizarre observation regarding the North State and our rising COVID cases: Among the increasing numbers of people who test positive for COVID-19, many are the same people who freely share the good, bad and ugly on their social media posts. However, when it comes to their positive COVID results, many of these same people suddenly clam up as if they’re as embarrassed to admit their COVID infections as they would had they been diagnosed with head lice, pin worms or scabies. But of course, none of those three conditions can land us in the ICU or on a ventilator. My hunch is that catching COVID is a very shameful thing to acknowledge among those who’ve spent months minimizing it.

Shhhhh. Nobody needs to know. Nothing to see here. Look away.

That’s why lately, so many of those “brave” COVID-positive people who “admit” to their illness on social media are thanked by others for speaking up and letting people know that if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.

We’re on our own

So, let’s review: We cannot count on Shasta County law enforcement to crack down on the non-compliant businesses. We cannot count on state agencies to keep up with the time-consuming whack-a-mole task of going after increasing numbers of bars and restaurants and other businesses that behave as if they’re blind and deaf to words like pandemic, purple tier, or refrigerated morgue trucks.

Believe it or not, all’s not lost. There’s much for those of us to do who do believe the pandemic is real; people who want to keep ourselves and others safe. First, we can follow the public health guidelines. (You know them by heart.) Second, we can avoid the places that are obviously non-compliant. Finally, we can reward the businesses that are complying by being loyal to them and supporting them every chance we get.

The truth is, unless a majority of Shasta County residents gets on board and commits to collectively changing our behavior soon, we could be looking at the purple tier for months on end, well into spring of 2021 and beyond.

Facebook groups to the rescue

For those looking for a way to easily identify the compliant businesses, there are at least two private Facebook groups that can help. First is “Covid Responsible Places – Redding, California.” The second is a private group created by Shasta County resident Rita James, and Exposing Covid Irresponsibility in Shasta County,

This private group was not designed as a place for arguing about whether or not face coverings work. However, this group does offer a growing list of COVID-compliant places, for those who seek and care about that kind of information.

“Stop the spread, stay strong,” says the profile image at the top of the group’s page.

I asked James why she started the group. Here’s what she said:

“I guess the main reason I created the group was to give a voice to the people in Shasta County who want to discuss ways to keep our community healthy and safe.

I don’t even know if that can be accomplished, but it seemed like it would be nice to have a place to go where people can discuss places they feel safe to shop and places they don’t feel safe to shop. A place where they can share ways to possibly get our community back on track and to expose any actions that might be contributing to the increase in COVID transmission.

An important thing to note is that I want this group to be a welcome place for anyone, no matter what their political beliefs are. I understand the connection between politics and COVID, especially in our small community. But I really believe that if we are going to get things back on track it is going to take everyone working together.

As a community our focus should be understanding the science, finding ways to help each other through this and be safe, and expose the weaknesses we see in our community when it comes to transmission. If you are on board with doing all of those things, I don’t care what political party you support.

I am a Shasta County resident of 40+ years. I love Shasta County and I love the people who live here. Their health and safety are important to me because I am also a registered nurse.”

To accept the things we cannot change …

For now, I feel about the non-compliant places much as I do about increasing threats of violence and other scary rhetoric happening on North State social media pages recently: I’m going to do my best to ignore the ugly stuff, and assume that there’s an alphabet soup of capable professionals who are paid to keep an eye open for the rule-breakers, whether the agencies are the ABC or Cal-OSHA, or the FBI, CIA or ATF.

For the sake of my sanity and peace of mind, for today, I choose to trust that those professionals are fully aware and they’re watching, monitoring and taking names and information. I choose to believe that they have things under control.

To keep my mind off all that negative stuff, I’ll focus on those businesses that are doing their best to comply with the state’s purple-tier mandates, even when neighboring businesses break the rules and do what they want.

Feel free to join me in giving a shout out to some of your favorite COVID-compliant North State businesses. What is it about them that makes you a returning regular? Why do you appreciate them so much?

Me? I highly recommend Yesenia’s Fish Taco Salad at La Cabana, or the Special No. 7, which is two beef tacos and one of the best cheese enchiladas you’ll ever taste.

Call in the order to go, and pick it up so you can meet La Cabana’s family in person. Join me in thanking them, and so many other brave and wonderful Shasta County businesses, for their courage, their ethics and their sacrifices.

With any luck, if we all work together, in a few weeks Shasta County will be back on track, chugging down its sturdy tracks, leaving those purple stormy skies behind us; heading for the dawning of a stunning yellow-orange sunrise.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

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