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Scarce Middle Ground in North State’s COVID Battle Ground

The North State is the place to live if you’re a COVID-denying, curfew-breaking, face-mask-burning, anti-science, pro-Trump, China-flu-believer. Bonus points for you if you’re in that group and you also own, for example, a restaurant, such as the San Francisco Deli, Dill’s Deli or a slew of other COVID-19 non-compliant Redding restaurants – too many to list here – or the Palomino Room in Red Bluff, all of which openly disregard state COVID mandates, seemingly minus consequences.

It’s not like these places behave like sneaky speakeasies of the 1920s, with curtains drawn and secret knocks and passwords required for quiet entry. Rather, 100 years later there’s a different kind of prohibition backlash: bars and restaurants that remain open in willful defiance of state-mandated COVID shutdowns. This time around, all the lights are on, and patrons post happy photos of themselves at these establishments, as if we’re living in pre-pandemic times.

We live in a region where law enforcement leaders have said from Day 1 of the pandemic that they won’t enforce state public health mandates. Right now, in the game of Red Light/Green Light, many businesses are ignoring the red lights and are running full-tilt as if the lights are green.

Case in point is the Palomino Room in Red Bluff, owned by Carlos Zapata. His bar/restaurant has remained open, despite state restrictions. He encourages other business owners to follow his lead. After all, so far, so good. He’s fearless. He’s still in business.

Even so, note that although Zapata says he’s been “threatened” by Cal/OSHA and “threatened” by ABC, he continues to not just operate his business in defiance of public health bans, but he advertises it on social media with words that suggest he’s unworried about fallout.

Bethel Church and COVID

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention 11,000-member mega church Bethel Church, and many of the members’ belief that 1. COVID is a hoax, or 2. they’re protected from Satan’s virus, or 3. if they get it, Jesus will heal them. Bethel is home to Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, located in Redding, which was more like Bethel School of Supernatural superspreading that drew it worldwide attention. One leader, Beni Johnson, went to the coast with her daughter and simultaneously made a spectacle of herself and mocked masks as stupid, and posted her video on Instagram for the world to see, which also got global attention.

Another leader, shortly after saying he believes following the COVID rules is a sign of love, held a huge wedding for his grandson in the tiny mountain town of Shingletown, despite rules that ban large gatherings.

And we can’t overlook former Bethel music leader and current Bethel member Sean Feucht (aka plague rat), one of the most famous Bethel COVID deniers.

A mob of Bethel believers crowd the pathway for a glimpse of the area where Sean Feucht spoke and musicians performed. Photo by Steve DuBois.

He’s the Bethel’s biggest recent claim to fame and got the most attention of all, not just because of his ties to the White House, but for his nationwide Let Us Worship concert (eh hem, “protest”) tour that was kicked off in earnest by an event beneath the iconic Sundial Bridge in Redding that drew thousands.

Anyway, many Bethel members own businesses, and many of those are welcoming places where the staff may technically follow the rule of law and may wear face coverings, but Bethel patrons can generally be recognized by the lack of face coverings, and zero attempts to maintain social distancing.

Between big Halloween bashes, and BSSM house parties, and outdoor gatherings attended by hundreds crammed together, Bethel carries on as if COVID doesn’t exist.

Imagine all the people

So, given the fact that we live in a blood-red, lily-white and back-the-blue region that lacks any law enforcement of COVID mandates, and the fact that many state agencies seem reluctant to advance beyond threats, what are those who believe that the coronavirus is real supposed to do? How do we know which places are COVID compliant, and which ones are not? How do we support the compliant, struggling business-owners who are losing their shirts on an uneven playing field where cheaters prosper? Most of all, how do we know which places are following public health guidelines and are the safest to patronize?

Those kinds of questions were the impetus behind the creation of the Facebook group Exposing COVID Irresponsibility in Shasta County. The group’s founder has family members who suffer from severe health problems that would put them at risk for not just contracting COVID-19, but dying from it.

“It’s hard to explain the pain you feel when you watch someone you love almost die because they are slowly suffocating to death,” the Facebook group founder said.

“It was traumatizing. I won’t go into the details, just know that it was life-changing and I will do anything I can to keep my family from going through that again.”

Her family members – and other high-risk people – were on her mind when she created the Facebook group. The idea behind the group was all about being informed, and following public safety recommendations during a pandemic.

Here’s its official description about the group: “Exposing Covid irresponsibility in Shasta County to promote the health and well being of our community, in the hopes that we can lower transmission.”

The group is private. It has 343 members who alert one another about which places to avoid, and suggest which follow state guidelines. The group started compiling lists of compliant and non-compliant businesses as reported by their members.

On the one hand, at first, the non-compliant anti-maskers were delighted by the list, because it gave them a guide of like-minded places that they would be happy to support. “Good! Now we know where to go!”

Likewise, it let them know which businesses were sticklers for sticking to the public health mandates, good news for them to know, which they passed along to their Facebook friends.

The reverse reaction was true for compliant citizens, as they felt relieved to learn of places the anti-maskers hated, because it meant those businesses were following public safety guidelines, such as the above-mentioned Cookies and Yogurt business on Eureka Way in Redding. Those were precisely the kinds of places the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility in Shasta County group wished to patronize.

However, all wasn’t rosy here in our region’s purple COVID tier. Some non-compliant businesses were outraged to find their names listed on the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility in Shasta County Facebook page. In fact, one business owner was so angry that she infiltrated the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility in Shasta County Facebook page and copied the names of some of the members who’d posted comments. (For the record, I’m a member of that group, but I’ve rarely commented, so perhaps that’s why my name didn’t make the cut to appear on the list.) Jessica Dill, who owns Dill’s Deli and has kept her restaurant open despite the state’s ban on in-person dining, posted about four dozen Exposing COVID member names on her Facebook page.

“boom assholes you are exposed,” began her post.

Since then, the list of nearly 50  names was shared and re-posted. Some Exposing COVID Irresponsibility members who’d intentionally joined the group under false names to maintain privacy, were outed, targeted and doxed. Some members’ personal details about their lives were published and widely shared.

One Exposing COVID Irresponsibility administrator warned her fellow group members.

“Narcs” was one of the more mild terms. Dill, her friends and Facebook followers used other terms, and posted descriptive memes on their Facebook pages, like this one on Dill’s page.

Bootlickers. Nazis. Commies. Sheeple. Terrorists.

The irony of it all is that many of the anti-maskers, many of whom proudly refer to themselves as true American patriots, were offended that the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility group members dared to exercise their rights to choose which businesses to support, and which to avoid. What the Exposing COVID group saw as information, the non-compliant business people saw as terrorism.

While the COVID compliant and COVID non-compliant groups may seem to have similar goals – support like-minded businesses – there is a significant difference between the two groups: The COVID compliant group doesn’t show up to confront, threaten, picket or harass the non-compliant businesses.

You may recall that’s exactly what happened in late August at the Sprouts Farmers Market store in Redding when a group of self-described maskless “patriots” stormed the store to protest the store’s pandemic mask policies. The protest was organized by “Rally Sally” Rapoza, a Redding Tea Party/State of Jefferson/Re-Open Shasta County regular. Rapoza and friends claimed the store’s mask policy infringed upon their liberties.

Yesterday a similar plan was floated on the milita-lite Stake in NorCal Facebook page. This time Trader Joe’s is the target. Hopefully, it fizzles out and nothing happens. But nothing surprises me anymore. How many times has something stupid happened here that made the news across the globe? I’ve lost count.

Either way, how ludicrous would it be for a bunch of anti-maskers to converge upon Trader Joe’s? Rather than the non-compliant anti-maskers sticking to the large numbers of bars, restaurants and delis where they can carry on and enjoy their potentially coronavirus-spittled vittles, they have nothing better to do than pick on compliant businesses, frequented by compliant shoppers and bully them. Why? What’s the point? What happened to live and let live?

In my perfect world things won’t escalate at Trader Joe’s beyond the lone female anti-masker and her 80-year-old (COVID-vulnerable … just sayin’) father showing up to make a scene for their combined 30 seconds of small-town fame.

Unfortunately, here in the North State we have an increasingly imperfect world where the rhetoric is heating up with threats of violence, which is why I chose to not publish the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility founder’s name here today.

Disturbingly common on social media lately are messages like the one below, responding to someone about whom I prefer to refer by his apt communicable-disease-suggesting initials – VD – calling for action to combat state mandated COVID restrictions:

You are right! Shame on all of us for being asleep! We have A LOT of house cleaning to do! It is horrible. Arresting, raids, shooting is the only way! I wish we could go to court or have some meetings, BUT it is way beyond that! Lets support our military, patriots and leaders who will fight! We have to keep all the crazy people out – communists, socialists, globalists. I think once these bad people see so many body bags, they may learn their lesson.

Bad people“? Who are these bad people? People who comply with public health mandates? People who wear face coverings? People who believe the virus is real?

You may recall that VD was the one who sent out hundreds of signs to businesses for non-compliant businesses to post on their doors to let customers know of their non-compliance, something many of us appreciated, because it served as a STOP sign and allowed us to see from a distance businesses to avoid. Most recently, VD’s been obsessed with going after Shasta County Supervisor Joe Chimenti (a name VD always mispronounces) accusing Chimenti of “destroying” businesses because of the COVID mandates; a bizarre claim since Chimenti is one of five supervisors in a state that has total control over the COVID tier system. VD’s publicly promised to “take” Chimenti’s supervisor seat in a recall, if Chimenti doesn’t vote as VD demands. As if.

And then there are recurring chest-thumping posts by some of the militia men, guys like Jesse Lane and Carlos Zapata, imploring “warriors” to “stand up” and fight, which always begs so many questions: What would the fight look like? Where? How? With what? Who’s the enemy? What’s the objective?

Back to the original topic; the Facebook controversy over the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility Facebook group’s posting of a list of COVID non-compliant businesses, which resulted in one of the non-compliant business owners retaliating by publishing a hit list of the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility members’ names.

This week, the group’s founder expressed exasperation that what began as a simple resource for people who take the virus seriously has resulted in a social media war. Sure, of the hundreds of members in the group, there may have been some who strayed from the group’s original mission, but those were individuals whose posts did not necessary mesh with the group or reflect the leader’s intentions.

The Exposing COVID Irresponsibility leader recently reiterated the point of the group, and shared her frustrations about the attacks on the group’s page, as well as false accusations.

“This group isn’t doing anything wrong, and what we are doing definitely isn’t something new. Many people use services like Yelp to determine where they want to sleep, eat and spend their money. Many of us read these reviews before we choose a hotel, restaurant, or specific business. The context of these reviews may have changed due to COVID, but the concept of reviewing businesses has not.”

Whose rights matter most?

The non-compliant COVID folks want open access to everywhere – like before – COVID be damned. The compliant COVID folks want to feel safe when they leave their homes to visit businesses, because of COVID.

The Exposing COVID Irresponsibility group members aren’t naïve. They live here. Many of them have family, friends and colleagues who do not take the virus seriously. Even so, the COVID-compliant people are weary of being told by the anti-maskers to just stay home if they’re so scared of the virus.

“We don’t have to do that,” said the Exposing COVID Irresponsibility founder. “Just like others have a right to their ‘shopping experience’ — so do we. And we will spend our money in and frequent the places that care about the communities health and well being. And that is our right as consumers.”

For the record, the group’s founder says that they never have and never will push for business closures. That’s not their way.

“Our group does not advocate driving around to find places breaking the rules, and our group does not go into these businesses and cause problems,” she said in her Facebook message.

“But we know that there are businesses in our community who refuse to follow the mandates, and there are people in our community who will not follow guidelines. Knowing these things makes us aware that there are places in our community where it’s simply just not safe for some of us to go. And if we happen to go to these places and see these things, we share it to keep each other safe. It’s pretty simple, if people in our community have the right to not wear a mask and spread their germs everywhere, and businesses have the right to not enforce the mandates, then we also have a right to know where this is happening and to be able avoid these places. How is any of that irrational or hateful?”

Mind your own business!

Basically, the COVID non-compliant customers want to patronize the non-compliant businesses. Many of them view the state mandates as a tyrannical government overreach that’s killing businesses and the economy for a hoax of a virus that’s no more dangerous than the flu, or childhood chickenpox. Suggestions abound, like this one from Red Bluff bar/restaurant owner Zapata, who not only raises bulls in Palo Cedro, but he fancies himself a medical expert, too.

Yesterday a message circulated on social media that drew a line in the sand of sorts with a start date regarding residents’ right to choose, generated by people who are angered by the state-mandated business closures and restrictions.

But it’s not a simple as everyone minding their own business. We are connected to one another. We live in a community where risky behaviors during a pandemic can result in fatal consequences, and when that happens, it becomes everyone’s business. Those non-compliant businesses employ people who may continue working there simply because they need the money from that job, not because they necessarily agree with the non-compliant business owners’ decision to give the governor a one-finger salute. Plus, those non-compliant businesses largely cater to non-compliant customers, which means those businesses are potentially more risky for customers and employees alike as likely virus hotspots.

This guarantees an increase in disease transmission, which means more people get sick, which means more hospitalizations, which means a greater burden upon our local healthcare system, which is exactly what the shutdowns were designed to prevent. Eventually, with hospitals overflowing with COVID patients, even the the non-compliant COVID folks might become COVID believers when they’ve got a burst appendix that needs attention, or when they can’t get that anticipated knee replacement because the hospital is overwhelmed with COVID patients, some of whom they might recognize from when they  let the good times roll in those non-compliant businesses. Of course, the most horrible potential result from the increase of COVID infections would be yet more deaths, adding to the more than 300,000 Americans who’ve lost their lives to COVID-19. Consequences are real. Deaths are real. Facts are real.

My heart goes out to the non-compliant folks and their frustrations. They want life to return to the way it was. We all do! They don’t want the economy to suffer. Who does? Most of all, they don’t want to be bossed around. Hey, we can all relate.

It’s too bad some compromise can’t be reached. For example, what if, as was suggested in the meme above, everyone goes to whatever business they want, and everyone just shuts up and leaves them alone? All would be fine, until the non-compliant folks got sick. What if, when they became super sick with COVID, a special non-compliant hospital could be at the ready, especially for them, maybe at the Shasta District Fairgrounds in Anderson, where Shasta County District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh would surely give his blessing. It could be fully staffed by all the North State medical workers who’ve openly voiced on social media their opinions that COVID-19 is no worse than the common flu, no doubt the same healthcare professionals who’ll refuse the vaccine. No need for special PPE or ventilators, or things like that, because COVID is a hoax, don’t ya know.

But I’m a dreamer.

Seriously, here in the North State, it’s come to this: Nearly everyone here falls into one of  two categories: the COVID-compliant and COVID non-compliant. The divide is deep. What we have here is a growing battle ground with very little middle ground.

Meanwhile, the deadly reality of the pandemic marches on while we fight one another. The war will rage on until we realize that we have a common enemy, and it’s not us. Our enemy is a virus, and if we join forces, cooperate, compromise and do what’s best for the sake of our people, we can beat it.

Or, we can continue to focus on the war, without regard for the mounting casualties, unfathomable loss, and gut-wrenching sacrifice of those who serve at the front lines: healthcare workers and COVID patients’ loved ones.

And before we know it, our shrinking middle ground will become burial grounds. By then, it will be too late.

###

Note from Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency: Anyone can be tested for COVID-19 and same-day appointments are often available. Average turnaround time for tests at the state testing sites is now between 2 and 3 days. Testing not only lets you know your current COVID status, but it also brings down our positivity rate and increases our testing volume, which can help us get into a lower tier. Go to ShastaReady.org and click on “Get tested,” or go directly to https://lhi.care/covidtesting to access state testing.

Doni Chamberlain

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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