California Today

California Beaches: A (Photo) Study in Contrasts

Monday: The weekend’s heat wave may be a window into the future. Also: A talk with Marin County’s health officer, and the closure of the Noriega Hotel.

ImageExhibit A: Huntington Beach on Saturday.
Credit...Apu Gomes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Good morning.

Did you go to the beach this weekend?

If you did, you were among tens of thousands who, as The Orange County Register and The Ventura County Star reported, swarmed the coast amid the year’s first heat wave — in spite of pleas by Gov. Gavin Newsom to consider staying home.

[Track every coronavirus case in California by county.]

Many of the beachgoers, officials said, were from neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego Counties, where beaches have been closed in efforts to keep people distanced.

The contrasting scenes — as you can see — illustrate the challenges facing state and local leaders across California and beyond as they try to maintain social distancing measures that don’t always exactly match, while summer approaches.

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Credit...Reed Saxon/Associated Press
Credit...Michael Heiman/Getty Images
Credit...Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Dr. Matt Willis, 54, is Marin County’s public health officer. He is also one of the county’s most recent Covid-19 patients. On March 23, Dr. Willis announced his positive test results via YouTube.

Mara Kardas-Nelson, from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, caught up with Dr. Willis, who is now back at work. This interview has been edited for clarity.

What is it like to have this?

When you’re diagnosed with Covid-19, the question is: Which group am I going to fall into, the one with mild symptoms or the one that needs to be hospitalized? That uncertainty is a real challenge.

I started with the flu, fevers and chills, and then I felt better for a couple of days. I was optimistic that I would be better in a week. But then I had numbness in my hands, ringing in my ears, diarrhea and nausea, loss of taste and smell. I fell into the severe group. I literally spent 10 days in bed. I’ve never had anything like that before in my life. I was dependent on my wife, who is a physician, and three kids for everything.

I eventually went to the emergency department because I seemed to be getting worse. Saying goodbye to my wife at the E.R. door was one of the harder aspects of my illness. I knew that if I was hospitalized it might be a really long time before I saw my family again. So when the chest X-ray came back normal I decided I wanted to go home.

It sounds like you had a lot more support than most patients. How has your experience of being dependent affected the way you think about care others need?

Up until this point, our efforts have been around preventing a surge in patients at hospitals. My illness reminded me of the obvious: Underneath that tip of the iceberg there are a bunch of people who are really sick but not in the hospital, and they may be sick for weeks, and fully dependent for everything. If I were a single mom, there’s no way I would have been able to manage my kids, much less myself.

For me, one of the lessons from my illness is recognizing that we are still defining what we need to manage society in the era of Covid-19.

Have you made any policy changes based on your experience?

From a public health perspective, we’ve been focused on flattening the curve. So we’ve relied on others to take care of other really obvious and everyday needs, like meals and child care.

The first step is just recognizing that there’s a gap that needs to be filled. Our social services can care for children when parents are sick, but that is a small team based on very strict criteria that needs to be expanded.

You were gone for about two weeks. What were you most surprised by when you came back?

I became a patient just after we put the shelter-in-place order in, and when I resurfaced it was like, “Wow! We did pretty well.” The curve really has been flattened. Our hospitals are well protected; they have ample empty beds.

But we need to be thoughtful about the next stage. Part of the learning curve for me is understanding the uncertainty of my own course of illness. This is a powerful and unpredictable virus. I underestimated it and I have a lot more respect for what it can do, and a lot more humility around all that we don’t know.

Credit...Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

In 2011, The Times wrote about Bakersfield’s Noriega Hotel in an article whose headline declared, “The Spotlight Finds a Basque Shepherds’ Canteen.”

The restaurant and longtime boardinghouse, the oldest of a handful of institutions that for decades have served Basque farmers, had won a James Beard Foundation award for being an “American Classic.”

Bakersfield residents would tell you that was an understatement. Noriega’s, as it’s called, was the crown jewel in a city whose cultural gems are too often overlooked.

Diners sat shoulder to shoulder and ate family style from heaping plates of fried chicken and oxtail stew.

The late Los Angeles food legend Jonathan Gold had a soft spot for Bakersfield’s Basque cuisine, and Noriega’s in particular.

Noriega’s owners, the sisters Rochelle Ladd and Linda Elizalde McCoy, had never traveled to New York City, but did to accept the Beard award.

“If I can make it through this weekend, maybe my life can get back to normal,” Ms. McCoy told The Times in 2011.

Nearly a decade later, that normal is no more, the restaurant’s owners announced on Friday, according to The Bakersfield Californian: Even when restaurants are allowed to reopen to diners, the Noriega Hotel won’t be among them.

“It’s sad, but it’s just a sign of the times,” Ms. Ladd told the paper. Even before the pandemic, the decision to shutter was a long time coming.

When I first visited Noriega’s sometime in 2011, I felt a sense of reverence that verged on anxiety.

I’d been instructed to order a Picon punch at the bar. I did while we waited for the seating, and I tried not to drink it too fast.

I don’t recall exactly we ate — blame time and the punch — but I do remember the warmth and conviviality among the diners, whether we were rookies or regulars, passing the bread. The meal was comforting and delicious.

[Read about the ethics of takeout in the pandemic.]

My colleague Kim Severson wrote about the choices restaurateurs are grappling with, the infinite logistical questions about how to keep diners spaced apart, how to protect servers and cooks as they work, and whether it’s possible to reopen at all.

Although there have been efforts to help, such as California’s new program paying restaurants to feed seniors in need, Kim wrote that it’s all unimaginably daunting for an industry that runs on razor thin margins.

Still, I’m trying to remain hopeful that institutions like Noriega’s will have a place in California when we’re on the other side.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.