How one California county managed to remain coronavirus-free

Within the excessive desert of Modoc County, a distant expanse of principally nothingness between Oregon and Nevada, nearly nobody wears a face masks.

I figured this out one morning final week, after I strolled into the sparse however well-kept workplace of Sheriff William “Tex” Dowdy. He took one take a look at my masks, and a bemused smirk unfold throughout his boyish — and, sure, naked — face.

Then he choked down a chuckle and shrugged.

“Do no matter you need to do,” Dowdy stated. “You’ve gotten a alternative right here.”

A “alternative” of this kind isn’t one thing most of us get anymore — and with good purpose. We’re in the course of a pandemic that has killed greater than 130,000 People, including 6,500 Californians, and, after a short lull, is sending extra people to hospitals than we noticed even in April.

Not wearing a face mask is reckless. However in some unusual method, it appears rather less so in Modoc, the one county in California that has but to report a single case of COVID-19.

Right here, residents greet each other with hugs and hearty handshakes. They exit to lunch with coworkers, sitting elbow to elbow. They chuckle with abandon and slap one another’s backs with out instantly slathering themselves in hand sanitizer.

And but, whereas folks aren’t precisely lining up across the block to get examined, the county’s predominant hospital is empty.

Nobody is aware of why they’ve been spared, though everybody appears to have a principle. Most insist it’s as a result of solely about 9,000 folks dwell within the county, most of them on far-flung farms and ranches dotting four,200 sq. miles of brush and rocky cliffs.

On the very least, the ultra-low people-to-acres ratio of Modoc County in comparison with say, Los Angeles County, raises questions on why the state would use any kind of one-size-fits-all method to preventing the coronavirus.

Modoc County residents watch a Fourth of July parade. Most don't wear face masks despite the threat of the coronavirus.

Residents of Modoc County watch a scaled-back Fourth of July parade. Most individuals don’t put on face masks regardless of the specter of the coronavirus.

(Modoc County Sheriff’s Workplace)

The one metropolis within the county to talk of, Alturas, has visitors lights that blink yellow, and Principal Road is stuffed with extra long-shuttered storefronts than precise working companies. Along with a restaurant, a small fitness center and a movie show that’s nonetheless shut down, there’s a hair salon. It has 4 chairs, and folks inform me that there are by no means 4 folks in there on the similar time.

Dowdy sees himself as defending this lifestyle, often extolling the virtues of “private alternative” and “widespread sense.”

“It’s type of insulting for the state or anyone else to suppose that we don’t have the widespread sense to do the best factor,” he instructed me. “And the best factor is completely different relying on the particular person. All of us have our rights.”

He says he’s not making an attempt “to poke the governor within the chest.”

But it surely was Modoc that was the first county to reopen its economic system, weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom had ordered all Californians to remain residence and to close companies to sluggish the unfold of the virus. Dowdy’s workplace submitted a plan however didn’t watch for official approval from Newsom’s workplace earlier than shifting ahead.

After which, final month, Dowdy was one of many first sheriffs within the state to announce that he wouldn’t be implementing Newsom’s masks order. That prompted the governor to threaten once more on Monday to withhold funding from counties that don’t cooperate with state well being directives, together with ensuring folks cowl their faces in conditions the place social distancing isn’t attainable.

Regardless that any discount in state funding would certainly decimate his already cash-strapped sheriff’s division, Dowdy isn’t backing down.

“I completely assist the truth that if someone desires to put on a face masks, please accomplish that,” he stated final week. “In the event you really feel that that’s some safety for you or your loved ones. I really feel it’s a private alternative.”

I suppose Dowdy figures he’s no Vernon Warnke. Again in Could, Warnke, the sheriff of Merced County, was defiant. He refused to implement the state’s stay-at-home order, as a result of, he argued, the governor didn’t have the best to subject it within the first place, and it result in “financial slaughter.” However now, with the agricultural Central Valley county on the state’s coronavirus watch checklist, Warnke is telling folks to “put on your masks, do your social distancing, wash your arms.”

Issues can change, however Dowdy is adamant. Even when there have been to be an outbreak in Modoc County, he instructed me, he wouldn’t implement the masks order, as a result of residents have widespread sense.

“I believe you’ll see extra folks sporting them, however I don’t suppose it’s one thing that I essentially want to return out and inform folks to do,” Dowdy stated. “It’s very irritating to me to suppose that the federal government believes that we’re so ignorant that they’ve to inform us what to do.”

The sheriff is aware of full effectively what many individuals in additional populous elements of California should consider him.

That he’s shortsighted and egocentric, given the science displaying face protecting helps sluggish the unfold of the coronavirus. Or that he’s merely a product of a hopelessly unreasonable, right-wing atmosphere. (It’s true that almost 72% of voters in Modoc County went for Donald Trump, and the folks soliciting signatures to recall Newsom from workplace don’t should work very arduous.)

However he doesn’t appear to care.

What he does care about is how Modoc County is in a perpetual state of ready. Ready on Newsom to subject extra public well being orders to counties. After which ready for a transparent clarification on what counts as compliance with the state. However most of all, it’s ready for a pandemic that has but to reach.

Early on, the county cleared out its small, rural hospital, telling sufferers to return again later and erecting a white emergency tent exterior for these with COVID-19. It willingly shuttered faculties, in addition to the handful of small companies in Alturas and neighboring Cedarville.

County officers pulled out and distributed the entire heavy-duty face masks and different private protecting gear they’d squirreled away after seasons of wildfires.

“We have been effectively ready,” stated Dowdy, whose workplace coordinates emergency companies for the county. “And that sounds unusual coming from a really, very, very small county, however we have been effectively ready.”

Then, nothing.

The old county courthouse looms large in the Modoc county seat of Alturas.

The previous county courthouse looms giant within the Modoc county seat of Alturas.

(Robert Durell / Los Angeles Occasions)

Residents had resisted the temptation to hoard provides, realizing the county’s already tenuous provide chain — with meals, rest room paper and different items being trucked to a handful of native shops a couple of occasions per week — was being disrupted by the broader pandemic.

Many frightened in regards to the cash-strapped rural hospital being unable to make ends meet with out paying sufferers, and the toll being paid by college students who, moderately than going to high school, have been in troubled households.

The 2 eating places in Alturas have been struggling to outlive, partially as a result of they’d to determine tips on how to deal with supply. Fortunately, some enterprising highschool college students determined to make a enterprise out of it, charging a couple of bucks to carry meals to the farthest reaches of the county.

“Have you ever been up and down Principal Road? There’s fairly a couple of closed storefronts, and that was earlier than COVID,” Dowdy stated. “So we didn’t want any extra of that.”

With out these shops, residents knew, everybody must make the two-hour-plus drive to Redding or Reno simply to get primary provides.

Amongst many different unwanted side effects of this pandemic, it has taken a hammer to present fault traces in rural communities. So, feeling as if they’d little alternative, Modoc County officers agreed to start out reopening the native economic system sooner than different elements of California.

Thus far, Dowdy stated, he hasn’t heard something from Newsom’s workplace to point that Modoc County is out of compliance with the state. However the sheriff admitted that the governor’s messaging is commonly complicated or nonexistent, so he’s nonetheless a bit frightened.

Dowdy isn’t alone on this evaluation. A rising refrain of critics has emerged in latest days, dinging Newsom for being inconsistent, unfocused and tone-deaf. Even in way more populous elements of California, like Los Angeles, it appears unimaginable to get a straight reply about what’s open, what’s closed and, most vital, why.

Heck, I’m nonetheless making an attempt to determine why Newsom closed the seashores however initially let eating places and bars that serve meals — , like potato chips — keep open final week.

It’s no surprise that many in Modoc County, the place antipathy towards massive authorities was already a factor, now really feel confused, slightly duped and indignant that they allowed themselves to belief Newsom’s administration in any respect.

“Our rights as Americans,” Dowdy stated, explaining residents’ fears in regards to the lack of native decision-making. “I really feel like that’s slowly being taken away, and that’s regarding to me.”

And but, making a behavior of refusing to put on a face masks as a result of Newsom ordered everybody to put on a face masks is hardly a hill value dying on — until the purpose is precise demise. That’s a alternative, too.