Two sides to COVID-19: Central Coast residents are split on the coronavirus, its impacts, and the state and local governments' response



It started on March 2 with a slight tickle in Susan Robinson's throat. Six days later, both she and her husband, Dave Robinson, started to feel sick. Their symptoms included fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle aches, and rough coughing, and Susan said she had abdominal pain.

LOOKING OUT Susan and Dave Robinson suffered harsh symptoms from COVID-19, and it changed their perspective on the virus. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • LOOKING OUT Susan and Dave Robinson suffered harsh symptoms from COVID-19, and it changed their perspective on the virus.

Susan, a retired gynecologist, had a pulse oximeter in her home. The tool painlessly attaches to a fingertip to measure a person's pulse rate and how much oxygen is in their body—also known as blood-oxygen saturation. According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal reading is 95 percent or greater, and anything below 90 percent is considered low.

"On the 16th, which was about two weeks into it, I was lying in bed and as I breathed out I could hear crackles, respiratory crackles. It wasn't really wheezing, but it sounded like little bubbles," she said.

Susan checked her blood-oxygen saturation levels, and they were at 70 percent. At that point, she had to take a breath every few words when she spoke.

She called her primary doctor, who recommended she head to the nearest emergency room—Twin Cities Hospital. Upon arrival, Susan told the medical staff her symptoms. They did a chest X-ray, checked her white blood cell count.

Susan said the staff didn't seem alarmed about her case, but she'd never felt so sick in her adult life. She went home the same day.

On the day SLO County enforced its shelter-at-home order, March 19, Susan turned 74 years old and she received a positive test result for the novel coronavirus.

Twin Cities called Susan to ask that her husband get tested for the virus, too. Dave tested positive. They were the county's No. 10 and 11 positive cases for COVID-19.

The Robinsons don't know how they became infected. With no history of travel or contact with people who were either sick or had traveled, Susan said it must be that they acquired it through the community.

Today, Susan feels 100 percent, but Dave still has a slight pain when he takes a deep breath.

Post-infection, the Robinsons have decided to stay home for the time being. Susan signed up for the medical reserve corps, made cloth masks to donate to the community, and decided to wear a mask herself if she needs to run an essential errand.

Her experience with the virus, she said, helps her understand the potential severity of it. What she doesn't understand is how something that can affect everyone and anyone has divided the community, state, and country.

"I think, 'This is the United States.' I thought we were better than this. I'm sort of horrified and a little bit frightened," she said.

Pandemic lockdown orders have spawned protest rallies—with some residents fighting to reopen the economy—and controversy about wearing face masks. As people continue to adjust to a "new normal" that's constantly changing, there is a growing split in the way individuals react to anything that has to do with the virus now living among us.

Fighting for freedom

In mid-March, the coronavirus and its impacts were relatively unknown in the U.S. When local officials asked residents to stay indoors due to a public health crisis, many community members were shocked. The goal was to curb community spread of the virus, avoid overwhelming local medical facilities, and reduce the number of positive coronavirus cases overall.

Businesses of all kinds, except those deemed essential, temporarily closed their doors to stop the spread of the virus. According to the state Employment Development Department, California's unemployment rate rose from 3.9 percent in February to 5.3 percent in March to 15.5 percent in April.

As the days went on, SLO County had a lower positive case count than its neighbors. When it became clear that COVID-19's impact on SLO County residents would be different than other areas, some people questioned why they should continue to stay at home.

On April 26, the first protest took place in front of the SLO County Courthouse. A small group of about 15 people wore face masks, stood the recommended 6 feet a part, and rallied for local officials to reopen the economy.

Dylan Neff created the event and said it was just a peaceful protest that anyone could attend. Neff said the "lockdown" was destroying more lives than it was saving.

"Everyone thinks they will die if they catch it. There is a fear campaign running, which has got people too scared to do anything," he said.

It was time, he felt, that people's voices be heard.

"We also have a president on our side and many other experts and officials; that's what gives us the confidence to do this," he said.

Days before the local rally, on April 17, President Trump encouraged rallies protesting states' shelter-at-home orders.

"LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" he tweeted.

The sentiment began to echo.

In May, a second wave of protests hit the Central Coast under the brand, "Stand for Freedom." Coined as a movement to urge local officials to reopen the economy and allow people to go back to work, rallies were held in Paso Robles, SLO, Arroyo Grande, Orcutt, and Santa Maria.

Andy Caldwell, a Republican candidate for the 24th congressional district, spoke at three of the rallies, which ranged between 100 to 700 people. Attendees didn't follow social-distancing guidelines, and most didn't wear face masks.

"All jobs are essential," one sign read.

"Freedom over tyranny," read another.

In late April, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll reported that 80 percent of the public supported strict shelter-in-place policies to limit the coronavirus' spread, compared to just 19 percent who said measures pose unnecessary burdens.

"Majorities of Republicans (61 percent), independents (84 percent), and Democrats (94 percent) support the shelter-in-place orders, though four in 10 Republicans (38 percent) say such orders do more harm than good," the report stated.

FREEDOM FIGHTERS SLO County 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold (left) said that residents who attended the ReOpen SLO County rally were concerned that their "constitutional freedoms are being assaulted." - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • FREEDOM FIGHTERS SLO County 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold (left) said that residents who attended the ReOpen SLO County rally were concerned that their "constitutional freedoms are being assaulted."

On May 8, 5th District SLO County Supervisor Debbie Arnold made the short walk from the County Government Center to the ReOpen SLO County rally after a special board meeting.

"I went across the street to listen to my constituents, but I also went so they knew I was there to support their concerns," Arnold said.

They feel alarmed at the situation the virus has caused, she said. People are concerned that their constitutional freedoms are being taken away and frustrated with poor state leadership, she said. Business owners want to open their storefronts, and churchgoers want to attend their houses of worship.

"A lot of the people that are taking time out to go to a rally like that are really concerned about their freedoms, whatever those freedoms are, and they have all different reasons and freedoms they're trying to protect," Arnold said.

She said the virus has been given more attention than any other seasonal influenza.

"It was amazing the degree to which [SLO County] prepared, but we are prepared to care for coronavirus patients. I think we need to be paying equal attention now to the economy," she said.

Reacting to a virus

The increasing number of low-income individuals who are losing their jobs due to COVID-19 is one of the reasons Santa Barbara County 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam said the economy should reopen.

He said the public health community is doing untold damage by having people wait for their signal that all is well and life can resume. Adam also questioned the way Santa Barbara's public health officials have informed the community about the number of positive coronavirus tests, active cases, and deaths.

"They're not interested in giving exculpatory information. They're more interested, in my opinion, in keeping everybody's hair on fire," he said.

As of May 26, Santa Barbara County reported 580 confirmed community cases of the virus, with 463 who had fully recovered and 98 active cases. Of those, 27 were in the hospital and 10 were in the ICU. The federal prison in Lompoc, which is counted separately from the county, had 971 confirmed cases with 881 fully recovered. So far, 12 people have died from the virus. The majority of the cases outside of the prison have been in Santa Maria with 254 positive cases, 191 of which have recovered, and three deaths.

Instead of providing large-numbered statistics, Adam said officials should be giving the community percentages of the impacts.

To date, the city of Paso Robles has the highest number of positive test cases within SLO County, with a total of 107 out of the county's 258 confirmed cases, as of press time. The total confirmed cases are a cumulation of positive tests that date back to March.

PERSONAL CHOICE SLO County officials have left it up to the individual and the business owner to decide whether wearing a face mask is a requirement. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • PERSONAL CHOICE SLO County officials have left it up to the individual and the business owner to decide whether wearing a face mask is a requirement.

Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said he asked the county why there seems to be prevalence of cases in his city, and the response showed it was due to two areas: a community living situation and an outbreak in a large extended family. Once there is widespread coronavirus testing, Martin said, the community will have a truer picture of what the relative infection levels are across the county.

The longer people are asked to shelter at home, the mayor said, the more irritated everyone becomes because it's changed the way people live their lives.

"People have different levels of trust and different levels of understanding of how government works and how viruses work. And they react based on their understanding, which is all they can do," he said.

Generally, Martin said, human beings want simple answers. If there's a problem, here's a solution and move on.

"Unfortunately, the situation we're in right now does not lend itself to simple solutions. We are just going to have to day by day balance this physical-health-versus-fiscal-health situation," he said.

With the guidance of the state, SLO and Santa Barbara counties are both making reopening plans that reflect public health concerns and updated data regarding COVID-19's presence in the community.

"We're going to row our way upstream out of this, but we need to be rowing together to make that work," Martin said.

Political virus

SLO County Democratic Party Chair Rita Casaverde believes that a message of togetherness is lacking nationwide. She said she's been following the spread of the virus in other countries since the beginning of 2020 and watching how their leaders reacted.

"In our view, it really comes from the top down. We are seeing entire nations that have had a different response, that have not pulled politics in front of science," she said.

LOCAL CONTROL Protesters gather in front of the SLO County courthouse on May 8 to participate in the local ReOpen SLO County rally. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • LOCAL CONTROL Protesters gather in front of the SLO County courthouse on May 8 to participate in the local ReOpen SLO County rally.

She gave a speech from Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra as an example, although she said he's not a perfect example.

"The president went on live TV and gave an address to the nation and said, 'We are a culture that cares about our family and to tackle this crisis we have to take care for our family. The difference is this time our family is not just our brothers and sisters, parents, or cousins. Right now our family is the country,'" Casaverde said.

"When you talk to a country like that from day one," she explained, "you don't leave much space for other thoughts because you've brought everyone together and you show them what the path to success is like."

In the U.S., Casaverde said, Trump downplayed the threat of the virus early on, claiming "the media" and Democrats were trying to use it for political gain. His tone shifted as the number of U.S. cases increased, although he has stated several times that the U.S. has "everything under control."

Casaverde said it feels like it's a "you against them" situation when it comes to the policies, restrictions, and general views of COVID-19. But the divide on the Central Coast and the nation has more layers than the pandemic.

People are divided now for the same reasons people have been divided for the last four years, Casaverde said.

But Republican Party of SLO (RPSLO) County Chair Randall Jordan said the group doesn't see coronavirus as a political issue.

"This is not a political thing. This is not a Republican-versus-Democrat thing at all. This is a freedom question; it's a personal rights question," Jordan said.

Jordan said that the initial goals of shelter-at-home orders have already been met by the greater community.

"The punishment, I won't even say the requirements, the punishment that we are seeing with this shelter-at-home and the essential versus nonessential businesses—we feel that is way overblown for what is proven to be a very benign pandemic," Jordan said.

As of press time, SLO County had a total of 259 positive coronavirus test cases. Three patients were in the hospital, 21 patients were at home in isolation, and 234 have recovered. One person in SLO County has died from COVID-19.

The county's population, Jordan said, is relatively small and has done a good job of preparing local medical facilities in the event there is an uptick in coronavirus cases. But as of now, RPSLO believes the county should be further along in its reopening phase.

"I don't think we should open up the floodgates. I think we should be thoughtful in the way we do open up the county, but people need to start getting back to work and out in the sunshine," he said.

In mid-May, RPSLO adopted a resolution calling for Gov. Gavin Newsom to end the statewide lockdown immediately.

"The only reason that we're taking up the mantle as a Republican Party is because we're seeing a direct violation to our rights, and we want to stand for our Constitution," Jordan said. "We feel that that's one of the only things that separates us from the rest of the world is we've got the greatest form of government in the history of man."

Right or wrong?

To stop community spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wear face coverings in public settings, keep a 6-foot distance, and wash their hands.

"Your cloth face covering protects them. Their cloth face covering protects you," a CDC slogan states.

But individuals on the Central Coast and across the nation can't seem to agree on whether to cover their mouth and nose with a piece of cloth. Some have embraced it while others say there isn't a law that makes them wear one and they're not sick, so why should they?

The World Health Organization recommends that "healthy individuals" should only wear a mask if they're taking care of a person infected with the virus. If a person is coughing or sneezing, the organization also recommends it.

Locally, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department issued an order that temporarily requires the use of face coverings to slow the spread of the virus.

According to the order, which went into effect on May 26 and extends through June 30, "A significant portion of individuals with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and can transmit the virus to others through coughing, sneezing, or talking. Face coverings have the potential to slow the spread of the virus by limiting the spread of respiratory droplets."

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department stated that all individuals, unless an exception applies, must wear a face covering: when inside of or in line to enter any and all businesses; when using public transportation, a private car service, or a ride-sharing vehicle, and drivers must wear a face covering; and all businesses must require employees, contractors, owners, and volunteers to wear a face covering at the workplace

There are a few exceptions, including those who work alone, children under 13 years old, and people who face a medical risk if they wear a mask.

In SLO County, wearing a mask is recommended in a situation when 6-foot distancing is not possible. At a May 8 press briefing, SLO County Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said there isn't enough absolute information about the utility of a mask as a prevention measure. If made properly, used properly, and cleaned properly, cloth masks are an alternative to N95 masks.

"It may be beneficial. It also, in some regards, may be harmful and thus the county has taken a position of it being a recommendation," Borenstein said. "It remains something that we would look to if our situation were to worsen as an additional mitigation measure that might provide some additional protection."

During a May 1 press briefing, Borenstein said there are a number of reasons the masks could be harmful.

"It could be harmful to some people who can't wear a mask. It could be harmful because some of the materials that are used, some of the textiles are made with formaldehyde. It could be harmful from the perspective of a false sense of security," she said.

Wearing a mask has created two camps: those who feel wearing one is responsible and a sign of respect for others, and those who find wearing a mask is a sign of following the crowd without thinking for one's self.

On May 19, New Times posted the story, "Pismo Beach passes ordinance requiring face coverings in businesses," to its Facebook page.

In response, Facebook user Margot Henry posted: "So pleased to hear this. I love Pismo Beach and feel the residents deserve to be protected. Good job passing this ordinance! I pledge to wear a mask while visiting businesses."

Michelle Zamora also commented, saying, "Still not going to wear one!!" Zamora included a photo of sheep with the caption, "Sheeple. Don't know why we follow, we just do!"

As nonessential businesses begin curbside pickup and restaurants open their doors for dine-in services, it's up to each SLO County business owner to require face masks in their establishment or not.

In mid-April, Lopez Lake Marina saw a surge of visitors from the Central Coast and areas outside of the county, escaping the heat. Summer Scott, general manager of the lake's restaurant, store, and boat rentals, said it was an overall positive experience to be a part of visitors' recreational joy.

At the time, the marina business requested that patrons wear a mask in order to enter the establishment.

"The worry of the owner of the marina store, restaurant, and rentals is that we don't want to pass [the virus] along to someone else, and we don't want to be the reason why it got passed along to somebody else," she said.

While many visitors wore masks in the store and restaurant for pickup, others didn't, she said.

"It's just that people are blatantly disregarding and disrespecting others around them. It's not all about them, you've got to consider other people and what they're going through as well and how they're feeling," Scott said.

View from inside

During her Zoom interview with New Times, Susan Robinson sat in a room backdropped by books. At one point, her husband, Dave, and their dog walked by.

"I recognize that for me and my husband, you know, we have a plot of land, two dogs, and our situation could not be more perfect," Susan said.

She said she doesn't mind being home during this time. She has plenty to do and never seems to get bored.

"I can't finish all the things that I have every day on my to-do list, and everybody else is talking about binging on Netflix," she said with a laugh. "I think, 'Where do you find the time?'"

If she were in a different situation, for example, married to an abusive husband with four young children and living in a two-bedroom apartment, Susan said she'd feel very differently.

"That really underscores the awful divide in this country between privilege and nonprivilege," she said.

The divisive reactions to the virus that Susan and her husband survived—and the resulting restrictions, policies, and guidelines—has shed a light on so many of the deep problems in this country, she said. Issues like racism, income inequality, and lack of equal medical care.

"We're not acting like a country. This is not 'e pluribus unum.' We're just pluribus," she said. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Karen Garcia at

Correction: The article incorrectly stated Susan's blood saturation level as 17 percent. It was 70 percent. 


Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Add a comment