The dominoes began to fall swiftly as events around town are postponed and canceled in the wake of news surrounding the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Television media increased their coverage wall-to-wall, and rumblings could be heard of the potential for gatherings to be avoided and then, seemingly suddenly, the closures — not the virus — hit home in the foothills: one Oakhurst school was among the first in the region to close, initially for just one day.
On Thursday, March 12, Yosemite Unified School District Superintendent Glenn Billington informed the community that Yosemite High School would be closed for one day on Friday, March 13. The decision, said Billington, was made out of an abundance of caution — a phrase that would become increasingly common as the weekend evolved.
“…A staff member visited an area of California where there is some level of Coronavirus community spread and is now experiencing flu-like symptoms,” Billington wrote on the district’s website.
“This staff member has not been at school this past week, and we are awaiting the results of testing; at this point it is not a confirmed case. Public Health Officer, Dr. Stanley Paul, has reassured us that the risk of infection is very low.”
While no update on the educator’s condition has been given, the plan was for the school to be deep-cleaned and reopen on Monday, but before the day’s end on Friday, more closures were in place as the pandemic and its associated concerns continued to spread worldwide.
UPDATE 3/19/20: In a statement circulated on Tuesday, Mar. 17, Superintendent Glen Billington informed the community, “We are happy to hear confirmation from the Madera County Health Department that our staff member that has been on self-quarantine has received back test results indicating NEGATIVE for COVID-19 (coronavirus.) The District will continue with our current plan to reevaluate on March 31 the return date for students.
Throughout the weekend, events large and small were canceled and postponed as news from the powers that be introduced the county to what would have earlier been thought an oxymoron: social distancing.
The emails came like a slow-moving avalanche until nearly every event on nearly every calendar was wiped out. Shelves in local stores were cleared of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. You couldn’t even get them on Amazon.
“It is with a heavy heart that I announce the cancellation of …”
“Thank you for your patience as we work together through this highly unusual issue…”
“As our hearts go out to all who have been affected by the outbreak of coronavirus…”
Friday afternoon, the Madera County Health Officer, Madera County Superintendent of Schools and the Superintendents of Madera County public school districts announced public schools would close in Madera County with a re-evaluation set for March 31.
Teachers, staff, administration, kids and, parents all are scrambling to accept the new normal.
“It only took my kids three hours to get me to yell because of fighting,” confessed one mom, speaking for many, in the midst of creating weekly and daily schedules for kids who will now be at home longer than the previously-anticipated spring break.
“I am concerned about not being paid, my paycheck pays the mortgage,” the Oakhurst resident and para-educator continued. “It is very hard to organize continuous education with only one laptop for three kids and a 10th grader with this attitude of, ‘this is our spring break,’ and the other two that need constant direction. Hopefully, the country will appreciate teachers more after all this is said and done.”
Reality continued to intrude on social plans over the weekend as families were advised to hunker down and not even share play dates with toddlers. Items flew off the shelves. Panic spread in ways people hoped the virus wouldn’t. The senior center closed, making alternate arrangements for its weekly lunch. Toilet paper and its availability became a topic of daily discussion and it seemed as though the only good thing happening was the much-needed rain, and even snow, in the region.
On Monday morning, March 16, Madera County’s director of public health, Sara Bosse, announced that Madera County had declared a local health emergency, while reassuring the community that the “risk has not changed.” One case has been confirmed and seven cases are being monitored as of our press time on Tuesday.
The local health emergency, the director explained, enables the county to maintain services, access resources, reassign staff to new roles and implement plans to serve the community. They are coordinating with area health providers to enable testing and in the meantime, she cautioned, call your regular doctor if you have signs of the virus and do not wait until symptoms become overly severe. Follow the guidance of health care professionals, keep seniors and medically vulnerable people isolated at home, stay connected (while ‘physical distancing’) and stay informed.
While bars and wineries were asked to close, restaurants and grocery stores remained open amid schedule changes to accommodate restocking. Store employees were busy with demanding shoppers and an uptick in online ordering. Infant formula and diapers emerged as hot commodities as recipes for homemade baby formula began to appear online.
Local restaurants began to develop policies for curbside service and home delivery. Families shared free resources for keeping kids busy, and offers to babysit or shop for seniors came down like rain. Museums offered photos of their collections online as virtual visits attempt to provide a shadow of what we had previously taken for granted: going where we want to go, doing what we want to do.
By Sunday, local churches were streaming services.
As of Tuesday morning, Yosemite Unified offered free meals for children 18 and under at two locations, Yosemite High School and Coarsegold Elementary, in a district in which some 56.4 percent of students qualify for free and reduced school lunches. Students in the Bass Lake School District are invited to partake of the meals at the same locations. The distribution starts at 11:30 but organizers suggest arriving about 15 minutes early. Starting Monday, the Boys and Girls Club in Oakhurst is also offering free meals from noon to 2 p.m. for any child who needs it. More than 100 meals had been distributed at the elementary school location within the first 15 minutes of the giveaway, held in the regular drop-off line, under tents in the rain.
UPDATE 3/19/2020: The Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst will no longer be serving kids lunches. If you are in Oakhurst, Yosemite High is still serving youth, BGC however continue to serve family bags of food at the Oakhurst Community Center for as long as possible.
“They said they didn’t know what to expect,” said one mom who drove through the long line with her kids in tow. “What they are doing is amazing.”
Breakfast on the first day consisted of juice, string cheese, slices apples and Chex Mix while lunch for these kids wound up being an Uncrustable, milk, an orange and some baby carrots after the hot lunch was taken. Not only did the outing provide the required nutrients, it was also a welcome way to get the kids out of the house for a car ride in the rain.
Presently, the Sierra landscape is showing signs of spring, carpeted in forty shades of luscious green.
“There’s definitely an advantage of being here in the foothills,” offered Rhonda Salisbury of Visit Yosemite Madera County, the local tourism bureau. “If my husband and I want to take a break from home, we can order take-out and head to Bass Lake, Yosemite or the Sierra National Forest and enjoy the outdoors. Listen to and follow what our county, state and U.S. leaders are saying.”
At the visitors center in Oakhusrt, Salisbury continued, “we want to keep our employees and volunteers safe while still being able to help the visitors who are still choosing to visit our area.
“We also want to help our local economy without adding to the spread of the virus.”
Salisbury says her office is in the process of reaching out to local restaurants, shops and attractions to find out what they’re doing so they can pass along the right information.
“We will rebound and tourists from around the world will be back to enjoy our special place on earth,” she said.