In the end, Merced County was the last purple-tiered county standing on California’s pandemic map, an ignoble distinction that signaled coronavirus remained widespread and indoor dining and bars were supposed to stay closed.
But that’s not how things rolled here in this San Joaquin Valley county, home to miles of almond orchards and headquarters of Foster Farms, which briefly shut down its poultry processing plant after a COVID-19 outbreak last summer.
Many restaurant owners have been welcoming patrons inside for weeks if not months, bars have been bustling and at a pool hall on Merced’s Main Street early last week, a billiards tournament was in full swing.
So when the county finally advanced to the less-restrictive red tier on Wednesday — after contesting the state’s rules and complaining of political punishment — there was little need for celebration.
Like moonshiners during Prohibition, Merced County’s been partying for months.
“It’s people like me who love to be social,” said Ellen Sevilla, sitting at the bar of Whiskey River Saloon in Atwater that’s been open for nearly three months, with patrons often elbow to elbow and country bands playing on the stage — regardless of the rules prohibiting it. “I would have gone anywhere that was open, whether it was Turlock, Atwater or Merced. I don’t care!”
Not everyone is ignoring the rules here. Chain restaurants and a number of eateries across the county have kept their dining rooms closed through the pandemic and followed safety guidelines. Most people around the downtowns wear masks. But Sevilla would have found plenty of options.
Flouting coronavirus rules has been an open secret around this county spanning Highway 99 and Interstate 5, where the Southern Pacific freight trains whistle throughout the day. The Cue Spot on Main Street, with plate glass windows spanning its storefront along Main Street, did nothing to disguise the more than 50 people competing in a billiards tournament last week.
As Californians prepare to put the state’s color-coded COVID reopening rules behind them, Merced County has emerged as a central character in a story whose moral could be debated for years: Was this last purple place on the map a product of its own doing or a victim of circumstance?
For much of the pandemic, a number of local leaders balked at the state-mandated lockdowns. The county — home to UC’s youngest campus — leans Democratic and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. But some of the top law enforcement officers and politicians declared their conservative bona fides early on and have taken swipes at Gov. Gavin Newsom, now the target of a recall campaign. Last May, Sheriff Verne Warnke cited the U.S. Constitution for his decision not to enforce the rules limiting indoor activities and wearing masks.
“The citizens themselves can make informed decisions on how to proceed and protect their lives and livelihood and not the governor of a state,” Warnke said back then. “Remember that the people elected a governor, not an emperor.”
By then, 200 of Merced County’s 287,000 residents had been infected with the virus and six people had died. By last week, more than 31,000 people had been sickened over the course of the pandemic and 450 had died. Overall, Merced ranks eighth among California counties for the most COVID cases per 100,000 residents — and 10th highest in deaths — just behind many of its Central Valley neighbors.
Along with the sheriff, Atwater Mayor Paul Creighton made headlines last spring when he proclaimed his town just north of Merced a “sanctuary city for all business” — a dig at Bay Area cities that consider themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants.
This past week, on the day Merced County moved up to the red tier, Creighton told the Bay Area News Group that the color-coded tiers were political and meaningless and mocked Newsom’s early suggestion of adding a final “green tier” that would lift nearly all restrictions.
“We’ve been in the green tier since May,” Creighton said Wednesday, citing the month he declared his city open for business. “So we don’t play the kindergarten color game the governor put out. Adults are adults.”
Without enforcement, however, locals who hadn’t been following the details of the tier system were left a bit confused. “If they don’t want us to eat indoors, why are they open?” asked Blake Babb, 26, eating with friends at an indoor corner table at Destino’s on Merced’s Main Street early last week, a mask hanging from one ear.
County officials had blamed a lab’s backlog and a one-day “data dump” of positive coronavirus cases for keeping it mired in the purple tier. Merced petitioned the state and, a day after Inyo County became the 57th of California’s 58 counties to advance to the red tier, won. After six months in the purple tier, Merced County could finally, legally, resume indoor dining at 25% capacity. Bars that don’t serve food — and crowded pool halls — are still forbidden.
None of that seemed to matter to Rafael Cornejo, 66, owner of Atwater’s Isabella’s Restaurante, where a ceiling mural of Jesus Christ floats above the diners. “I never shut down. I believe in fighting,” he said. “To me, you’re not going to put an 80-year-old outside when it’s cold or freezing.”
The flagrant violations didn’t sit well with a number of locals, who still worry about the virus’s spread.
“I know businesses are suffering and people are starved for normalcy again,” said Robin Rahman, 29, sweeping up after a client at Grizzly Barber in Merced, “but the longer people ignore the rules, the worse it’s going to be. My mom is a nurse. We know to take it seriously.”
Like everywhere, the impact on those who followed the rules has been severe. Another local drinking establishment, the Partisan bar that had just been renovated and opened at the start of the pandemic, has been closed for a year.
Daron McDaniel, chairman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors, had to shutter his festival and concert business — but he’s not about to blame indoor dining for the county’s infection rates.
“I don’t think the spread is coming from the restaurants, absolutely not,” he said.
He also doesn’t blame Foster Farms for its outbreak last summer and another in December, either. More than 400 workers were infected at the plant, according to a lawsuit by the United Farm Workers union, and 9 people died. In an impoverished valley town with immigrant families living in close quarters, McDaniel believes much of the virus spread in homes and in carpools to the factory.
The Livingston plant employs 3,500 people, vital for the region’s economy. Foster Farms came under fire from the county health department last summer for stonewalling its reporting of infection numbers. Ever since, however, the company has become a major provider of vaccines in the county, inoculating “a vast majority” of its workers, according to company spokesman Ira Brill, who showed up last week to discuss the outbreak at the company-owned Foster Farms Cafe next to the plant — which was diligently offering take-out only of its chicken fried steak, chicken nuggets salad and filet of chicken sandwich.
Merced County has struggled for decades, often ranking among the state’s highest for unemployment, teen pregnancy and poverty — and it’s still recovering from the 2008 foreclosure crisis. It often gets overlooked by state officials, local leaders say, and the state’s response to the pandemic was no different. The slow rollout of vaccines to rural counties, including Merced, sparked frustration among county supervisors as well as the county health director who addressed them during a January meeting.
“We’re essential enough to feed the state, and the world, but we’re not essential enough to keep from dying,” Dr. Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp told supervisors, more than a month before receiving a greater vaccine supply.
But now, California’s last county to emerge from purple is moving on.
“People are like, I’m done with this,” said Amy Mauzy, 46, whose family has lived in Merced County for six generations and was dining outdoors in downtown Merced this past week. “I don’t want to do this anymore, and I shouldn’t have to.”