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As the coronavirus pandemic subsides, Petaluma ponders its path forward

Pedro Toledo remembers the fear and uncertainty that gripped him more than a year ago.

After a Petaluma Health Center employee tested positive for COVID-19 on March 15, 2020, marking the first case of community spread in Sonoma County, health center officials like Toledo, the chief administrative officer, scrambled to brace for what was to come.

“We didn’t know what the impact was going to be,” Toledo said. “But we knew what we were seeing in Washington state and New York.”

The health care network closed and fully sanitized its Rohnert Park facility where the infected employee worked because officials didn’t know how contagious the virus was. It partnered with the county to establish a military-style field hospital across vast swaths of the Sonoma State University campus because health leaders thought a surge of coronavirus patients was imminent.

It tapped into its stores of PPE, a fortunate December 2019 purchase, to protect its workers, but Toledo said there was ongoing worry about their ability to protect the health care agency’s 45,000 patients, many of whom belong to traditionally underserved groups.

“The whole reason we exist is to eliminate health disparities,” Toledo said. “We knew this disease was impacting people of color and low-income communities. We knew it would be our patients that would be disproportionately hit.”

They were right. In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus swept through nursing homes, killing vulnerable seniors, and zeroed in on the county’s Latino population, which accounted for three-quarters of all local infections last summer.

As Petaluma, and Sonoma County, wobble toward recovery from a virus that has killed 312 and infected 29,807 while closing down civic life and cratering the local economy, leaders in health care, education, housing, commerce, senior care and transportation are working to envision what’s next in part by examining the lessons of the past 13 months.

“I think that we’ll never be the same,” said Wendi Thomas, director of nursing for Petaluma Valley Hospital. “Those that have been through this as health care providers are always going to be worried about the next new virus.”

Health care

In early April, when Thomas recounted the initial stages of the pandemic at Petaluma Valley Hospital, the details came in raw, unflinching surges.

“What kept me up at night was making sure…was doing everything I could to make sure we could care for the community and not make our nurses collateral damage,” she said. “They were frightened. I was frightened, but I couldn’t show that. My major focus was to show them that I was so on top of everything, that I could get them all of the PPE they needed.”

As with most U.S. hospitals at the start of the pandemic, Petaluma Valley Hospital was forced into a precarious balance of resources, conserving or over-using some of the most effective personal protective equipment that for years was cycled through via “just-in-time” delivery to cut back on waste.

“We always thought, ‘let’s not fill our store rooms with stuff that might expire,’” Thomas said. “I think that’s going to change forever. I don’t think any hospital right now will want to be in a position where they don’t have at least two weeks of PPE.”

Thomas, who recalled a bustling pre-pandemic Petaluma Valley Hospital filled with vendors, patients and visitors, staff birthday parties and more, said hospitals like hers likely won’t ever go back to having a fully open campus again, either due to patient safety or because visitors are more fearful themselves.

Restrictions on hospital visits led the health care industry to pivot quickly to tele-health.

Petaluma Health Center, which operates in south Sonoma and west Marin counties, areas home to 80,000 residents, offered remote doctors’ visits to patients isolating at home, or to those working multiple jobs who couldn’t take time to visit a health center. Toledo, the chief administrative officer, said the effect was greater access for people who might not normally visit the hospital.

Some of the biggest post-pandemic shifts, said Toledo, are dependent on government action, including continued waivers for remote medicine and greater funding for primary care.

“That’s one thing we’re hoping we’ll be able to maintain,” Toledo said, referring to tele-medicine strategies. “There are strict insurance requirements that prevent us from being able to do that.”

Even with tele-health on the table, Thomas said health care providers may be forced to grapple with disparate health crises in the coming months and years. Residents delaying preventative care could face sobering diagnoses, and a burgeoning mental health crisis is evident in local emergency rooms, Thomas said.

“The age is getting younger and younger; 10, 12, 14, 16-year-olds are having suicidal ideation, needing to visit our emergency rooms due to mental health crises,” Thomas said.

Senior care

As hospitals scrambled to prepare for a potential coronavirus surge last spring, the reverberations of the pandemic’s impact, including the county’s first shelter-in-place order, reached across communities.

At Petaluma People Services Center, which sits at the fulcrum of assistance for some of Petaluma’s most vulnerable residents, the unprecedented shuttering of daily life meant there was more work to do – and quickly.

“We spent many years talking about how we were going to have to transition our Meals on Wheels routing system into an electronic routing system, and we did it in one night,” said Elece Hempel, executive director for the agency. “It was 24 hours of five employees focused on making this transition so we didn’t miss a day of meal delivery.”

People 65 and older account for more than 80% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States, ratcheting up pressure on agencies like Petaluma People Services Center to expand outreach efforts and serve more people who could no longer risk everyday grocery store runs.

The center went from delivering 2,000 meals per month to 10,000 during the height of the pandemic. And for the most important trips, Petaluma People Services Center still showed up to provide rides, even if most of the volunteer drivers were older adults themselves.

“During the pandemic, we really had to pivot and think about how we were going to provide these services safely,” Hempel said. “We had to change a lot of things on the fly.”

In the waning months of the 2020 summer, when the coronavirus continued to ravage the county and our nation, Hempel said officials started to see and hear about physical and cognitive declines. Loneliness weighed heavily on older adults, Hempel said.

So Petaluma People’s Services started a volunteer phone bank to make daily calls. Because about 70 older adults regularly attended in-person meals at the center, Hempel said officials reasoned there was need for about 70 calls per day. Volunteers are now making 3,000 calls daily – across the county.

“The number of people able to survive COVID because of that is amazing,” Hempel said. “We still probably get four requests per day from seniors who would like a phone call from somebody. Some still look forward to that call every single day.”

The pandemic, Hempel said, revealed unmet need in a variety of areas, including for older adults. And it will force city, county, state and federal officials to reckon with how it treats our aging population.

Hempel praised Petaluma for its vow in 2019 to become an “age friendly” city, but cautioned that it must be an ongoing effort – for municipalities everywhere.

“You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to be age friendly,’” Hempel said. “I think one of the lessons learned is there are pockets of people who are 60 or older who are not necessarily accessing senior services, but they need to be connected in a way that, when they do need help, we need to figure out how to provide those services.”

Housing

Hempel has become well-versed in managing crisis and calamity, pivoting from wildfire evacuation assistance to homelessness services to overseeing her organization’s response to elder abuse.

After months of reacting to the wide-ranging fallout from the pandemic and economic downturn, Hempel said what keeps her up at night these days is what she doesn’t yet know.

“Asking for help is really, really hard, and I worry about what’s happening behind closed doors,” she said. “The impact of COVID wasn’t just on those living in poverty, it hit everyone, especially with housing. Hence, why we have 600 applications for rental assistance right now.”

In a city already wracked with a high cost of living and too few housing units to satiate demand, the economic devastation of the pandemic has added a new layer of complexity – and urgency – to the push to ease housing instability.

Dave Alden, a Petaluma engineer who leads an urban growth group, said he’s noticed while Petalumans were hit with job losses and an economic crisis, housing costs continued to soar. In Sonoma County, home prices grew by 12% between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of this year, according to a Compass Real Estate Bay Area Market Report released this month.

That report shows median home prices on Petaluma’s west side hit $945,000, with prices reaching $745,000 on the city’s eastern half.

The trend extends beyond Sonoma County. Statewide, the median price for a single-family home reached $758,990 last month, charting a nearly 6% increase since December and a 24% jump since March 2020, according to the California Department of Finance.

“We had a housing problem before the pandemic, there’s no question there. But the pandemic just made it worse,” Alden said.

Though protections like an eviction moratorium helped individual renters, Hempel said she expects fallout once the state bill expires this summer, and is concerned that many landlords who use a rental property as cornerstone income will also rack up debt.

As the city embarks on its General Plan update and takes a hard look at its land use, zoning and building policies, North Bay Organizing Project’s Petaluma chapter Co-Chair Amber Szoboszlai said last month she’s hopeful the city will make decisions that address inequities in housing, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic’s economic toll.

Sonoma County renters amassed $30.2 million in rent debt across 9,345 households through mid-March, according to the most recent report by Bay Area Equity Atlas and Housing NOW! California. Low-income households that bring in less than $50,000 and people of color account for 77% of the rent debt statewide, with 80% reporting loss of income due to the pandemic.

“The pandemic has really emphasized that renters are bearing the brunt of this crisis,” Szoboszlai said.

Education

As president of a junior college founded a year before the Spanish Flu, and one that has weathered regional power shutoffs, floods, fires and drought, Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong said he’s not surprised about the resiliency of his campus.

“Through these natural disasters, we’ve learned how to operate in a high-functioning way,” Chong said. “What has surprised me is what we’ve been able to learn from it.”

One lesson wasn’t available during the college’s first encounter with a deadly pandemic: remote learning.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck Sonoma County last March, 93% of course offerings at Santa Rosa Junior College required students to visit physical classroom spaces.

Chong still marvels at the idea, and how staff flipped that number on its head in a matter of days.

“Literally overnight, over a period of about two weeks last year,” Chong said. “I think we’ve done an incredible – if not outstanding job. The credit belongs to the faculty and the staff.”

He said he can’t imagine going back to such a split now that the college – professors and students alike – have seen the benefits of remote learning.

The college also took advantage of a largely empty Petaluma campus, regularly home to 6,400 students, to complete $13.9 million in construction projects, including a new student welcome center.

Just as the pandemic accelerated construction projects, Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Gary Callahan said COVID-19 also forced innovation in education, from apps to audio amplification in classrooms.

The remote world has provided more of a challenge at Petaluma’s Old Adobe School District, where new Superintendent Sonjhia Lowery has had to build trust with teachers, parents and top district officials on the fly and largely behind computer screens.

Lowery, who started with the district last July, said building that necessary trust has been a special challenge.

Lowery commended district teachers for working hard to build relationships with students over Zoom, and she said teachers are already taking those lessons into the east Petaluma district’s physical classroom spaces this spring as hybrid instruction has resumed.

But Lowery said she’s not eager to return to normal, “because normal didn’t serve all of our students.”

For Lowery, that means a focus on equity issues exposed during the pandemic.

It also likely involves much more technology and online instruction.

“I believe the remote learning option is here to stay. That will become a part of the fabric of parent choice in our country, and particularly here in California,” Lowery said. “Especially in a region like Sonoma County, which has been plagued by natural disasters. The lessons we’ve learned in the past year I believe allow us to plan better in those situations.”

Social and civic life

Around mid-March of last year, Petaluma resident Joshua Simmons discovered something he hasn’t had for a while – spare time.

No longer commuting to San Francisco for work, Simmons, who has experience in community organizing and the tech sector, felt like he finally had the bandwidth to become more engaged in local politics after moving back to Petaluma in 2016.

“The pandemic was huge, it was devastating in so many ways,” Simmons said last week. “But if I wasn’t forced to work from home, I would not be as engaged of a citizen or resident as I am today.”

Soon after the county shut down large portions of civic life, Simmons started to watch nearly every city council meeting and dove into local social media channels devoted to local government and city affairs. Last summer, Simmons joined the Technology Advisory Committee and launched Petaluma Civics, a platform designed to iron out technical barriers and make government meetings easier to access.

“Not only did things become more accessible when the pandemic hit, but then we had the movement for Black lives and a resurgence in activism after the murder of George Floyd,” Simmons said. “Those two things really changed the landscape of what it means to be an engaged community member in Petaluma.”

Simmons said the Technology Advisory Committee is in discussion with city officials to ensure meetings remain virtually accessible long after the pandemic, and is working to expand his Petaluma Civics project.

As the crises of last year forged new bonds and virtual spaces for people to connect over civic issues, organizations and groups across the city similarly jumped to Zoom screens.

John Crowley, co-owner of Aqus Café, a popular gathering place known for hosting scores of pre-pandemic meet-ups, talks and art events, wasted little time translating the café’s communal spirit into the virtual realm. He launched a daily coffee hour, attracting up to 50 people each morning last year, and debuted a weekly online poetry night.

Yet as popular as the Zoom events have been, Crowley says they’re no substitute for the real thing.

“From the café’s perspective, I think we are all really waiting to get back in a room together, to give each other a hug and shake hands,” he said. “We are missing human connections, and I think the pandemic gave us time to think about what’s important in life.”

Shopping

Onita Pellegrini, CEO of Petaluma’s Chamber of Commerce, said some of her best purchases have been the spontaneous ones, when a window display catches her eye or when she wanders into a small store to discover the perfect gift.

But Petaluma’s leisurely, pedestrian-focused downtown shopping atmosphere, which Pellegrini considers the city’s leading charm, nearly disappeared during the pandemic, when many locally-owned businesses watched their sales plummet precipitously.

“Our downtown is wonderful and boutiquey,” Pellegrini said. “But if you’re not going down there to have lunch or go to work or get a haircut, then you’re not being exposed to things and you’re not doing your normal retail buying.”

Without the reliable foot traffic that usually streams through Petaluma’s historic downtown, the predominantly locally-owned shops there continued to suffer long after the county’s most strict shelter-in-place orders were lifted and doors were once again allowed to open.

Ingrid Alverde, Petaluma’s director of economic development and open government, said retail sales tax numbers were down 19.4% last calendar year, with the highest losses in the first half of 2020.

Though federal loans helped buoy some businesses, city officials also launched a triage operation for its historic downtown in the face of pleas for help. The city offered an online shopping platform, Shop Petaluma, and let businesses tap low-interest loans.

Business owners who once counted on events like Butter and Egg Days, the Veterans Day Parade and holiday shopping to bring in throngs of customers, were thrown into a world of e-commerce, with many counting the pandemic as the sole motivation for establishing an online presence.

“The pandemic has accelerated trends, like the move to online environments,” Alverde said. “That was already starting before, but many retailers either increased their online commerce or invested in one during COVID.”

As the year continued, Petaluma also saw a resurgence of the “shop local” movement. Several downtown businesses partnered to create holiday-themed gift offerings, and hundreds of residents purchased Shop Petaluma gift cards, injecting more than $28,000 into local businesses.

“During all this, there was a kinship with the community, and you saw that with buying power,” Pellgrini said. “We’re going to have lost businesses, there’s no doubt about it. Those that hung on, they really just hung on. But if we continue to rally and shop local, I think that will carry us into recovery.”

Transportation

Earlier this month, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit staff showed the agency’s board of directors a video that will serve as the commuter rail line’s best post-pandemic pitch to the public.

Tentatively called the “Welcome Back” campaign, the aim is to get people back on board the 3.5-year-old train network that has battled a variety of calamities largely to a standstill, but has taken its biggest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are going to have choices based on their comfort level,” said SMART Board member and Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. “That’s what this campaign is about.”

Although ridership numbers have crept up in the past month – likely due to the return to in-person learning in Marin and Sonoma counties – Rabbitt, who also serves on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said SMART ridership, overall, was trending down. And he said it could take a decade for regional public transportation ridership numbers to rebound after the pandemic.

“In terms of public transit, for sure – it’s the one thing that’s been hit the hardest,” Rabbitt said. “We saw numbers drop precipitously.”

Rabbitt said the only people who continued to take SMART during the pandemic had no other choice.

Petaluma City Council member D’Lynda Fischer, who serves with Rabbitt on the Sonoma County Transportation Authority Board of Directors, said a key question for public transit agencies is how to make it appealing to all.

“The real question is how do we provide transit not just for people who can’t afford a car – but really provide an alternative for people who do have cars?” Fischer said. “How do we make it sexy, is my question.”

Rabbitt had his own question.

“The big issues there is what will transit look like after?” he said.

One possible answer taking shape in Sonoma County involves consolidation of transportation agencies, both to standardize wayfinding for passengers and to create efficiencies within government agencies. Discussions about bringing Petaluma Transit, Santa Rosa CityBus and Sonoma County Transit under one roof have popped up occasionally in the past, but Rabbitt said the pandemic may be the spark needed to make it happen.

“To tell you the truth, I think because of the herculean shift in public transit because of the pandemic, now’s the time to look at what does that look like in the future,” Rabbitt said. “Could we have a much better system while doling out fewer resources?”

Both Fischer and Rabbitt see the pandemic as an opportunity to enact change. At the city level, Fischer wants to see an emphasis on bicycle infrastructure, including streets designated solely for bikes. Amid the rush to save public transit through billions in federal relief, Fischer said there is plenty the city can do now at fairly little cost to taxpayers.

“I really do see this as an inflection point,” Fischer said, adding that the idea of getting back to normal turns her stomach. “Normal wasn’t working. No, let’s reimagine where we need to go. We’ve got a lot of work to do. And we just can’t do it fast enough.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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