The pandemic is ongoing, but deaths and hospitalizations are way down, and California’s Covid-19 State of Emergency ends February 28. Let’s review Stockton’s pandemic experience.

As of this month, San Joaquin County reported 209,351 total confirmed cases and 2,406 deaths. For perspective, 9/11 claimed 2,977 victims. Covid is San Joaquin’s own 9/11.

One of thousands nationwide. But unlike 9/11 Americans were not united by this crisis.

“I felt like my rights were being violated,” said Dino Ballin, co-owner of Pomp Hair Company.

Ballin famously defied the state’s third lockdown and kept open his Lincoln Center salon. And did so publicly.

Trying to operate responsibly, he installed a disinfectant floor mat and hand-pump stations. He made stylists wear gloves, masks, and face screens. He limited customers and spaced chairs.

The empire struck back. Two days before Christmas 2020, a group of state officials marched in and slapped Ballin and his employees with misdemeanor citations for endangering the public health.

Ballin became both a cause celebre and a study in the ethical complexities of the lockdown.

“Almost every hair salon in town stayed open,” Ballin said, “but they did it behind papered windows and shuttered doors. Every law enforcement agency knew. They were all going in there to get their hair done, police deputy sheriffs, council members, everybody was doing it. I didn’t want to take that route.”

Ballin says the Proud Boys contacted him after his bust saying, “We’ll come down there with 1,000 guys with guns, nobody will get to you.” Alex Jones of Infowars offered to champion him.

Ballin said “no thanks” to both. Yet owing to his public stand Ballin feels typed as a wingnut. He says he’s a Reagan Republican, socially liberal, a vegetarian for environmental reasons, an employer of single moms/sole breadwinners who tried to stay open responsibly.

The previous District Attorney declined to prosecute him. Ballin ran for county Supervisor. He finished third.

Another dissenter, Michael Midgely of Midgely’s Public House, simply stayed open. Customers were two deep at his bar. Midgely complained at “totally unfair” lockdown rules that allowed big retailers such as Target, Home Depot, and Safeway to remain open.

“They're just like handpicking our industry for some reason,” he said in 2020. “It doesn't make any sense.”

Perhaps it makes more sense in retrospect. According to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, states that did not lock down suffered more deaths.

“If California had Texas’ death rate, 27,000 more people would have died here,” a press release says. “If California had Florida’s rate, that figure jumps to approximately 56,000 more deaths.”

I wonder how many of the 2,977 county deaths trace to people who flouted the lockdown. Some undoubtedly do.

I guess you could argue the mas and pas should have remained open and the chains closed. If that were even feasible.

Midgely was among those who called for city officials to declare Stockton a “sanctuary city” exempt from lockdown. But cities that did were denied millions in relief funding.

Stockton got north of $100 million. That money allowed City Hall to provide “unprecedented” community support, said City Manager Harry Black.

“I’m grateful that we were able to provide PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) resources to the community, that we were able to expend more than $4 million emergency rental assistance to more than 5,000 households, that we were able to provide basic safety net support in terms of food to thousands of households,” Black said.

The city’s website adds that by 2021 1,044 small businesses received $3,000.

Still, numerous businesses closed, among them Village Barber Shop, Toot Sweets, Dennis Shea Shoes, Cost Plus, The Yoga Center, the Trinity Parkway Panera, and Saigon.

Other business reduced hours, unable to hire enough staff.

Toot Sweet is one of numerous Stockton businesses that closed during the pandemic. (Michael Fitzgerald)

On the upside, the city cleaned up 707 truckloads (1,088 tons) of trash from homeless camps. Relief dollars underwrote FlavorFest, a weekend event that drew 10,000 people to Weber Point.

“We were confronted with the greatest threat to society in more than 100 years,” Black said. “There was no playbook for that. But in my view, we as a nation, we as a state, and we as a city, engaged the threat and the crisis in perhaps the smartest and most strategic way anyone could have. As a result, we’re still standing.”

The Council enacted both a residential and commercial rental property eviction moratorium. Both expire Feb. 28—a disappointment for renters, a hallelujah for landlords.

The city argued moratoria were needed to avert more homelessness, hardship, and bad health outcomes. Landlords howled they still had to pay mortgages, property taxes, and insurance.

By one account, half the landlords who applied for rental assistance never got any. And if tenants stiffed utility bills, the city charged landlords.

The upshot is many renters kept a roof over their heads, but an unknown number of fed-up landlords sold rental properties to home buyers, tightening the rental market.

The city went online and continued to function. The courts had a harder time of it. Cases slowed as courtrooms closed.

At the District Attorney’s Office, “Unfortunately, we had staff out sick on numerous occasions with COVID-19, but adapted …” said spokesperson Elisa Bubak. “We implemented telework schedules, utilized virtual meeting options, and collaborated with the courts and local law enforcement to move forward with as many cases as possible.”

Students and families were thrown a curve when schools closed. Stockton Unified, the city’s largest school district, closed in March, 2020, going virtual. The district did not reopen for over a year.

When it did, thousands fewer students returned. “We are making great efforts to decrease chronic absenteeism,” said Stockton Unified Spokesperson Melinda Meza.

Fewer students means fewer government dollars for schools, as school budgets are determined by Average Daily Attendance.

The pandemic stretched hospitals to the breaking point. Many health care professionals went above and beyond. Others flamed out. Adventist Health, Lodi Memorial, and Dameron Hospital needed staffing help from the Department of Defense. San Joaquin General received assistance from the National Guard. Health workers deserve such acclaim and gratitude.

Today, “Mostly it feels like business is back to usual,” said Tim Quinn, CEO of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce. “We’re seeing a lot of new businesses opening up. We’ve done a lot of new ribbon-cutting this year.”

Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: mfitzgeraldstockton@gmail.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Let's not hide the fact that many residents took advantage of the eviction moratorium and made lives hell for landlords, from not paying rent and utilities to violating their leases doing all sorts of crimes and property damage. There should have been exemptions in the moratorium in the beginning to protect both tenant and landlords.

  2. I remember in 2020, South Stockton faced the highest death and transmission rates of COVID in the State. The Board of Supes held the American Recovery Act Dollars for a long time and Stockton finally got more testing sites about a year into the pandemic. Tom Patti was Chair of Board of Supes at the time , and decided a bus for the Sheriffs Department was more important than resources for our underserved communities public health.

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