For years, Hollywood lied about Orange County, telling the world we were all wealthy, White and conservative.
Never mind that the county’s reality – as tracked by economic data and census figures and election results and our own eyeballs – is closer to the opposite. Films and TV peddled a bizarre vision of the county and, for the most part, locals shrugged. An outdated public image might’ve been amusing or vaguely irritating, but it was never a crisis.
Then came an actual crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a health calamity, an economic meltdown and a political failure rolled into a single, awful, desperate, year-long gasp. And, locally, it’s proving to be one other thing as well – a mirror.
While the pandemic might be temporarily altering the county’s lifestyle – we’ll get back to surfing and Ferrari driving, or working two jobs and struggling to make rent, soon enough – it is exposing the growing, stark contrasts that define the real Orange County, wealth and poverty; conservative and liberal; White and non-White.
It took a year of the coronavirus to show just how wrong the Orange County cliche actually was.
One disease, two families
“We’ve just lived in a weird kind of bubble,” said Annette Scalla, a 54-year-old mortgage industry executive in south Orange County.
Actually, it’s not at all weird. Over the past year, a lot of people have lived in bubbles. The same lockdown rules that have slowed the spread of disease have also forced every household to handle the pandemic on their own.
And the Scallas’ experience of the pandemic, when compared with the pandemic experienced by the Trejo family in north Orange County, shows just how tragically different two bubbles can be.
In the Scalla house, which includes mom and sole breadwinner Annette, an adult daughter and a teenage son, the past year has been difficult but not horrific.
Scalla said her son’s high school has been partially open during the pandemic and much of his class time is online, so she worries that he’s losing ground. She added that her daughter lost a job early in the pandemic and moved back home, and is now considering staying there while attending grad school. Scalla said she’s cool with that.
She also said that in the past year her own job switched from office to home, and her sales calls flipped from face-to-face to Zoom. But after an initial springtime lull, Scalla said, her business picked up significantly.
“My work is pretty good right now.”
Even on the health front, the Scallas dodged hardship.
Last summer, Scalla thought she had been exposed to the virus and spent several days isolated in her room. Her kids left food outside her door; she watched a ton of Netflix. But it turned out to be a false alarm. Within a week, Scalla said, she was back to solo hiking and solo running.
And that was as close as the Scallas came to COVID-19. To date, her son and daughter haven’t fallen ill and Scalla said no one else in her immediate or extended family has had a serious fight with the coronavirus.
“We’ve been super lucky,” she said.
“I know (the pandemic) has been hard and horrible for a lot of people. And my heart goes out for them,” she added. “But I also can totally see how some people might look around and go, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
That’s not a question in the Trejo household.
For much of the past year, Patty and Joe Trejo, of Anaheim, weren’t hit hard by the virus. She worked as a teacher’s aide in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, and he worked as a locksmith for the Anaheim-Union High School District.
But around the turn of the year, the family’s health situation started to change. In January, Patty, Joe and two of their three adult children, who live with the couple, all had the virus. One of the sons fell seriously ill and, for a time, Patty feared he would die. Meanwhile, Joe became sick enough that he needed hospital care.
During this time, Patty’s father also contracted COVID-19. He died on Feb. 4. A day later, doctors put Joe on a ventilator.
For nearly a month Joe struggled and the family prayed. At one point, Patty hired a mariachi band to serenade him from the hospital parking lot. But the disease proved too powerful and, on March 1, Joe Trejo died. He was 53.
The differences between the inconvenient pandemic experienced by the Scallas and the lethal one that hit the Trejos are extreme but, in Orange County, not unusual. While health data shows death is an uncommon outcome for anyone (only a fraction of all people who contract COVID-19 die of it) that data also shows pandemic equity is rare, too, at least in Orange County.
You’re twice as likely to die of COVID-19 if you live in some lower-income ZIP codes of Santa Ana and Anaheim than if you live in some ZIP codes in wealthier Newport Beach or Coto de Caza, according to county data. The same is true when it comes to contracting the disease, as case rates are higher in poor communities than in wealthy ones. Even the severity of the disease tends to be worse in some communities than in others.
But the county’s tale of two pandemics extends beyond health.
Consider two data points: 27% and 8.8.% As of March 10, those numbers represented the year-to-year jumps for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and for the average home price in Orange County.
The pandemic ended or threatened a lot of jobs, but if you’re wealthy enough to own a home or significant stock investment, the value of those holdings probably held firm.
On the employment front, too, wealthy communities fared better.
Before the pandemic, at the end of 2019, the unemployment rates in high-income and low-income cities in Orange County were roughly comparable, hovering between 2.4% and 3% in virtually every city, according to state data.
But after a year of pandemic shutdowns and layoffs, city-to-city unemployment differences are more pronounced. In three high-income communities, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Coto de Caza, unemployment rates ranged between 5.7% and 5.9% at the end of 2020, according to state data. But in the lower-income communities of Santa Ana, Stanton and Garden Grove, unemployment ranged from 7.9% to 9.2% for the same period.
That pattern seemed to play out throughout California.
A report issued March 18 by the California Policy Lab found nearly half (47%) of all workers, statewide, collected at least one unemployment check during the pandemic, and that Black workers (90%) were far more likely than others to have been hit by unemployment. The report also found that most people who collected an unemployment check were workers who were laid off, returned to work and were laid off again. Younger and less-educated workers were most likely to be affected.
The pandemic that once seemed capable of sinking the entire economy is doing the most damage to people who already were struggling.
“It’s not a fair time right now,” Scalla said.
Red virus, blue virus
It didn’t have to feel that way.
Rather than reflecting or even exacerbating the county’s differences, the COVID-19 pandemic could have been the type of common enemy – like the Great Depression or World War II or even the early months following 9/11 – that historically has unified Americans.
Instead, the disease has become “a divisive force,” said Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology at UC Irvine who specializes in decision making and political polarization.
“It’s been an interesting split,” Ditto said. “Rich from poor, ethnically and racially, and politically.”
That’s certainly played out nationally.
In October, a Pew Research poll of 13 developed countries found that Americans ranked as the most divided nationality when it came to how we felt about our government responses to the pandemic. Liberal Americans overwhelmingly said the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic was lousy, while conservatives chafed at lockdown orders and mask-wearing enforced in many states.
At the time, there was plenty of reason for frustration. The U.S. ranked 11th in COVID-19 death rate (as measured by deaths per 1 million people) and No. 1 in terms of overall deaths. We still rank poorly in both measurements, with the United States still leading the world in overall pandemic deaths (540,950 as of Friday, March 19) according to Johns Hopkins University.
But nationally the divide over how we should, or shouldn’t, battle coronavirus felt symbolic and distant. Leaders of conservative-leaning states and leaders of liberal-leaning states voiced opposing views and advocated different sets of health rules, but actual conflict wasn’t common.
Here in Orange County – by many measures one of the most politically divided communities in the United States – the debate has felt personal.
A year ago, days after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered mandatory lockdowns in California (on March 19, 2020), members of the local board of supervisors voiced opposition to mask mandates and expressed frustration about business closures. Soon after that, anti-lockdown protests became routine in places like Huntington Beach and San Clemente. That, in turn, led to arrests and anti-Newsom demonstrations (and a now active Newsom recall movement centered in Orange County) and mask-burning.
In June, the county’s top public health official resigned. She quit after her insistence that the county follow health guidelines prompted death threats and the public disclosure of her home address by an anti-lockdown activist.
Incidents like that made news, and Orange County soon gained a national reputation as a hub for resistance to health measures to curb the virus. The Washington Post, the New York Times and New York Magazine, among others, ran stories that mentioned or focused on the anti-mask movement in the county. And local publications and regional news outlets devoted stories or segments to the idea that people in Orange County were particularly resistant to coronavirus health rules.
That narrative, it should be noted, didn’t necessarily reflect how most people in the county actually felt.
The nature of the pandemic meant people who supported the use of social distancing rules and mask-wearing weren’t outside, in groups, to counter the loud protests against those health measures. And the recent Orange County Annual Survey conducted by Chapman University found that despite the county’s reputation, more than seven in 10 Orange County residents wear masks, keep their distance in crowds and generally favor waiting until coronavirus case rates drop before relaxing distancing rules.
But, through it all, debate about health guidelines mirrored so many other liberal vs. conservative battles.
Labor groups representing workers who dealt with the public wanted stiff enforcement of masks and distancing. Business owners and others wanted leniency.
Soon, every debate about coronavirus seemed to be a question of politics, not health. And in modern Orange County, any political divide is likely to expose a sharp, down-the-middle split.
Voter registration data in the county shows Democrats with a slight (but growing) lead over Republicans. And though last year President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump in Orange County by about nine percentage points, Republicans and Democrats essentially split the local contestable House seats. In fact, two of just 16 House districts nationally that split tickets in November – meaning they chose a representative from a different political party than the candidate they backed for president – were in Orange County.
Mix that level of political division with an issue as hot-button as masks and pandemic health guidelines, and you’ve got the makings of a potentially ugly fight.
“There’s been a trend over the last 20 years, at least, of politics increasingly insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of everyday life,” said UCI Professor Ditto, who grew up in San Clemente.
“Red and blue America don’t just vote differently, they live differently.”
The virus is reflecting just how deep that difference runs in Orange County.
“It’s not just a matter of differing opinions anymore, it’s people living with different sets of facts,” Ditto said. “Some people believe masks work and social distancing work and it saves lives. Other people really don’t believe that, no matter what the health data might say.
“A lot of partisanship is performance art,” Ditto added. “But this is real.”
‘A learning experience’
While the pandemic exposed gaps in politics and money and race, it also revealed differences in how we view each other – and ourselves.
Consider: In early March 2020, a few days before Newsom ordered lockdowns statewide, two Latina students at Bolsa Grande High in Garden Grove posted a video of themselves harassing and intimidating an Asian student.
Their slur of choice, the word they yelled at their classmate as a way to make her feel small?
Turns out the attackers were ahead of a particularly ugly curve.
During the pandemic, hate incidents against Asians, ranging from name-calling to beatings, soared. Older Asian people were physically attacked in New York and San Francisco. Younger Asian people were called names at several universities. And, on March 16, a gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent.
The pandemic can’t be blamed for all of it. Hate incidents involving all kinds of victims, nationally and in Orange County, increased during each of the previous four years.
But giving coronavirus a racial component – as suggested by use of the term “China flu” by Trump and many others – exposed an ugly undercurrent. And given that more than 20% of people living in Orange County are Asian, making it one of the most Asian communities in the country, it’s not a surprise that the local results would be particularly stark. Locally, anti-Asian hate incidents jumped ten-fold during the pandemic, according to public statements from OC Human Relations.
For many people, that tension can be unbearable.
“A lot of the people who call us when they feel like they’re under threat, either externally or from inside their own home,” said Dr. Miriam Harris, program director for NAMI, which runs the Orange County chapter of the WARMLine, a call-in service for people experiencing anxiety, stress, sadness or pretty much any negative feeling short of suicidal thoughts.
At the WARMLine – where people answering the phone are taught to listen and to offer sympathy, but not to try to “fix” a problem – the pandemic has revealed a growing need for compassion. In the year since lockdowns kicked in calls to the WARMLine are up 46% – to about 9,000 a month – and the service has expanded to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Though other stresses – politics and money among others – continued unabated, Harris said coronavirus was a factor for many callers. Cable news channels, she noted, offered a running scroll of the daily and cumulative death toll from COVID-19, and many of the people calling the WARMLine to express anxiety are avid cable news consumers.
“I’m always surprised by how much news people can watch,” Harris said. “It’s absolutely a stressor.”
Racial tension during the pandemic has been an issue for many WARMLine callers, but Harris said other factors also have been triggers.
“Unemployment… People not being able to pay for rent… Shelter issues… COVID threw a wrench in everything,” she said. “Humanity is in desperate need to have somebody hold their hands during this time.”
Despite that, Harris noted that the pandemic will end. And when it does, she’s optimistic that we’ll all be a little more compassionate.
“This COVID thing is a very bad thing. But it was also a wake-up call for all of us, a learning experience,” she said.
“It’s teaching us that we need each other more than we need more things. And that we need to pay more attention to our emotional health than we have.
“Humanity hasn’t figured it out yet,” she added. “But we will.”
Source: Orange County Register