Merced County Times Newspaper
The Power of Positive Press


Region in crisis mode as residents, businesses face life-changing warnings


Consider what this community has faced in the span of only a week.

The governments of Merced, Atwater and Merced County have all declared emergencies to help prepare for the coronavirus outbreak that’s spreading across the state.

All elementary and high school campuses have shut down for at least a month, and thousands of students are suddenly back home to the dismay of many parents and guardians who are scrambling to figure out how to balance work and childcare.

Claudia Aispuro of Delhi has no idea what she’s going to do with her son Isak, a seventh-grader. Her daughter, Allysa, might lend a hand. She is a student at Stanislaus State University, where classes will be moved online soon, as is the situation at Merced College and UC Merced.

School is hardly out and Isak is already getting antsy. He’s an avid baseball player, and doesn’t want to stay home and away from practice.

“Mom,” he said with enthusiasm, “I’d rather die on the ball field than die playing video games.”

Elderly people and people with chronic disease are being told to stay indoors too. They are considered to be the most at risk of developing severe symptoms from the virus. Younger family members are being advised to avoid close contact with them.

Over at the assisted living facilities of Park Merced and Mission Gardens, more than 80 residents and about 100 healthcare workers are doing fine and showing no symptoms.

“We are limiting visitors to nursing staff from hospice and home health agencies, and for end of life visitation,” said Amie Marchini, the CEO of both facilities. “We are making FaceTime and other forms of electronic communication available so that residents can communicate with their family and friends. We are continuing to transport residents to medical appointments and accept admissions for residents that need our care. We have all of the supplies we need and are continuing to get deliveries which are being delivered to the door.”

Fortunately, Marchini knows the drill. She has served for more than a decade with the Merced County Emergency Preparedness Committee through Public Health.

“We have been planning for a pandemic and our county is impressively prepared,” she told the Times. “Our biggest challenge is our staff members who need childcare due to school closures. We are looking for creative solutions and have heard word about daycares opening for health care workers, including those who serve seniors in assisted living and home care.

Marchini says she hopes a proactive approach by the community will lessen the spread of the virus, and all will stay healthy.

Sandra Hay, however, is finding it hard to remain optimistic.

The Livingston school teacher, who is retiring this school year, said she woke up on Wednesday morning “feeling so very sad about everything.”

“My mom has dementia, and is in a facility in Fresno,” she said. “We can’t go at all. I worry about what my mom is thinking and feeling because we aren’t visiting her anymore … and what if something happens and I never get to see her again? … I’m worried about UC students, like my daughter, who have paid a lot of money for not only classes, but campus fees, like parking. I’m worried about the high school seniors, like some of my friends’ kids, who are going to be missing out on all of their senior moments. And in particular, for my own students, fifth graders that will also be missing out on their transitioning-to-middle school moments.

“And I’m sad, because I’m missing all my retirement moments. I am going to go back on Friday and, well, pack up my stuff and I may likely never go back. I’ve been with the district over 30 years and I won’t even get to say goodbye, or have a party, or give away my precious resource books, and things I’ve collected over the years that I wanted to make sure found a home.  … It seems so very, very anti-climactic.”

While there can be sadness at home, there’s also frustration out on the town.

More often than not, it seems, people are adding more stops to their one-stop shopping experience. Store shelves are being emptied faster than stockers can replenish them. Suddenly, pain reliever, flu medicine, disinfectant wipes, bottled water, and yes, toilet paper are in high demand.

Vietnam War veteran Ernie Amezcua could care less about all the crowds and frantic shopping at Costco, Target and Walmart. He just wants to be able to sit down and enjoy a cup of joe with a few of his old military buddies. They always meet in the morning, around the center table, inside Starbucks on 16th Street.

Well, not anymore.

“Nobody can sit down inside!” he exclaimed in a text message. “No customers, nobody. You just order your coffee and go.”

Nobody is feeling the pressure of the coronavirus crisis quite like the owners of small restaurants and bars in town. On top of the virus fears and keeping tables and countertops clean and sanitized, Governor Newsom just last Sunday called for all bars, pubs and wineries in the state to close. He also called on them to reduce their capacities and maintain measures to ensure social distancing among customers.

The news was like a punch in the gut for Roy Mercado, owner of the Bar-B-Q Pit and H&W Drive-In. However, the longtime downtown businessmen has been through closures before. He knows how to survive, not to mention he has loyal customers who continued to pour in all week long — some regulars from as far away as Cathey’s Valley and Chowchilla.

“We are staying open as long as we are allowed to stay open,” he told the Times. “We are taking orders by phone. Customers can enjoy take-out if they want. We will take the food out to the car. They can even eat in the car like a car hop. It’s business as usual and we will adapt to our customers.”

Mercado added that he hasn’t reduced the size of his restaurant crew. He doesn’t want to do that. He knows some of his employees are working paycheck to paycheck.

Nevertheless, Mercado admits he took a big hit on the catering side of his business. Several large events were cancelled this month and into the next.

It’s the same story for Chef Vinnie DeAngelo at Bella Luna Bistro on Main Street. Still, DeAngelo is a fighter too, and early Monday morning he was already meeting with his management team to discuss new safety measures, culinary strategies, such as creating more distance between dining tables and bar stools, creating a Family Value Take-Out Menu, and offering delivery options and curbside pickup.

“We are utilizing all our space to create a comfortable seating arrangement,” DeAngelo told the Times. “You can come here and feel safe, and enjoy a great meal like always. That’s what we want.”

Robert Matsuo of Five Ten Bistro inside Bob Hart Square is also going with call-in orders and curbside pickups.

Matsuo weathered several challenging years to maintain and grow the bistro, but he says the coronavirus has brought on more worry and concern for the downtown scene.

“How are the mom and pops going to sustain this?” he asked shaking his head. “We already took close to a 46 percent hit. We’ve lost every catering event in April and May. People are just dropping out. They aren’t doing parties anymore.”

Still, Matsuo believes the virus storm will pass in four to six weeks. He hopes the federal and state governments can somehow increase the amount of economic stimulus for small businesses and their employees.

Across the street, at the famed Branding Iron Restaurant, proud owner and veteran restauranteur Greg Parle was working both the kitchen and the dining room floor.

Parle told the Times the restaurant has announced new dinner hours, but is moving away from lunch service. He said his crew is doing everything they can to take care of guests on a day-to-day basis. However, he said, the current health crisis has contributed to the loss of dozens of banquet opportunities and tour bus traffic.

“I’ve been in the restaurant business since 1955, and I’ve never encountered anything like this,” Parle said.

He added that the Branding Iron is also accepting to-go orders.

The crisis appears to be more of a threat to bars and nightclubs with the governors in multiple states calling for closures.

The day before St. Patrick’s Day, the co-owner of the 17th Street Public House pub and the Partisan tavern, both Main Street establishments, appeared deeply concerned and did not want to comment on possible closures.

However, a notice later appeared on The Partisan’s social media page that read: “Closed Until Further Notice … This was not an easy decision, but for the health of our employees, our customers, their families, and everyone else — it was the right decision.”

Virtually every community event that was set to draw a crowd this month has been postponed or cancelled.

Art Center exhibits, Rotary fundraisers, Merced Theatre concerts, Playhouse shows — you name it.

Yet, strangely, residents can still be seen going about their daily lives around town like nothing major is happening.

Seniors are still eating out in cafes. Fast food joints are full. Meetings are still taking place.

Monday night’s City Council meeting was lively and full of important city issues — including the passage of higher refuse rates, a discussion on railroad quiet zones and safety measures and budget priorities. However, no more than a dozen residents showed up, and only two spoke up on specific agenda items. Everybody there was greeted at the door by a video of the mayor explaining why it’s important to use “social distancing” at gatherings.

Merced County Director of Public Health Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp was present and she talked to the Council about the effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus or COVID-19.

“There are definitely more cases than we have confirmed numbers for because of the limitations of the testing kits to test people,” she said.

As of Wednesday morning, March 18, Merced County has no confirmed COVID-19 cases. A total of 24 individuals have been tested through the public health system, all with negative results.

Nanyonjo-Kemp has also stressed that positive detection in this region is not a matter of IF, but WHEN.

With so many changes happening day to day, it’s hard to know where we will be at next week.

Stay tuned.

Times writers Mike Biddeson and John Miller contributed to this report. 

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