Tom Hanks was infected with covid-19 and the NBA abruptly put its season on hold in March. Away we were with the most trying year in many generations. The covid-19 pandemic changed our lives in many ways. It made masks a required clothing accessory. Forced an irrational buying binge for toilet paper and momentarily turned many into dutiful home bakers. But the virus killed many in Alameda County, especially the elderly convalescing in nursing homes. Covid-19 also changed politics in the East Bay. The entire public square moved entirely to the virtual realm. After mid-March, every jurisdiction switched to the Zoom online conferencing platform. Instead of residents filling out speakers’ cards, they expressed a desire to address city leaders with a “raised hand” icon on their laptops. Aside from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, who still have not mastered the new online reality, the virtual experience has gone on pretty well. Some jurisdictions, are already contemplating whether they will continue to allow residents to speak virtually at public meetings once the pandemic is over.
The pandemic, however, gave full relief to several inherent weakness in Alameda County government. The ongoing housing crisis, left unsolved for several years, was greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. Massive layoffs and a various levels of economic shutdowns throughout the year fostered great anxiety about the ability for many to not only pay their rent, but how to feed themselves and their family. An unlikely early hero was Congress, which passed a covid-19 relief bill that is credited with providing $1,200 stimulus checks and momentarily propping up many local businesses. At the local level, Oakland Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, also struck a heroic pose by authoring an moratorium on evictions and putting a pause on rent payments. The move would be the model for the Board of Supervisors and many East Bay cities. The state later passed its own moratorium. In addition, several cities moved to give additional payments to struggling residents and created programs for small businesses. A moratorium on evictions is still in effect. How landlords are made whole will remain a major issue in 2021 and beyond, and further complicated by a ongoing recession brought on by the pandemic.
The lack of a robust health care system also put residents at risk. If not for a quick response by state and local public health officials and during the current surge in new cases, limited numbers of hospital beds and Intensive Care Units might have been overrun with sick patients. The stress on the Alameda Health System, which operates Highland Hospital in Oakland, Alameda Hospital, and San Leandro Hospital, is still apparent. Mounting debt, a bitter strike last fall, and the ousting of the organization’s leadership, should provide Alameda County supervisors a unique opportunity to bolster health care for the less fortunate starting next year.
The pandemic also transformed the 2020 election cycle. Although candidates in the March primary were able to run a normal campaign, complete with door-to-door canvassing, glad-handling with voters, and candidates forums, but that ended shortly after primary day. In the fall, because of social distancing orders, candidates were relegated to campaigning on social media. Online ads gained a foothold, and the use of traditional mailers continued to be favored by most well-financed campaigns. Candidate forums moved to Zoom. But their efficacy was lost, especially the ability to gauge how well candidates speak on their feet. It was obvious that many candidates were simply reading answers on their screens. In this odd election season, a number of incumbents lost their seats in Alameda County, and a few tax measures barely passed last November. Whether or not this was a symptom of a unique election or general dissatisfaction for the status quo remains to be seen.
But we made it through a terrible year. A vaccine has already been administered to local health care workers. Other front-line workers and the elderly are next in line. Then the rest of us will receive the vaccine. Unlike other parts of the country, a vast majority of East Bay residents will gladly accept the vaccine and the rhythm of the region we so love will return. Many residual problem will still exist, but we’ve overcome so much already. There’s nothing that can stop us now.