Like every town, Huntington Beach harbors coronavirus skeptics doubtful that face masks and social distancing really slow the spread of a sometimes fatal disease. Many Americans, in many communities, have refused to follow the recommendations of health officials.
Still, when it comes to anti-mask sentiment, Huntington Beach is a special place. From the loud denial of health guidance to hosting political rallies promoting the belief that masks are unconstitutional to the local restaurants and bars that simply ignore state guidelines, Huntington Beach has gained national notoriety for its COVID denial.
Amplifying that reputation, voters elected mixed martial arts star Tito Ortiz – a colorful local celebrity who promotes coronavirus conspiracy theories — to the city council. At his swearing in on Dec. 7, Ortiz referred to the pandemic as the “plandemic,” in reference to the debunked idea it has been exaggerated as a way for governments to control their constituents.
Ortiz may be a high-profile anti-masker, but he is far from alone. Even as coronavirus cases surge around Orange County, hundreds of people regularly gather at the city’s pier – maskless and elbow-to-elbow – for “Curfew Breaker” parties. Tony Roman, the owner of a local restaurant, Basilico’s, garnered 15 minutes of fame by instituting a no-mask policy at his eatery. And just about any day, a stroll on crowded downtown sidewalks reveals many a bare face.
Mostly, Huntington Beach represents a microcosm of how Americans have – and have not – dealt with a pandemic that blanketed 2020 in a dark and claustrophobic fog.
What follows is a journal of one December week in Huntington Beach, set against the backdrop of burgeoning coronavirus numbers and exhausted front-line health workers throughout Orange County.
Thursday, Dec. 17
City Hall employees express discomfort with elected officials who don’t adhere to the mask mandate inside the building. Councilman Erik Peterson has not worn a mask on the dais throughout the pandemic. Now he is joined by Mayor Pro Tem Ortiz.
Mayor Kim Carr suggests that council members who do not wish to wear masks during meetings may participate remotely via Zoom.
In an interview, Ortiz said he would not be taking her up on that option: “It’s against my constitutional rights.”
Peterson did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Southern California is experiencing a post-Thanksgiving surge predicted by medical experts.
On Dec. 17, the Orange County Health Care Agency reports a record high of 2,615 new cornavirus cases, more than seven times the number on Nov. 17. Hospitalized COVID patients increase almost sixfold, to 1,519 from 270. Of those, 343 are in intensive care units, well over four times the 79 ICU patients a month prior. The county also reports 13 coronavirus deaths.
Friday, Dec. 18
Ambulances carrying critically ill patients wait up to an hour in area hospital parking lots before being allowed to let off their charges in emergency rooms. In normal times, ambulances are diverted while in transit to less overstretched hospitals. But in an unprecedented order, because stress on the health care system is so widespread, Orange County bars emergency rooms from sending patients to other facilities.
“Our teams are exhausted,” said Lance Brunner, physician director of patient safety for Kaiser Permanente Orange County. “What keeps us going is the knowledge we are doing something very important in the middle of, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”
On Dec. 18 the county reports a new daily record of 1,557 coronavirus patients in hospitals, with 358 in ICUs and three deaths.
Saturday, Dec. 19
With ICU capacity dangerously low, hospitals throughout Orange County begin erecting field tents to hold additional hospital beds. On the inside, hospitals repurpose entire wards – converting, for instance, pediatric intensive care units for COVID patients.
A doctor shares a scroll-stopping photo on Facebook showing the parking lot outside Los Alamitos Medical Center. His post reads: “17 ambulances outside the Los Alamitos ER. The ER is now an outside MASH tent and the ER is an ICU. We have never seen anything like this.”
Hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Bayer said Los Alamitos was hit by a “perfect storm” that weekend.
“Orange County cancelled all diversion of ambulances, but Los Angeles County did not,” Bayer said. “So Long Beach hospitals diverted ambulances across the county line to Los Alamitos. We were dealing with our own tremendous surge, and at the same time we were being asked to take in more patients from other areas.”
Patients waiting inside ambulances were not facing life-threatening crises, such as strokes or cardiac arrest, Bayer said. People in critical need still received care quickly.
On Dec. 19, the county reports 1,601 coronavirus patients in local hospitals, with 361 patients in ICUs and 26 deaths.
Sunday, Dec. 20
Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center respiratory therapists, through their labor union, write an email to hospital officials informing them that health workers are overextended.
Christina Rodriguez has worked as a respiratory therapist at the hospital for 17 years. In an interview, at times tearful, she illustrated life at the epicenter of coronavirus:
“Patients can take a turn for the worse very quickly. I’ll never forget one woman who died. She was about my age – in her fifties, with kids. She came in alert and talking and laughing, but then had to go on 100% oxygen. She asked me, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ I knew in my heart that she was beginning the transition to ventilator. I just said, ‘We’re doing everything we can for you.’
“I work three 12-hour shifts a week. At the beginning of coronavirus, we managed three patients at a time. Now it’s seven. I don’t take real breaks. There’s no one to watch my patients, now that we all have so many. We are so burnt out.
“When I hear about people refusing to wear a mask for 30 minutes in a grocery store, I feel unappreciated and angry. To say you can’t breathe while wearing a simple paper mask is insulting and appalling. I have asthma, yet for 12 hours straight I’m wearing an N95 plus a surgical mask plus a shield.
“The virus doesn’t care about your religion or your politics. It just needs a host.
“People on the outside are living in an alternate reality. I worked Christmas Eve and Christmas night – while other people were traveling because they just had to see family and friends outside their households. It makes me livid. This is the age of entitlement.
“We (hospital workers) are very afraid of what the next two months are going to look like, after Christmas and New Year’s. We’re in the frying pan.”
On Dec. 20, Orange County counts 1,682 coronavirus patients in hospitals, 375 of them in ICUs, and 15 deaths.
Monday, Dec. 21
In the morning, four Huntington Beach police officers appear on an unofficial Huntington Beach Instagram account laughing as a young woman chugs a Red Bull. The officers huddle together, one with his arm draped over another’s shoulder. None wear a mask.
“This incident has been addressed with the individuals,” said the city’s interim Police Chief Julian Harvey. “It’s not the behavior we want to see modeled. Regardless of what one’s opinion may be, it’s a requirement to wear a mask when in the field interacting with the public. Masks are the simplest and most effective way to stop the spread of the virus.”
That evening, despite an email sent the previous night from City Manager Oliver Chi asking staff and council members to wear masks inside the chamber during meetings, Ortiz and Peterson decline.
After city employees give a presentation about the alarming surge in coronavirus cases, new Councilman Dan Kalmick registers his “formal disappointment” that two colleagues are not following protocol. Ortiz responds by accusing Kalmick of removing his mask at a Nov. 11 Veterans Day event.
“As soon as the cameras turned off, you took your mask off amongst a bunch of older veterans that were there,” Ortiz says.
Kalmick shoots back, “That is a false statement.”
A photo of the event shows city leaders standing at the ceremony with a dozen members of the American Legion. Ortiz is the person without a mask at that moment.
“Everyone wore a mask that day except for you know who,” said Dennis Bauer, adjutant with the Legion’s Huntington Beach post. “We asked him (Ortiz) to put on a mask and he said, ‘I’m good.’ He grabbed one of us for the photo – a man who has heart issues. I would’ve walked away.
“We’re elderly,” Bauer added. “I’m the spring chicken, and I’m 73. We don’t want to be exposed. Most of us rarely go anywhere. I didn’t see my kids and grandkids at Christmas.”
On Dec. 21, Orange County logs 1,709 coronavirus patients in hospitals, with 380 in ICUs and two deaths.
Tuesday, Dec. 22
At a Ralphs in Huntington Beach, a man picks up his grocery cart and appears to hurl it at an employee asking him to wear a mask. A video of the episode circulates on social media.
“A shopping cart could be dangerous,” said interim Police Chief Harvey. “We don’t like seeing anyone behave that way in our community.”
Officers contacted the employee, who did not report the incident. “He told us the man was not actually throwing the cart at him, but was attempting to overturn it and he (the employee) grabbed the cart,” Harvey said.
Harvey said the department has not yet identified the would-be customer, who angrily stormed out of the store.
On Dec. 22 the county reports 1,806 coronavirus patients in hospitals, with 390 patients in ICUs and two deaths.
Wednesday, Dec. 23
Upon learning that Ortiz plans to join the local Kiwanis Club at a Christmas meal donation held on Ocean View School District property, Superintendent Carol Hansen sends an email to the City Council urging “all in attendance to follow safety protocols.”
The largely Latino neighborhood of Oak View is “home to some of our most vulnerable community members,” Hansen writes – a reminder that coronavirus has disproportionately impacted minorities and low-income residents.
Sporting a holiday sweater, Ortiz shows up to distribute turkeys and hams in the parking lot of the Oak View Community Center. But the charitable event gets off to a chaotic start, with a small group of protesters loudly demanding that Ortiz strap on a mask – and shouting that the food could be “COVID contaminated.” Ortiz and community activist Victor Valladares exchange heated words.
Ocean View school board member Gina Clayton-Tarvin arrives and demands that those not wearing masks – Ortiz and a handful of his friends – get off district property. The event is relocated to a nearby building owned by the city rather than the school district.
In an interview, Valladares said he stood by his actions regardless of the tumult. “It’s our responsibility to inform people, especially elected officials, that they must wear masks,” he said. “I’ve been distributing food since the beginning of the pandemic, and I have always worn a mask.”
For his part, Ortiz said he was “just trying to give back.”
“This guy with a megaphone was screaming in my ear for 20 minutes,” Ortiz said. “Pulling this stunt during Christmas – shame on them. They were using me as a marketing vehicle. I know what it’s like not to have food on the table at Christmas. I’ve been there.”
Calling masks “dirty filters,” he said, “The only people I know who have gotten COVID wore masks.”
Ortiz noted that he ran for office – and resoundingly won – on a platform questioning government’s motive for mask mandates and stay-at-home orders.
“I’m not going to flip-flop now,” he said. “First, it’s just a mask. Then all of a sudden, it’s just a vaccine. I see the writing on the wall.”
On Dec. 23, Orange County tallies 4,406 new coronavirus cases and two deaths.