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Fight against COVID-19 hits wall of defiance, suspicion in rural California

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

During a Jan. 6 meeting of the county’s COVID-response Department Operations Center, there was a quiet urgency as staffers sifted through the logistics of pandemic management.

There was personal protective equipment to order for vaccine clinics, which, in a few days, would start operating five days a week. There were volunteers to find for those clinics — they would reach out to school nurses and figure out how to respond to members of the public who had been calling in, offering to help.

A Red Bluff youth baseball league wanted to know whether it could resume competition. They would figure that out, too.

Michelle Schmidt, the supervising public health nurse, announced that the county had recorded a COVID-19-related death for three days straight in the first week of the new year.

A few hours later, at the vaccination clinic in the Corning Volunteer Fire Department, Randy Potter, a 67-year-old volunteer fireman, said he had stopped going to emergency calls during the pandemic because of his age. He works at a golf course and as a custodian at a high school and now spends much of his time “spraying everything with COVID killer.”

Asked why he got the shot, he laughed.

“Well, duh,” he said. “I’m hoping this is going to be the fix and things can go back to normal.”

Fears, the 42-year-old police chief, said more than half of his staff of 13 sworn officers and eight civilians have been vaccinated. He doesn’t like masks, which he said make it hard to read facial cues when interviewing suspects, but wears one regularly. He doesn’t push the issue with his officers.

Two hours later, the Palomino Room bar in Red Bluff was hopping. It was karaoke night. Old country hits were queued up. No one wore a mask.

The restaurant’s owner, Carlos Zapata, has refused to close or require facial coverings. He lives in nearby Shasta County and has gained a following since giving an August speech at the Shasta County Board of Supervisors — in which he warned that angry citizens are “not going to be peaceful much longer.”


Asked why he does not require masks, he told the Los Angeles Times: “Why would we? We’re not sick. Masks are for sick people.”

He said he believes the government is using COVID-19 “as a way to create fear in society and create control.” He has heard from state regulators after people complained, but is “not even a little bit” worried about being shut down.

In the bar, Leon Womack, a stout 77-year-old in a leather vest and black cowboy hat, said he was going to sing a cowboy favorite — then surprised the crowd with a soulful rendition of “At Last,” in the style of legendary rhythm and blues singer Etta James.

Womack said he is not worried about COVID-19.

“I don’t smoke. I don’t take drugs,” he said while sipping a brandy and Coke. “I don’t worry about it. If you get it, you get it. It’s no different than the flu.”

Jay Manor, the 30-year-old bartender, joked to a Times reporter that while he might “mask-shame you a little bit,” he didn’t really care whether people wore them. He lost his mother to cancer last month, and he said he’s just grateful to be still working in a small town where people supported him through that tragedy and are more relaxed all around.

“Right now, I don’t want to be anywhere but here,” he said. “I don’t want anyone telling me how to live.”


(Los Angeles Times staff writer Matt Stiles contributed to this report.)

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