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No. 2 Story of 2020: COVID-19 forced leaders into tough new roles
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Top Stories of 2020: No. 2

No. 2 Story of 2020: COVID-19 forced leaders into tough new roles

From the Catch up on Napa County's top news stories of 2020 series
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Dr. Karen Relucio, Napa County public health officer, over the past year went from a relatively obscure role into a white-hot spotlight.

That’s true of just about all county health officers — and of national health figures like Andrew Fauci — amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Relucio is leading the county response to the biggest health threat since the 1918 Spanish flu.

Many residents might have previously viewed the health officer position as a kind of mysterious afterthought if they ever thought about it at all. But COVID-19 thrust Relucio and the county Board of Supervisors into the forefront, with their decisions having a deep impact on daily life.

That hit home on March 18. Relucio told most people to stay home unless engaged in defined “essential activities” — such as buying food—as the county tried to slow the potential, local spread of COVID-19.

“We realize, we acknowledge, that this is disruptive and difficult for people’s daily lives,” county Board of Supervisors Chair Diane Dillon said. “But this is the time for our community to come together, to protect ourselves and to protect our health care system.”

Some Bay Area counties over the summer imposed stricter measures than the state required. Napa County stuck with state mandates as it tried to find that elusive sweet spot of keeping businesses open as much as possible while still trying to check disease spread.

“That’s the balance we’re trying to strike,” Dillon said.

Relucio has been the face of the local response. She’s answered people’s questions on county Zoom programs. She’s given updates to the supervisors at their every meeting.

She’s made a mantra out of the three W’s of wear a mask, wash hands often and watch your distance. She’s talked about staying in a household bubble.

“You want to keep the economy open,” Relucio urged the community. “You want to keep people in jobs. And you’re doing it for the whole community. This is where it takes a village.”

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors has had discussions that hit many residents where they live — literally. One of them was how to help tenants who couldn’t pay rents because of COVID-19-related job losses, while also trying to help landlords who needed the income.

“I sure hope every tenant and their landlord right now are making a deal and working out a customized agreement for themselves,” Supervisor Ryan Gregory said in June.

Napa County and its citizens soon had to deal with a seeming kaleidoscope of shifting state-mandated COVID-19 rules.

The county went on a state monitoring list that imposed one set of restrictions. Then it grappled with a state color code that imposed different restrictions for different colors based on case rates.

Relucio each week explained the latest turns to county supervisors and to the community-at-large. The county also posted all kinds of COVID-19 information and updates on its website to try to help people make sense of it all.

The pandemic struck a huge blow to the wine industry, the backbone of the local economy. The Board of Supervisors discussed how to ease the financial pain that reached down to people’s jobs.

A group of nine vintners under the name Coalition Napa Valley asked the county to greatly ease rules that govern wineries, such as visitor caps and by-appointment-only requirements for guests.

“These are unprecedented times that require unprecedented, bold and proactive leadership from our officials,” Tom Davies of V. Sattui winery told supervisors on Dec. 15.

Most wine industry groups didn’t go as far in their requests as Coalition Napa Valley. Supervisors were wary about waving, even temporarily, some of the key underpinnings of the local winery regulatory world.

Still, the Board of Supervisors stated it wants to further help wineries and other county businesses weather the pandemic. Decisions could come over the next few months.

One key escape valve during the pandemic for many people has been getting out into nature. Parks such as Moore Creek and Robert Louis Stevenson and Bothe-Napa state parks were busy in the spring and summer.

The county is at the forefront here too, given the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District operate those particular parks. But the Glass and Hennessey fires and the pandemic sapped the transient occupancy taxes, the levy paid by tourists staying in hotels, that Napa County gives the district for its expenses.

Within two years, Open Space District officials estimate that $1 million or so in transient occupancy tax money could drop by 85%.

“Without significant changes, the district is facing a slow-moving financial train wreck that can only end in insolvency,” district General Manager John Woodbury wrote to his board of directors.

How that situation will end remains to be seen. The district is asking the Board of Supervisors to maintain a $750,000 annual county contribution despite the tax freefall.

Suddenly, county government is playing a hugely visible role in just about every residents’ life. That turn in the spotlight should continue into 2021.

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SEE BELOVED NAPA COUNTY PETS

You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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