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Inside a California Covid Revolt

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Some people who are good in a crisis need a crisis to be good. They’re better wired for hot zones than for ordinary life and so they do whatever they can to turn ordinary life into a hot zone. Matt Pontes is not like that. He’s big and easygoing and has the air of a man who really doesn’t want any trouble. Still, trouble has had a way of finding him. He spent the first part of his career fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service but, after six knee surgeries, moved on to emergency response for various California counties. “He could handle himself in a bar fight and he could handle himself in the Oval Office,” said a colleague who watched Pontes run the responses to fires, floods and mudslides for Santa Barbara County. “He’s a thick-sock guy in a thin-sock world.”

Pontes is now the county executive officer of Shasta County in Northern California and goes to work in thin socks, but another crisis has found him. “You cannot get closer to total disobedience of any kind of law,” he said, referring to the local response to Covid-19 strictures. “What’s happening up here is full-on anarchy.” Then he listed for me a few of the things that had happened recently: The county sheriff had announced that he wouldn’t enforce the state’s pandemic restrictions on social gatherings and businesses. People who had never before attended county board meetings were accusing local officials of treason. The county’s health officer, who had the unhappy job of imposing the state’s Covid rules on the citizens of Shasta County, was now receiving so many threats that Pontes had brought in a new threat-assessment team; he’d also ordered the bushes cut back away from her house, installed a security system and floodlights, and ordered police patrols of her neighborhood. “She still doesn’t feel safe out there,” he said. “At all.”

In just the past few months, a bunch of county health officers across California have been run from office. But what was happening in Shasta County felt to Pontes like a new stage of the crisis in governance. He thought it was “80-20” in favor that, at any moment, a citizen army would form, invade the public buildings, and perform citizens’ arrests of the five members of the county’s Board of Supervisors and any other government officials they could get their hands on. “Before Covid I felt I could talk my way out of just about anything,” he said. “But I had to ask the sheriff, ‘What are you going to do if they arrest us?’ He reassured me that he’s not going to take me anywhere.”

The Board of Supervisors in every California county has met every Tuesday morning since 1870, but over the past six months all but a handful have replaced live meetings with virtual ones. A few still meet in person, however, and a couple even allow citizens to enter and voice their concerns. Shasta County is one of these. Last week I drove up, found a seat in the mostly empty chamber, and watched.

The five supervisors sat, masked and socially distanced, on a dais at the far end of the chamber. The airing of grievances started right after the Pledge of Allegiance. The speakers were ushered from an outdoor plaza into the hearing room where, just inside the front door, a microphone waited for them. Each was allowed three minutes. Every three minutes a buzzer sounded, the mike went dead and two well-armed bailiffs escorted the speaker back out to the plaza — and generally to a roar of approval from the crowd.

The first speaker, a neatly dressed middle-aged woman, began by saying, ominously, that “I am exactly who you think I am” before lighting into the supervisors for both the restrictions they were imposing on citizens to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and their inattention to the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Most of the 40 or so speakers that followed also turned up with outrage at the new constraints on their liberties, along with some other very specific complaint: the county’s failure to secede from the state of California; the health officer’s order requiring nurses to receive flu shots; the supervisors’ inattention to the Bible; and so on. The whole show ended after two hours, with a speaker who did not speak. He entered wearing a Grim Reaper Halloween mask. He carried a metal folding chair, a stool and a big silver ice bucket that said CORONA in big black letters down the side. He sat down, placed the bucket on the stool, then reached into it with a pair of barbecue tongs and grabbed a surgical mask. One hand raised the mask high in the air; the other waved a butane lighter, with which he tried, without success, to light the mask on fire.

It took the board chairman a full 15 seconds to figure out what was happening. “I think we need some help with this, deputies!” she finally called out.

“Trust me, I had a lot more planned,” said the Grim Reaper, after the deputies deposited him back onto the plaza, to the cheers of the crowd.

If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you could have dismissed the whole event as just what happens when you let the general public speak into a microphone — but then, if you had never heard of the Mona Lisa, you’d probably walk right past it without giving it a second thought. Matt Pontes watched the speeches from the side of the room and found several things worth noting. The first was that they’d been delivered in the first place. “Before this it was silent here,” he said. “They didn’t even have a bailiff. Being a supervisor was a good gig. They didn’t get any feedback at all.” He also noticed that, as he put it, “government sucks at communication. These people are coming here to have a conversation. And it’s a one-way conversation. And that is making them even angrier.” A third observation was that people who previously hadn’t agreed with one another about anything had now found common cause. “They all believe — and they will put their hand on a Bible and say it — that there is no such thing as Covid. The anti-vaxxers didn’t have a close friend in their fight against the state government until Covid. Now they do.”

There was one other thing Pontes had noticed: The inconveniences caused by the state’s restrictions had attracted a new sort of person to the political process. Elissa McEuen was a case in point. She’d moved up to Shasta a few years ago from San Francisco, where she’d worked in private equity. She was a stay-at-home mom with little kids who, six months ago, couldn’t have told you where the Board of Supervisors met, much less what they did.

Now she showed up to every meeting, and spoke every time, with eloquence. Almost single-handedly she had organized a bunch of vaguely lunatic groups — the anti-vaxxers, the Second Amendment people, the chemtrail crowd — into a unified fighting force. “She’s taken it to another level,” Pontes said. “If you remove her, all of a sudden a lot of those people say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t believe what you believe.”

McEuen had done some other things of note. She’d figured out that there was something called the Brown Act, “a sunshine law” that allowed her to install her own journalist, with a video camera, in the empty hearing chamber. And she had somehow persuaded Carlos Zapata to come to a hearing.

Zapata had been the turning point — the moment Pontes realized that this particular wildfire would likely not be contained. Zapata had never come to a public hearing. He, like McEuen, had no previous interest in politics. But he was a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, the current owner of the Palomino Room bar and restaurant, and a persuasive character. On Aug. 11, he’d marched into the board chamber and, in the tone of a tough high school football coach addressing his players after a blown game, threatened to start a war. “Right now we’re being peaceful,” he said, “but it’s not going to be peaceful much longer. I went to war for this country. I’ve seen the ugliest, dirtiest parts of humanity. I’ve been in combat. And I never want to go back again. But I’m telling you what — I will, to save this country. If it has to be against our own citizens, it will happen.” He also called Covid-19 “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.”

Zapata’s short speech was videotaped and up on YouTube the next day. Forty-eight hours later, Ben Shapiro was sharing it on social media and Alex Jones was calling Zapata to invite him on his show. Inside of two weeks, the video had 20 million views and Zapata was a right-wing icon, with offers to speak at giant rallies across the nation.

The whole thing carried a special punch because Carlos Zapata hadn’t been looking for attention. When Elissa McEuen first asked him to come to the hearing, Zapata had refused. “I’m not a meeting guy,” he said afterward. “I only went because I thought we were going to storm the building. When I saw it was just speeches, I was out of there.” But McEuen had grabbed him and told him he needed to take his three minutes to say something. “I didn’t know I was going to give that speech until 27 seconds before I gave that speech,” said Zapata. When the video went up on YouTube, he was actually a bit miffed and asked his sister to take down the post. “I’m a super-private person,” he said. “I was talking just to them.”

By then it was too late. Well-armed men now drive from Idaho and Nevada to eat at Zapata’s jam-packed restaurant. He’s had nights when 1,000 people have showed up and he’s had to walk down a long line and explain to them why he can’t feed them all. “They say things like, ‘I’m just happy to be a part of this,’” he told me. “If my customers come into my restaurant and my bartender is wearing a mask, they’re leaving. If I say the word, there’s 100,000 people here.”

There was, Matt Pontes pointed out, only the loosest connection between the constraints on people’s freedom and their level of outrage about them. Until last week, Shasta had fewer cases of Covid-19, and fewer restrictions on daily life, than all but a couple of California counties. The big water park is closed. The churches need to meet outside. The schools must decide whether to be live or virtual. Carlos Zapata is upset but his restaurant is running as if the novel coronavirus never jumped from bats into people.

But that is about to change: Shasta County’s Covid numbers are now spiking. “In a week we’ll have gone from two a day to 100 a day,” said Pontes. The virus is now loose in a church congregation and a nursing home. The likely effect, Pontes thinks, will be an increase in local outrage, after the state imposes tighter restrictions.

Just how many people will need to die before minds change is a question Pontes ponders. After all, 200,000 American deaths has been insufficient to create a shared American reality. Only weeks ago, one of the loudest protestors in Shasta County, a businessman who had refused to take steps to prevent the spread of the disease, had watched his mother die of Covid. In that moment, a political opinion was challenged by a fact; one of them needed to be altered. The man called the coroner and demanded that the county change the cause of death.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael Lewis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” “Liar’s Poker” and “The Fifth Risk.” He also has a podcast called “Against the Rules.”

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