Maria Castellanos, 75, cares for her grandson Valentino, 5, amid coronavirus-related school closures in Elk Grove. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

“Social distancing.” In this time of coronavirus, it sounds straightforward: Avoid crowds. Don’t shake hands. Shield the elderly and infirm from infection. If necessary, go home and hunker down.

In the complex real lives of California families, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s policy advice this week looked more like Michelle Cescatti in Los Angeles saying no to all comers — canceling her 9-year-old daughter’s home-school field trips, a Knott’s Berry Farm outing, a bevy of playdates, plans for her father-in-law’s 82rd birthday this weekend.

Or like Meryl Opsal in Pasadena, left without child-care options after her parents — a medical researcher and a physician who had been regularly babysitting for her — self-isolated with the first case of community spread in Southern California.

Or Aleigh Lewis, who loaded her children, 3 and 6, into her mother’s car Wednesday with their magna tiles, books and dress up clothes and sent them from her home in Los Angeles to sit out the pandemic in rural Siskiyou County.

Or Jeannee Wainscott, a physician assistant in Sacramento who has lined up a mom swap with two other families in case their children’s schools shut down. Or the San Fernando Valley classroom of preschool teacher Kelly Ferguson, where about half of her 14 little charges this week have been absent.

Or Carmen Marquez in Los Angeles, who has stocked up on her lupus medication so she can keep babysitting her grandchildren. Or Linda Le Park, late to her job and scrambling to drop her third-grader with ADHD off at her mother-in-law’s house because classes have been canceled at his school in Elk Grove.

“Oh my God,” Park said on Tuesday, harried. “I usually take him to school at 8 a.m. and go to work, so now, here I am, it’s like almost 10 a.m., and I just got to work.”

Meryl Opsal’s parents, who usually watch her baby or both boys, have self-isolated at home, leaving her to find other child care or cancel medical appointments. (Photo by Elizabeth Aguilera for CalMatters)

California authorities have rushed to respond as the threat from the coronavirus has exploded into a worldwide public health crisis. With the nation’s largest and most polyglot populace, biggest economy and longest coastline, the state has been on the pandemic’s front lines.

As of Wednesday, four California lives had officially been claimed by COVID-19, the potentially lethal respiratory infection caused by the virus, and tests — which have badly lagged its spread — had diagnosed at least 190 coronavirus cases. College campuses from Sacramento State to the University of California to USC and Stanford had shifted from in-person classes to online instruction, and K-12 schools throughout the state were braced for emergency closures, including 90 Bay Area parochial schools run by the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Google sent most of its workforce home with instructions to work remotely. The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled. The NBA suspended the season along with other pro sports leagues.


The governor banned gatherings of 250 or more people, the massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was postponed to October, and E3, the biggest gaming event of the year, was shut down in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, “Hamilton” was canceled. Passengers on the infected Grand Princess cruise ship in Oakland were taken ashore and triaged in Oakland, with the well-but-symptomatic quarantined in Bay Area hotels. Some sued.

In California’s 14 million households, however, the crisis has translated into billions of contingency plans and choices, superimposed overnight on the already complex calculus of work and family. What happens when social distancing means you don’t have child care? What if your germ-carrying preschoolers suddenly pose a lethal threat to their elderly grandparents?

What happens to your teenagers’ future if their education is seriously disrupted? How protected are we if schools cancel class but kids then disperse to malls and movie theaters and bounce houses?

At the micro level, far from the press conferences and epidemiological statistics, the long-term implications were starting to set in this week, and not just because Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive. (“Well, now. What to do next?” Hanks tweeted.)

“I don’t know how other people are doing it,” said Park, the Elk Grove working mother. “When they have to pay for day care and people who have their kids in after-school care — I don’t know what you do.”

Stuart Levin watches his daughter, Arabella, 6, swing from the monkey bars at Kloss Park in Elk Grove, which has closed all district schools through April 3 after a student tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

For the 40-year-old marketing manager and many in her crowd, the epidemic has been nothing but mounting complication. Getting her 9-year-old son Brysen to his grandma’s house has become a two-hour chore, daily. She worries her 12-year-old daughter, Cheilin, who is in seventh grade, is missing crucial instruction. The district, she says, didn’t send schoolwork home to parents because the cancelation was treated as an early spring break. Junior prom, she said, has been canceled, crushing her friends’ teenagers.

But her family has had to improvise, she said, ever since a student tested positive for the virus at the Elk Grove Unified School District, Northern California’s largest. “I guess I feel like the district is overreacting,” Park said. “I think they should just close down the school that was affected — have a cleaning crew go through and disinfect everything. I understand it’s new and it’s kinda scary but they handled it very poorly. The communication was poor.”

Other Californians viewed the virus with far more caution.

“I don’t even want to risk it,” said Lewis, as the L.A. mother of two packed her children off with her mom to the far reaches of Northern California. Her youngest daughter, she said, had spent 10 days in the hospital for respiratory issues when she was younger. Her mother, a retired public health nurse, can’t risk getting sick because she is allergic to antibiotics. Her school district, Los Angeles Unified, is massive.


“My husband is out of the country and I’m working full-time,” said Lewis, who works in the television industry. “I feel like we want to be ahead of the curve and not behind it. You want to get your kid out of LAUSD before there is a case.”

Cescatti is in the same camp. She’s essentially pulling up the welcome mat and putting a do not disturb sign on her door after talking with family members in Italy. Out went all nonessential socializing, including her father-in-law’s 82rd birthday this weekend.

“We’d rather celebrate his birthday later when it’s safe to get together,” Cescatti said. “I’m toeing the line over here and I’m saying no because I don’t know who I’ve been exposed to in the last few weeks. So we don’t want to expose them.”

Cescatti, who consults and teaches communications classes to parents, has canceled a class, moved one workshop online so far and realizes she probably won’t be attending an important conference in April.

“It’s a responsibility for those of us who can,” she said about self-isolating. “If everybody does this then we can slow it down.”

On social media and in chat rooms, parents debated how best to respond to the virus. Some who are moving to isolate or take kids out of school asked not to be named in this story, fearing they’d be accused of being “alarmist.” Others called for pragmatism or community planning.

“I’m in the mindset that I’m not panicking at all but I am trying to be measured,” said Noel Nichols of Los Angeles, who is planning to keep her preschooler home next week and is postponing her five-year-old son’s upcoming birthday party. “I think taking real precautions is the way to get a handle on it now rather than later when everyone is panicking.”

“We don’t know how long it’s going to be for,” said Wainscott, the physician’s assistant organizing the mom swap. “It’s better to be proactive and not reactive.” She said she and her husband have two months of savings to weather a potential outbreak, but she feels for families with little to no emergency savings, and no backup child care.

Carmen Marquez walks home in Los Angeles with her three grandchildren and a neighbor child she cares for. Worried about the lupus that makes her especially vulnerable to coronavirus, she has stocked up on medication, makes the kids wash their hands multiple times daily, and prays for their health and her own. (Photo by Elizabeth Aguilera for CalMatters)

Not to mention parents like Meryl Opsal, whose health care worker parents have self-isolated for their own safety. Last Friday was the last day they came over, she said, and she fears it could be months before she sees them again in person.

She thinks 8-month-old Sidney will forget them and she’s been trying to prep 4-year-old Jasper for their sudden absence by explaining grandma and grandpa are keeping themselves safe from a new bug.

“I’m devastated because, beyond just losing the child care, being a stay-at-home mom, my mom is my closest social contact at this point and I feel like I’m losing that,” she said. “But I don’t want to lose my mom and I trust her on this so I’m not going to try to convince her. I want her to be safe and I’m going to miss her a lot.”

For some families, forgoing grandparent interaction isn’t an option because they share the same roof. Joy Hepp’s Pasadena area home, for instance, includes herself, her partner, her 3-year-old-preschooler and her mother-in-law, who is on dialysis. Lately, she said, she holds her breath every time her toddler kisses grandma good night.

“I’m just sitting here trying to wrap my mind around if she gets a cold, where do we go and what should I do?”

Outside the Academia Semillas del Pueblo charter school in Los Angeles, gripping a double stroller, another grandmother has chosen preparation. Carmen Marquez, 58, says she has invested in extra lupus medication, despite her husband’s growing sense that, for everyone’s safety, it’s time for their grandchildren to just stay home from school.

“A grandmother will do anything for her kids, she said. “I believe in God and I ask that he keeps all my kids safe, and us too.”

In Elk Grove, where school had been canceled, grandparents at Kloss Park seconded that emotion.

“I love him and there’s no sacrifice,” 75-year-old Maria Castellanos said, watching her youngest grandchild, 5-year-old Valentino Lopez. In this time of coronavirus, the best bet is precaution, she said, pulling a blue lanyard keychain out of her pocket and dangling it.

“I wash it every time we get home.”

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