In the community where I live, December was downright normal. Or, as normal as any smallish town could be in 2020, but certainly more normal than most of the West Coast.
Residents of Redding, Calif., at the very northern tip of the Central Valley about two hours and change north of Sacramento, spent most of the year as the outlaws of the COVID-19 pandemic. It started in May with a private rodeo in Cottonwood, just south of here, whose crowd of over 2,000 people gained national media attention and a rebuke from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
It continued through the summer with loud protests, including one man’s “we’re not gonna take it anymore” rant to Shasta County supervisors that went viral on YouTube. And it hit a crescendo with the trials and travails of Bethel Church, whose world-famous worship team’s music you may hear on the radio or sing on Sunday mornings.
Among Bethel’s transgressions this summer were an outdoor prayer session at the Sundial Bridge, a local landmark, and a private outdoor wedding, both of which spurred negative publicity.
But by Thanksgiving, our little town of redneck science-deniers was suddenly a major tourist destination. The attraction was the Garden of Lights, an elaborate, walk-through display of over a million Christmas lights hosted nightly through December by Turtle Bay Exploration Park. My wife and I masked up and went twice, and it was magical. It was also a mass gathering by anyone’s definition.
The park’s CEO told the Redding Record Searchlight they capped nightly ticket sales at 3,200. I’ve heard unconfirmed estimates the number of entries wound up much higher. The Sheraton next door sold tickets at the front desk, and a manager told my mother the light show was drawing guests from as far away as Seattle and Los Angeles.
With the onslaught and with our hospital capacities holding steady, most businesses and other functions were open. People dined in at restaurants, attended indoor Christmas services, went to drive-in movies and bought gifts at indoor craft fairs.
For one thing, the spectacle highlights a class divide that has been worsened by the pandemic. The visitors from LA and Seattle still had jobs and could afford to travel, while many of their neighbors were out of work and stuck in lockdown. But it also highlights the pressure placed on rural resources as people from cities come out here to escape, then criticize us rubes (including in agriculture) when our infections go up.
The solution, in my view, is simple: Mask up and open up, everywhere. Take the precautions necessary and appropriate in a real and deadly pandemic, such as masks, distancing and yes, the vaccine. But get as much of the economy moving as possible so people don’t feel a need to travel 500 miles for a light show, or a haircut.
Then maybe life will seem a little more normal – or at least as normal as Christmastime in Redding.