This winter … the coronavirus brought a wave of social change from which Bolinas [a tiny hippie enclave north of San Francisco] could not flee. On January 11th, China reported its first death caused by covid-19; on January 21st, a resident of Washington State, who had travelled to Wuhan, became the first confirmed case in the United States; and, by mid-February, fatalities spanned the world. On March 16th, a group of counties across the Bay Area declared shelter-in-place orders; a few days later, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, became the first to institute a statewide policy. In Bolinas, alarm grew. “There are a lot of, frankly, aging hippies here whose idea of social distancing is to hug each other a little bit less,” Jyri Engeström, a venture capitalist who has a house in town, said. “It kept me up at night.”
Engeström and others began thinking about how they might protect their town. What ensued was a remarkable effort, blending grassroots coördination and startup ingenuity. By late April, Bolinas would be one of a handful of towns in the United States to offer coronavirus testing to all of its residents and workers. (The others were in San Miguel County, Colorado, and Fisher Island, Florida.) Its self-testing procedures are being studied as a model in countries as different as New Zealand and Uganda; the town is also a key participant in a study of coronavirus spread run by epidemiologists at the University of California, San Francisco. In a matter of weeks, this tiny separatist retreat of surfers, artists, drifters, and venture capitalists claimed a place at the forefront of pandemic strategy.
Bolinas’s testing site opened on April 20th, and closed after April 23rd. Each morning, Aenor Sawyer, its medical director, drove her bright-red farm tractor to the site and parked it there as a beacon for the rest of town. In ordinary times, Sawyer is an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at U.C.S.F., but the arrival of covid-19 had struck her close to home—she is vulnerable to respiratory infection, and her sister spent months on a ventilator with ards, after a post-surgical complication—so she was moved to help. At the site, a plaza-like lot abutting Bolinas’s volunteer fire station, six white tents normally rented for weddings had been set up. Sawyer’s role there was to maintain clinical standards and protocol, and to offer as much bedside manner as one can to a line of vehicles. “It’s a little anxiety-producing for people to have these tests done,” she said. “They hear a lot of stories.” [Continue reading…]