Santa Monica pier, beach and walkways are still closed due to COVID-19, May 8, 2020. Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.
Santa Monica pier, beach and walkways are still closed due to COVID-19, May 8, 2020. Photo by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.

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By the time the coronavirus pandemic prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19, California already looked markedly different. Tuna, pasta and toilet paper had disappeared from many grocery store shelves. Schools began to close and university campuses emptied out for early spring break. Public transportation cars were emptier than usual as many professionals began to work from home. The occasional pedestrian could be seen wearing a gas mask.

In many respects, life was in an unrecognizable state of chaos — resembling a Steven Soderbergh movie or an apocalyptic thriller more than the day-to-day life just a week or two before. Widespread anxiety spread, fueled by conflicting information and the unknown.

Once the order was announced, people retreated to their homes, businesses shuttered and public spaces emptied as everyone who was able sheltered from an invisible enemy. Overnight, California seemed to come to a halt.

The Jelly Belly factory, a popular tourist destination, remains closed to the public due to shelter in place orders on May 6, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The lights, colors and costumes at Disneyland vanished for the first time since 9-11. The media giant announced that its Anaheim park would remain closed through the end of March. The closure was extended in April. And, again, in May. 

As Memorial Day weekend, the threshold to summer, passed, amusement parks and tourist stops across the state remained shut. Padlocks and gates barred visitors from their summer plans.

Disneyland remains closed due to COVID-19, May 8, 2020. Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.
Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.
The padlocked entrance to pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco remains closed on May 7, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Traffic in Los Angeles and the Bay Area disappeared—at least at first. Suddenly it was possible to traverse the Bay Bridge in a matter of minutes. Signs above and along highways reminded drivers to wash their hands and limit travel to necessary errands. The highway patrol reported accidents dropped to a quarter of their usual frequency, while citations for speeding over 100 mph spiked. 

A small number of cars drive along route 101 entering San Francisco at evening rush hour on May 7, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
While parking lots remained closed at Huntington Beach State Park due to COVID-19, the beaches opened to the public for limited activities, May 8, 2020. Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.
Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.

Parks, beaches and recreation areas hosted awkwardly spaced clusters of people seeking sunshine and fresh air. Hikers covered their faces and looked down as they passed on sparsely populated — and often officially closed — trails. The parking lots sat unsettlingly empty, barricaded. Nature reclaimed its domain. 

The entrance to Muir Woods National Monument is barricaded closed with a combination of sticks, cones and overturned benches on May 9, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A man bikes past the locked gate at The Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk on May 7, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Public pools and little league fields across the county such as these in Poway, remain closed due to COVID-19, May 15, 2020. Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.
Photos by Lisa Hornak for CalMatters.

Dining rooms and bars fell silent. Restaurant tables and chairs were stacked, glasses put away. Masked faces and gloved hands took orders from inside to-go windows. Store windows went dark.

A sign encouraging vineyard workers to practice social distancing is posted among the grapevines on May 6, 2020 in Oakville. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A pedestrian crosses an empty intersection in San Francisco financial district at evening rush hour on May 7, 2020. San Francisco county has announced they will maintain shelter in place orders through the end of May. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The newly empty spaces felt eerie but also signified collective responsibility: a social contract to remain at home and keep each other safe. For many, the stillness ushered in a sense of calm. 

A taped-off swing set at Fairgrounds mobile home park in American Canyon on May 6, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

How the virus continues to develop, and our response to it, remains an ominous mystery. As many counties begin reopening and Californians emerge into the awaiting world, these vacant spaces will fill once again — though perhaps not quite as full, and with an uncomfortable question lingering in the spaces between. 

What if this happens again?

If playgrounds, shared plates and music festivals become relics of a time before corona; if theme parks, sports arenas and tasting rooms remain vacant. 

Will the emptiness we felt in the spring of 2020 become part of our collective memory, a moment frozen in time? Or will it follow us for years to come, reshaping our fates and our future? 

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Anne Wernikoff

Anne Wernikoff

Anne is a photographer and multimedia journalist. She previously held positions at The Hill, National Geographic and KQED before joining CalMatters in the fall of 2019. Her work has appeared in The Information,...