Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Kern County Hit Hard by Coronavirus

I had no idea the town of McKittrick, in Kern County west of Interstate 5, had so many oil wells --- especially wells that are still operating.

But the town's been hit hard, along with the rest of the county.

See LAT, "Kern County city gets hit with triple whammy: Lockdowns, oil slump and prison closing":

TAFT, Calif. —  The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is slamming cities and towns across the state.

But for Taft, a city of roughly 9,300 people in far western Kern County, there have been a few extra punches to the gut.

With prices and demand for oil down, the thousands of pump jacks that ordinarily bob up-and-down on the horizon are at a virtual standstill. That is adding to the misery on main street, where restaurants, gyms, stationery shops and other stores have been ordered closed.

And then there’s the fact that another major employer, the privately owned Taft Correctional Institute, closed its doors on April 30 after sending hundreds of uninfected prisoners to coronavirus hot spots across the country. The decision to close the federal prison was made last fall, long before the pandemic struck, but now the economic pain is hitting.

“It’s been a rough couple of months,” said Mayor Dave Noerr, who is pivoting as fast as he can to get his town’s economy up and running again.

Taft sits at the base of the San Emigdio and Temblor mountain ranges, between the Midway-Sunset and Buena Vista oil fields, in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. The smell of oil in the air along Mocal Road, just to the northwest of town, is unmistakable.

Once known as Siding Number Two — a stop off the Southern Pacific railway — Taft was subsequently named Moro, then Moron, before town leaders settled on naming the area after then-President Taft in 1912.

It’s been the geographical center of the California oil industry, where companies such as Chevron and Aera siphon up crude from the vast reserves pooled under this remote, dry region dotted with sage brush, clover and buckwheat.

On April 27, Taft’s City Council voted unanimously to open up for business on May 3, in defiance of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders.

But two days later, Kern County officials asked Noerr to stand down.

Unwilling to give up, the mayor penned a letter with four county supervisors and state Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), requesting the governor modify stay-at-home orders.

“Local government should have the flexibility and discretion to navigate reopening stages in a timeline that works best for their communities,” wrote Noerr and those co-signing the letter. Noerr sits on a Kern County advisory board that is evaluating how best to respond to the governor’s orders.

“I hate to say it, but the civil unrest we have been seeing seems to be having a positive effect,” he said, referring to protests over the weekend and the governor’s decision to reopen beaches around the state.

Several counties and cities have pushed back against Newsom’s emergency orders. In the far northeastern part of the state, Modoc County opened up for business on Friday. Sheriffs in Del Norte and Humboldt counties announced they would not enforce the orders.

Kern County has also opted not to enforce the restrictions.

“I see no reason why we should remain closed,” Noerr said in an interview, last week, not wearing a mask. He said the overall economy of the town likely has shrunk by 40%. He doesn’t yet have the numbers to show the true impact.

Sitting at the base of a bronze statue dedicated to the 20th century oil worker pioneers who built the city and the region’s oil industry, Noerr pointed to Kern County’s COVID-19 numbers, which show that Taft now has 16 cases, and that hospitalization rates in the county have started to dip...