The City of Atwater unanimously passed a declaration on May 15 to be a “sanctuary city for businesses”. After state and county orders had deemed certain businesses as “essential” and ordered the remaining businesses to remain closed. This decision came to pass in the midst of a pandemic.
The city of Atwater decided to not follow any of the shelter in place orders placed by the state of California. Fast-forward to now, Atwater, with a population of roughly 30,000, now has over a thousand confirmed cases. Contributing to the 9,386 confirmed cases in Merced County as of Oct. 21. Atwater’s influence spread further according to Division Manager for the Merced County Department of Public Health Amalia Madrigal-Hernandez.
“Winton, an unincorporated area that shares borders with Atwater and many of whose residents receive services in Atwater, has the second highest rate of cases per resident in the County,” Madrigal-Hernandez said.
Atwater held a special meeting where over 200 attendees from the city and outside Merced County gathered at City Hall. Among these attendees were anti-vaccine activists, known as Freedom Angels, showing their solidarity with Atwater.
Anem Garduño, a resident of Merced, noted that it was odd to see groups from outside the county arrive at an Atwater City Council meeting.
“I think it’s really strange… strange to me why people who do not reside in this area are coming from afar to say really inflammatory things,” Garduño said. “And I don’t see a place for that here.”
Businesses in Atwater have had mixed reactions to the resolution.
Though he said business was doing well, Luigi of Tary Boscolo’s said, “I don’t know if it was because of the resolution or because we have a good clientele.”
Darlene Dover, owner of Envy Fine Clothing, said they are thankful the city fought for them.
“We have been able to open safely and business is thriving,” Dover said in an email. “People are so appreciative that they can come in and actually shop. Employees wear masks, we offer hand sanitizer at the door, we limit capacity and we disinfect constantly. If we were unable to open, we would have had to close our doors.”
Safety measures enforced by the state were disregarded. The Merced County Sheriff’s office’s had been lenient in enforcing the state’s COVID restrictions before a surge in cases. Today, Merced County’s two largest towns are Merced (pop. 83,000) along with Los Banos (pop. 40,000). Based on per capita, the city of Atwater, which has a population of roughly 30,000, surpassed these two towns in positive cases this past July.
California has withheld $387,428 meant for coronavirus relief funds In the past, California has already withheld $64,833 from Atwater. In 2019, Atwater was the second most financially troubled city in California. Members of the government of the City of Atwater have reportedly seen this as an act of hostility.
“They have tried to put a gun to our head to make us fold,” Atwater mayor Paul Creighton said at a City Council meeting.
On Aug. 29, the Merced County Department of Public Health released a press release regarding a governor’s statement, announcing a blueprint to reopen the economy at a conference held the day prior.
Recently, Merced County moved out of the Purple tier and into the Red tier. Each county must meet the next tier’s standards for two consecutive weeks to move up through the tiers. This new system was placed on Mon., Aug. 31.
“If we want to move forward through these new tiers, we need to continue wearing face coverings, avoiding large group gatherings and practicing social distancing,” Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County’s Public Health Officer, said in a press release.
In response, the public health department has been initiating multiple initiatives to ensure safety around the county. Through disbursement of safety materials and education to impacted communities within the county.
“The department recently coordinated and implemented State funded and operated mobile testing sites throughout the county,” according to Madrigal-Hernandez. “These testing sites were successful in providing easy access to those who may not have been able to obtain a test.”
Allowing safety material to be more accessible has been significant in detection of the virus. However, prevention is optimal in ensuring a drop in positive cases within the population. Atwater’s declaration to be a sanctuary for business has continued for months. Local and State Health Orders were not enforced originally, but became enforced after the surge. Neighboring towns are finding more cases of their own from residents who receive services from Atwater.