From a highway traffic standpoint, the first week of the shelter-in-place order didn’t seem to have much of an effect.
On Highway 101 between San Juan Bautista and Morgan Hill, there are still tailgaters, random slowdowns and speeding truckers, in both the morning commute and afternoon rush hour. Perhaps a few less vehicles are on the road, and those slowdowns are not as long as they used to be.
But turn off of Highway 101 or 25, and the changed world under COVID-19 becomes much more apparent.
On March 16, Santa Clara County health officials ordered residents to “shelter at their place of residence” and called for “non-essential” operations to cease. A similar directive followed the next day in San Benito County. Later, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide shelter-in-place, with an ending date to be determined.
Toward the end of the first week of the lockdown, daily routines have been altered for most. Those who are not quarantined at home are drawn to the few big box stores still open to stock up on the essentials.
At any given daytime moment, Gilroy’s Costco is swarmed with stressed residents, many with gloves on their hands and masks covering their faces. A queue line haphazardly constructed out of shopping carts stretches from the entrance into the parking lot. With Costco management announcing the store would begin to limit the number of customers in the store at any one time, such a queue is now a long wait.
Last week, a sign at the beginning of the queue notified customers on which items were out of stock: rice, beans, vinegar, toilet paper and a handful of others.
Walmart, across the way on Camino Arroyo, hasn’t seen as much of an impact from an outside perspective. However, a look inside reveals empty shelves inside, especially in the paper products aisle, and reduced store hours—a common phenomenon for most stores.
The Gilroy Premium Outlets, with its nearly 120 stores covering everything from apparel, toys and more, is a popular spot for teens and tourists. But with it being deemed a “non-essential” operation, owner Simon Property Group shut it down through April 7.
In the week leading up to the county’s order, all of the outlets’ stores had either shut down completely or reduced their hours. On March 16, an hour after the order, only a handful of customers browsed the stores.
A group of teenagers walked up to the Levi’s Outlet Store, only to find it locked tight.
“No, no,” one of them groaned.
In Morgan Hill, construction projects around the city continue as normal. A bulldozer crew was busy on the Evergreen Village development at the corner of Cochrane Road and Butterfield Boulevard, and workers completed their various tasks at the Sunsweet Luxury Apartments on Third Street downtown.
Besides the construction work on the apartments, downtown remained at a standstill. Empty chairs and tables line Monterey Road outside of restaurants, and plenty of on-street parking is available.
Nearly every restaurant downtown has a sign on its window notifying customers that food is still available for delivery or takeout. Two men looking for something to eat were seen talking to an employee standing outside the door of GVA Café.
While the cars may have thinned out, signs of human life are still aplenty. Joggers traversed their way down Cochrane Road, and many other people took their dogs for a walk or pushed strollers along various side streets.
Despite being warned to stay in by countless health officials, many seniors have continued to go about their everyday business across the region. Some have taken advantage of the less-than-usual traffic to take a spin in their restored classic vehicles.
One pickup truck driver on Monterey Road in Morgan Hill towed a dilapidated ‘80s-model Chevrolet Corvette, perhaps a recent purchase from the Copart car auction facility in San Martin.
Drive-thrus, from McDonald’s to Starbucks and every other fast food joint, are nearly at a constant state of full capacity, as restaurants can only serve food on a takeout or delivery basis.
But the impacts of COVID-19 stretch far beyond just consumer culture.
Caution tape surrounds a playground at Christmas Hill Park, its swings and slides standing eerily still and silent minus the usual sounds of laughing children. The same deserted scene can be found at most parks throughout the South Valley and San Benito County.
Only a handful of cars traveled on San Benito Street, and the streets around deserted schools in Hollister were empty. Just one table was occupied at Heavenly Bakery, while across the street, the Mars Hill Coffeehouse was only offering coffee to go.
Schoolyards are quiet. Nash Road is open to non-existent traffic, splitting an empty high school campus.
This is the new normal. It’s time to hunker down and wait for the worst to pass, whenever that may be.