Bolinas, California, is not a place one finds oneself by accident, in part because it is a place that must be found. Out on the edge of the North Bay of San Francisco, off a main highway, it can be approached only by narrow roads that have the form of waves: byways through the eucalyptus, snaking drives along the dry cliffs of the coast. Not far beyond the blackened trace of last fall’s fires, a hairpin turn leads to a swerving road down a thick peninsula between the sea and a lagoon. Bolinas, population sixteen hundred, is at the heel, like a town that has drawn back and back and now has nowhere left to go.

For fifty years, this place has marked the center of a blue America where big business and invasive government are subjects of equal distrust. The town’s virtues, its residents believe, flow from shared intentions and a close-knit community. In 1976, the journalist Orville Schell, a resident, published “The Town That Fought to Save Itself,” an account of Bolinas’s efforts to chart its own course in terms of life style and growth. (Schell, who reported on China for The New Yorker, in the late seventies and eighties, also co-founded, in Bolinas, the humane cattle farm Niman Ranch.) The town is best known for its 1971 moratorium on new water permits, which was done in the name of resource management but had the happy effect, for locals, of making development almost impossible to sustain.

In many ways, it has never stopped being 1971 in Bolinas. The town remains off-sewer, processing waste with an elaborate system of natural treatment ponds. It is filled with little farms kept thriving by bright dreams of living off the land. The residents—commuters, surfers, literal and spiritual campers—unify their consciousness with brightly painted wooden signs slung around town, setting the tenor of the place: “Gratitude,” a classic, appears in multiples (“Gratitude! . . . Gratitude! . . . Gratitude!”), while recent updates, such as “Feel the Bern,” have been strung up in trees. The signs give Bolinas a Candy Land charm, except in place of candy the town seems to offer chai, doulas, and hemp. The changes that the twenty-first century has wrought on the Bay Area—scooters and world-dominating industry, boutique coffee shops and keto bowls to go—have largely passed over Bolinas, though a few tech leaders have bought houses there; the town’s utopian self-regulation makes it seem like a place that they can call their own.

This winter, though, the coronavirus brought a wave of social change from which Bolinas 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.”

The doctors Aenor Sawyer and Ayesha Appa were among those who led testing operations and organized medical volunteers.Photograph by Barbara Ries / UCSF

It was a warm afternoon. Thick light and strong wind skidded off the Pacific, which was in whitecaps. The lot sat between a field of rippling high grass surrounding the sewer ponds and a skate park with a brightly painted mural, the motto in which, “Keep Bolinas Sacred,” had been graffitied to read “Keep Bolinas Skated.” As cars arrived, by reservation, a volunteer entered test subjects’ contact information into a computer. It was sent, via a MiFi router, to the tents down the line, where it was verified by technicians and used to label sample tubes. The volunteer divided the cars into four lines, each leading to a different drive-through testing tent.

Upon checking in, participants got surgical masks, even those who were already wearing masks of their own: by standardizing masks, the organizers could make testing faster and keep safety protocols consistent. Drivers proceeded to their tents and rolled down their windows. An examiner dressed like an astronaut—white bodysuit, white gloves, face shield—approached. Drivers and passengers extended their arms out their car windows for pinpricks. If people got woozy from the sight of blood or needles, there was a protocol for guiding their cars aside. Mask down, mouth swab; mask up (the probes often induced a cough or a sneeze), nose swab. Within seventy-two hours, tested individuals began receiving notice of their COVID-19 infection status, usually by text message. If the tests were positive, they would be called by U.C.S.F. research physicians, and the county health department would follow up for contact tracing. Working in this way, Bolinas’s one site could test and log more than two thousand people in a workweek—an astounding efficiency for one small site.

Wind flustered Sawyer’s gray hair as she darted among cars in sunglasses and a mask, conferring with other organizers via old-school walkie-talkies.

“Aenor to Jyri! Aenor to Jyri—come in, Jyri,” she shouted, into her device.

Jyri Engeström appeared from behind the fire station, wearing the outfit in which he’s often seen: a button-down shirt in a wet-hay shade, tight jeans, and hiking boots. He is in his early forties, but, with a mop of blond hair and round black-rimmed glasses, looks younger. A KN95 mask, in the shape of a coffee filter, drooped over his nose. (The KN95 is the Chinese version of the N95—it’s easier to obtain, and cheaper.) In normal times, Engeström and his partner, Caterina Fake, a co-founder of Flickr, spend half of each week in San Francisco; they homeschool their kids, easing the back-and-forth. When the pandemic hit, however, Engeström grew acutely aware of his family’s status as an outlier in the town’s demographics. “The median age here is fifty-two,” he said. “I’m from Finland, where we have universal health care.” Medical care for acute COVID-19 was sure to devastate the personal finances of several people in town. Although more recent arrivals, like Engeström, have tended to be roundly wealthy people in search of different life styles, Bolinas’s median income has fallen below the national average as its real-estate values have soared, leaving many long-term homeowners in a state increasingly common in coastal California: house rich but cash poor.



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