Photos From The Field: A Year In The Pandemic
Lucia Starbuck has covered the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year for KUNR Public Radio with Report for America, This Is Reno and Our Town Reno. In this photo gallery, she shares her photos from the field.
Early in the pandemic, my newsroom director asked me and my colleagues to grab our belongings and start working from home to curb the spread of COVID-19, but I still found myself incredibly curious about what was taking place in person in my home state. I had one driving question: What was pushing my community members to leave their homes during a deadly pandemic?
Many Nevadans donned facial coverings and left their homes for work, to receive a COVID-19 test or vaccination, or to access a food bank. Throughout the last year, demonstrators also took to the streets to call for social justice, and other protesters gathered to defy COVID-19 restrictions. And some didn’t have the luxury to shelter in place.
People experiencing homelessness were immediately affected by widespread business closures early in the pandemic. There was a lack of safe places for people living on the streets to relax, access the internet and shelter from harsh weather conditions. In late March of 2020, the Reno Events Center was transformed into a shelter. City of Reno officials said the Community Assistance Center, where the Record Street shelters are located, did not have adequate space to maintain social distancing. Due to event closures, the events center became a viable option. Around 400 beds were placed six feet apart in one large room; however, this didn’t increase the number of beds available for people.
On the grounds where the annual Reno Rodeo is normally held, the Washoe County Health District transformed the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center’s parking lot into a COVID-19 testing site. Instead of a packed stadium filled with people sharing laughter and drinks, the scene was silent and serious. Early in the pandemic, testing was reserved for people at high risk for contracting COVID-19 due to limited supplies. Since March 2020, nearly 3 million COVID-19 tests have been administered in Nevada. That’s nearly one test per person in Nevada. As of April 2, 2021, more than 304,000 Nevadans have tested positive.
By mid-April of 2020, Gov. Steve Sisolak had announced more than 300,000 Nevadans had filed for unemployment. Due to a record number of claims, benefits were slow to make their way to many Nevadans. Around the same time, hundreds of Nevadans started protesting in the streets, rallying to reopen the economy. Many of the demonstrators were not wearing facial coverings or maintaining social distancing, a move health officials continuously said could prolong stay-at-home directives and business shutdowns. Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses to shut down in mid-March and didn’t announce a plan for reopening until late April.
The death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, galvanized community members to protest racial injustice across the country and locally. On May 30, 2020, roughly 1,000 marchers gathered in front of the BELIEVE sign at Reno City Plaza to protest police brutality. After several hours of peaceful protesting, the event hosted by local BLM organizers ended, but a group of a few hundred people split from the main demonstration and later wreaked havoc, which included vandalism and facing off with law enforcement late into the night. Local BLM organizers denounced the riot.
Throughout the summer, community members continued to gather to mourn Black lives lost due to police violence, and many different ideas were circulated on how to better support Black community members. Community members even rode their bikes to raise awareness. The largest rallying cry during the summer of BLM demonstrations was to defund the police. During the fiscal year 2019-20, the Reno Police Department was allocated 36% of the City of Reno’s $210 million general fund — the largest category of the budget. Many local BLM supporters called for reallocating those funds into mental health services, housing and education.
The Nevada State Legislature held two special legislative sessions during the summer of 2020. The first special session began in July and lawmakers looked for ways to offset the $1.2 billion deficit in the state’s general fund caused by shutdowns during the pandemic. State agency budgets were cut across the board, causing concern about many impacts, including steep cuts to health and education services. The second session focused on a wider range of topics, including the election, police reform and unemployment. While people weren’t able to enter the Nevada State Legislature building due to the pandemic, they still participated in virtual public comment and some also protested outside of the building.
As BLM demonstrations continued throughout Nevada over the summer, counter-protesters in support of law enforcement became more vocal. In early August, a group of about 30 BLM supporters gathered to protest the Douglas County sheriff after he made a controversial statement in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM supporters were met with hostility, threats and violence from nearly 1,000 counter-protesters who came out to support law enforcement and the sheriff. Many of the armed counter-protesters yelled racist obscenities and demanded the BLM supporters “go home.” The small group ultimately left because they said they didn’t feel safe.
As the fall semester starting date drew closer, reopening K-12 schools became a polarizing debate and was plagued with challenges. There were concerns about student mental health and learning losses as working families struggled with childcare and teachers feared for their safety. Hundreds of teachers and parents in Washoe County protested before school began to postpone reopening. Unlike the Clark County School District, which remained virtual for nearly a year for most students, the Washoe County School District landed on a hybrid system for many students. WCSD ended up switching to full remote learning for middle and high school students at the beginning of December as COVID-19 cases surged in Washoe County and contact tracing could not keep up. Secondary students returned to the classroom two weeks into the 2021 spring semester. Elementary students have remained in person. However, all K-12 families had the option to sign up for remote learning.
As the presidential election loomed, Nevada lawmakers approved a bill requiring mail-in ballots to be sent to all registered voters in the state in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 at polling locations for the 2020 general election. However, in late August, operational changes within the U.S. Postal Service delayed mail across the country, worrying many voters about the integrity of mail-in ballots. Voters in Carson City and Reno took to the streets to protest against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican megadonor, who was heading the changes.
Nevada is a swing state, making it a battleground for presidential candidates fighting to get voters on their side. During former President Donald Trump’s first campaign rally since the start of the pandemic, he was greeted by several thousand, mostly maskless, supporters at the Minden-Tahoe Airport in Douglas County. During Trump’s visit, he repeatedly shared unsubstantiated claims that Nevada’s mail-in voting will lead to voter fraud. Trump’s rally was initially slated for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, but that event was canceled because it would have violated the state's COVID-19 restrictions. OSHA fined Douglas County and the company that manages the airport there for a total of $5,500 for allowing an event that surpassed Nevada’s 50-person limit on gatherings at the time, but the fines were later dismissed.
Nevada saw a record 1.4 million ballots cast during the general election, with more than 77% of all active registered voters casting a ballot. Nearly half were cast by mail, but the pandemic didn’t stop the other 52% from showing up in person — early or on Election Day. At the polls, COVID-19 protocols were put in place. Voters were required to wear a mask, social distance and go through a temperature check at the door. Several local voters I spoke to said one of the biggest issues driving them to the polls was deciding who they wanted to navigate the pandemic response and everything that came with it.
Following the election, Nevada experienced the largest surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths since the pandemic began. This surge continued through mid-January. To meet the surge in hospitalizations, Renown Regional Medical Center reopened its parking garage care site, which had been transformed into an emergency COVID-19 care facility. It was set up in April in the event hospitals reached capacity, but it wasn’t needed until mid-November. At that time, about 85% of staffed hospital beds were occupied in Washoe County.
Disputes about the election continued, spearheaded by Trump. For months, community members continued to gather in Carson City to protest the election results. They echoed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting and the election were rigged. Demonstrators held signs and chanted, “Stop the steal.” Some wore the letter “Q,” signifying their support of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and a handful of members of the Proud Boys movement, a designated hate group, were also there.
By mid-December, the nation was nine months into the deadly pandemic. At this point, nearly 2,600 Nevadans, with nearly 380 from Washoe County, had died. As of April 2, 2021, more than 5,200 Nevadans have lost their lives, including 660 Washoe County residents. In mid-December, a much-anticipated vaccine was set to arrive. The first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine rolled into the Washoe County Health District. The 3,900 doses fit neatly into one box. I never thought I would be so excited about the arrival of a FedEx truck.
The Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center was the first to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for tribal members in Northern Nevada, alongside some of the facility’s frontline health care workers. At that time, about a quarter of the members of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony had tested positive for COVID-19. There was an air of excitement in the room as people got their shots. This was the first “happy” story I covered since the pandemic began.
The vaccine rollout in Nevada started slowly. The state was facing budget constraints, delayed shipments from the federal government and a shortage of people to help administer the vaccine. The Nevada National Guard, FEMA and volunteers were enlisted to help at different vaccination sites across the state. As of April 2, 2021, about one in three Nevadans over 16 have received their first shot. On April 5, all Nevadans over the age of 16 will be eligible to receive a vaccine.
Advocates are warning the impacts of the pandemic will be long-lasting. Widespread unemployment, high medical costs, expensive housing and low wages are exacerbating food insecurity. In the last three months of 2020, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada served an average of 115,000 people each month. Nevada is tied with Louisiana for the highest rate of childhood food insecurity in the nation.
From March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 incidents of hate against people of Asian descent across the country, but that number is likely higher due to underreporting. At press conferences and in speeches over the last year, Trump used racist terms to describe COVID-19, which exacerbated discrimination and violence against people perceived to be Chinese. Following the Atlanta Spa Shootings in late March, “Stop Asian Hate” rallies took place nationwide, including in Reno, to denounce violence and racism toward Asian Americans. Demonstrators spoke on the importance of protecting and looking out for one another.
Over the last year, Nevadans have taken to the streets to grieve, support one another, protest in support of a cause or to get their COVID-19 vaccine. I feel honored to share these stories and be able to document these historic events as they unfolded in my home state.
Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. She’s also a recipient of the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) Jacque I. Minnotte Health Reporting Fellowship.
As a note of disclosure, Renown Health is a financial supporter of KUNR.