Everyone hopes the case numbers seen in 2021 have reached their peak for Kern County. Regardless of the global health crisis though, this past year was still marked with great progress, as well reminders that Kern County has some work to do. Like most years, there was historic change, and great tragedies, as well as triumphs.
Some, if not many, of these stories are still developing, but all of them played a role in telling the tale of the year that was 2021 in The Californian.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 reached their highest level yet recorded Jan. 11, with 464 people being cared for in local hospitals, according to state data. The winter surge, which occurred before vaccines were widely available, pushed hospitals and other first responders to their limit, threatening to overwhelm the medical system in Kern County. Cases and hospitalizations dropped sharply over the next few months before the more-contagious delta variant drove a third wave in the fall. In Kern County, the third wave peaked Sept. 2, with 337 hospitalized patients. The county has yet to get back to the July 2 low point of 22 hospitalized patients. With the omicron variant threatening to reverse the slow decline of hospitalizations, Kern County’s hospital system could be in for another challenging year in 2022.
COVID-19 vaccines dominated the news cycle throughout 2021 for a number of reasons. The first vaccine was given to a Kern resident in 2020, but the Kern County Public Health Services Department notes Jan. 21 as the first date that a Kern resident was considered fully vaccinated. At first, the vaccine was rolled out to the most vulnerable residents and elderly, but by the end of 2021, residents as young as 5 were receiving doses, and residents were receiving booster shots to improve the efficacy of their first shots. Since Jan. 21, Kern Public Health has kept a running tally of how the vaccinated and unvaccinated have fared in the county. To date, the unvaccinated still account for more than 90 percent of cases and hospitalizations.
Bakersfield’s single-family home market finally climbed back to its pre-bust peak with a median sales price record of $303,000, a mark it would easily surpass in the months that followed. The achievement was another sign, together with sharply escalating rental prices and plummeting vacancy rates, that the local market badly lacks supply as people from outside the area seize on Kern County’s relatively affordable housing. Most other cities recovered their pre-bust peaks years before, but Bakersfield went through a hot-and-cold comeback from the depth of April 2009, when the median sales price sank as low as $115,000. Homebuilders and developers have busily worked to bring new homes to market, just as many longtime residents have put their homes up for sale and made plans to move out of state. But market observers say there are still far too few homes on the market, or available apartments, to keep up with demand.
March marked the one-year anniversary of the effort to fight COVID-19, which included calls for more vaccine availability amid a rise in the awareness of variants — sound familiar? Kern County remained in the most restrictive tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, with many Americans looking to July 4 as the date for when things might open up again, following an address from President Joe Biden.
With protective measures in place, many districts returned to in-person classes throughout the month of March, with optimism for how caution, social distancing and protective measures could keep kids safe while in the classroom. In that same spirit of progress, another call was heard to revitalize Old Town Kern, a historic part of Bakersfield that’s seen better days due to years of neglect.
Gov. Gavin Newsom took an unprecedented step against California’s oil industry April 23: a pair of orders that looked to end fracking within three years, and ending in-state petroleum production altogether by 2045 to help address climate change. The moves, a departure from the governor’s campaign to curtail oil production through ever-tighter regulations, angered Central Valley leaders concerned about the negative impacts on the local workforce. The decision also garnered criticism from environmentalists pushing for it to happen sooner.
A series of fires alarmed residents in Westchester in the last week of April. Later that same week, a report came out that counted Bakersfield’s homeless population at more than 2,000.
Two individuals whose work played a major role in the lives of farmworkers were honored. First lady Jill Biden visited Delano to recognize the contributions of civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, and all 23 California State University campuses made a dedication to Dolores Huerta just after the 91st birthday of the famous organizer of farmworkers.
South High stopped waving the Confederate flag after touchdowns in the 1960s, but it took until this year for the school to give up the Rebel mascot. On May 7, the school announced that its mascot would be the Spartans. In the fall, it was official. Weeks later, the Greenfield Union School District voted to change the name of Plantation Elementary, a school just down the road from South High. On Dec. 15, the new name was announced: Prosperity Elementary School. In the wake of George Floyd protests last year, many schools and cities across the nation wrestled with the racial injustice behind the names, monuments and memorials in the local landscape. There are still lingering reminders of the Confederacy in the street names around South High and Prosperity. Greenfield Union plans to ask for one change next: that Plantation Avenue gets rebranded, too.
California was under harsh masking and capacity restrictions for the first half of 2021. Those restrictions lifted on June 15, when the lockdown, which had been in place for more than a year, ended. It was on that date that vaccinated Californians were allowed to forgo masks and social distancing, while restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and grocery stores could open to full capacity. A day after the lockdown ended, Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped in Bakersfield to urge residents to renew their gym memberships. It didn’t take long, however, for cases and hospitalizations to slowly creep back up. The threat of another wave caused California on Dec. 15 to reinstate an indoor mask mandate until at least Jan. 15.
The Bakersfield Christian girls basketball team also captured its first Southern California Regional title this month, winning the Division IV championship. Senior center Dami Sule finished with 37 points and 29 rebounds to lead the Eagles to a 60-46 victory over San Diego-Academy of Our Lady of Peace in the final. It was the school’s second regional championship, following up the boys basketball team’s Division III title in 2020, which was interrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the CIF State finals. Ridgeview and Highland each won regional championships to cap impressive playoff runs in their respective sports. The Wolf Pack baseball team, which finished fifth in the powerful Southwest Yosemite League, went 6-0 in the postseason, capped by a 5-4 victory over host Simi Valley-Royal in D-IV final. Ridgeview rallied from a 4-1 deficit and took the lead when junior Jacob Gutierrez hit a grand slam in the top of the fifth inning. The Scots also posted a fifth-inning comeback to win the D-IV softball title with a 4-3 victory over hosts Holtville, located more than 300 miles away from Bakersfield. In its six playoff wins, Highland outscored its opponents a combined 81-5.
Three local baseball products were selected in the MLB Draft. Stockdale graduate Sean Mullen, who played two seasons at UCLA, was taken in the 11th round by the Tampa Bay Rays. Former Garces standout Jacen Roberson was selected in the 16th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks following two seasons at Cal State Bakersfield. Left-hander Kris Anglin, a Frontier High grad, had his name called 19 picks later by the Atlanta Braves. All three athletes signed to play professional ball shortly thereafter.
Seventy-six-year-old women don’t often face murder charges. But the improbable happened in Kern County Superior Court when Sandra Jeannett Bonertz, 76, pleaded not guilty to a single count of first-degree murder in the shooting death of her roommate at the Pinewood Glen Retirement Community in southwest Bakersfield. In a courtroom crowded with criminal defendants waiting to be arraigned, Bonertz was easy to spot. With her shock of white hair and grandmotherly demeanor, she seemed confused and out of place in her gray jail smock, leg irons and handcuffs. When Judge Michael Bush called her name, Bonertz pleaded not guilty. She remains behind bars — held without bail — due to the severity of the charge.
The July 25 death of Kern County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Phillip Campas rocked Bakersfield to its very core. Campas died while protecting Wasco from a shooting related to domestic violence. Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene after a frantic 911 call described a man with a gun. Manuel Ramirez killed his wife, Viviana Ruiz Ramirez, and two sons, 24-year-old Jose Manuel Ramirez III and 17-year-old Angel Ramirez. Deputy Dizander Guerrero was also wounded in the shooting and survived. The shooter — the father — was killed after an hourslong standoff with deputies. Officials across the country came to mourn and grieve Campas at Mechanics Bank Arena. Several processions and funds also collectively sought to honor the slain deputy’s memory. Family and friends described the man behind the badge to The Californian: As a family man, Campas would do anything for them. His love of helping others shone through in his dedication to public service as a Marine and KCSO deputy.
Expectations were high for back to school this fall: Students would finally be leaving their homes and logging off, and schools would have record budgets to help struggling students catch up. But school began for most Kern students just as the delta variant was surging through Kern County. Delta’s worst day in Kern came the third week of school.
Students were sent home with every sniffle, sneeze and cough. Was it COVID-19 or was it allergies? School nurses were overworked and, with substitutes in short supply, so was everyone else. Teachers or anyone with a credential took on extra classes. School buses arrived late and stops were cut. Kernville Union briefly shut down some campuses when too many staff were out. Fall semester wasn’t exactly the grand return to in-person learning that everyone hoped for.
The Lake Isabella region was consumed with flames from a massive conflagration that came to be known as the French Fire. At its height, the fire ballooned to 26,535 acres. Some residents lost their homes and about 3,500 civilians had to be evacuated from areas such as Wofford Heights, Shirley Meadows and Alta Sierra. The French Fire was unlike any other fire fought within Kern County, firefighters said. The drought conditions allowed the land to become kindling for the flames to ravage. High temperatures with inaccessible terrain increased the difficulty to contain the flames. It took roughly 26 days for the flames to be extinguished.
Gov. Gavin Newsom faced a recall election in September, facing off against a host of Republicans and some Democrats. He won the election handily, earning 61.9 percent of the final tally. That was the exact same proportion of votes by which he won the 2018 election over Republican John Cox, showing not much had changed politically despite a world upturned by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the recall, Newsom faced off against radio host and author Larry Elder, who campaigned on a tough-on-crime platform with echoes of former President Donald Trump. Bakersfield became a hot commodity for conservative hopefuls. The city hosted fundraisers and press events for all the top Republican candidates. In the end, Kern County was an inverse reflection of the state, voting 61.8 percent in favor of the recall. Elder earned the highest number of votes, with 99,969, or 67.8 percent of the total.
Golden Empire Transit has faced plenty of challenges since 1973, when it became greater Bakersfield’s primary provider of public transportation. As it turned out, 2021 was no exception in the “challenges” department. This year, GET’s board of directors took a number of steps designed to address pressing issues. One of those includes state requirements for cleaner-burning buses. “We were required to submit a plan to the California Air Resources Board about how we would achieve zero emissions by 2040,” GET’s Chief Executive Karen King told The Californian in September. The answer was electric buses. But the biggest roadblock turned out to be GET’s location. “Our existing facility is not large enough,” King said. “We are not able to bring sufficient power into this facility.” That means someday GET will have to move. But in the meantime, GET chose to go with hydrogen cell technology over batteries for its electric buses.
The Western States Petroleum Association joined Kern County in suing the Gov. Gavin Newsom administration over a de facto ban on fracking that has roiled local oil producers. The trade group’s suit added legal firepower to county supervisors’ claim, spelled out in a suit filed a month earlier, that the governor exceeded his authority by acting ahead of a formal rule-making process and denying permits for the controversial oil field technique without citing specific technical concerns. California’s Geologic Energy Management division in early July denied fracking permits to Bakersfield oil producer Aera Energy LLC after Newsom faced heavy pressure from climate activists unsatisfied with the Legislature’s 2013 attempt to regulate fracking, which led to exhaustive reviews, special monitoring and the nation’s tightest rules on the practice.
Newsom announced on Oct. 1 that K-12 students in California would be required to be vaccinated. Though the announcement seemed to be premature and details vague, the response from some parents in Kern County was swift and unmistakable: They hated it and they were ready to fight. School board meetings have and continue to be the place where parents and community members have voiced their opposition to any sort of vaccine mandate. But the biggest protest was on Oct. 18, when many parents joined a statewide protest by keeping their kids home from school to send a message about what schools could look like with a strict mandate in effect: They would sooner keep their kids at home than vaccinate them. In northwest school districts, attendance dipped by 25 percent. Some parents headed to Sacramento, but many showed up in front of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools to make sure the reason for their child’s absence wasn’t lost on anyone.
Jose Bello, who gained national attention after criticizing the enforcement of U.S. immigration policy, pleaded not guilty to murder Nov. 22 at his preliminary arraignment in the Tulare County Superior Court. The 24-year-old was arrested in Bakersfield and booked into a jail in Tulare. Co-defendants Jesus Manjarrez, 23, and Dan Eli Perez, 38, were also arrested on suspicion of killing Douglas Cline. Cline was found dead in a Terra Bella orchard Oct. 15. A probable cause declaration from the Tulare County Superior Court said Manjarrez and Perez saw the shooting, but that Bello was the shooter.
November also saw the attorneys for Armando Cruz, who’s accused in the rape and murder of 13-year-old Patricia Alatorre, file a motion to request the county pay for their services, when it became clear to them Cruz could not. The attorneys ultimately withdrew their request and removed themselves from the case. Prosecutors have said Cruz could face the death penalty if convicted.
The first week of December saw a pair of Bakersfield high schools win their first-ever regional bowl games in the state high school football playoffs, as Independence escaped Venice with a 19-14 win in Division 5-AA, and Liberty shut down Pittsburg 35-7 at Bakersfield College in Division 1-A. For the Falcons, who started 0-6 but won nine straight games, it was another milestone in a season defined by resilience. For the Patriots, meanwhile, the bowl win was the latest expression of their ability to compete with the top squads in California. While Independence and Liberty fell in state championship games the following weekend, the regional championships represented a new high-water mark for the two schools.
Kern County earned the ignominious label from Gov. Gavin Newsom of “murder capital” of California during a news conference he held to address a headline-grabbing streak of organized, high-profile smash-and-grab thefts right before the holidays. Newsom unveiled a plan to spend nearly a third of a billion dollars to fight crime in response to the incidents. Kern County officials, including District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, fired back, pointing to his soft-on-crime policies as a big reason for the rise in crime.
A Southern California startup announced a plan for turning ag waste into hydrogen for transportation and then burying the byproduct carbon dioxide deep underground or sealing it in concrete. It is the latest of several carbon capture and sequestration proposals to surface in 2021 as companies including several Kern oil producers angle to collect federal tax credits and state Low Carbon Fuel Standard revenues incentivizing greenhouse gas burial. Researchers have identified Kern as an ideal place for the high-energy activity, partly because of the area’s skilled workforce and technological know-how and partly because of its many geologic formations big enough to store large amounts of carbon. Environmental groups remain skeptical of the substantial energy, money and sometimes emissions involved in carbon burial. But local supporters say it could help offset the jobs lost as state officials act to end in-state oil production.