SPECIAL REPORT: Optimism in the Central Valley as cases begin to drop

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All this week KCBS Radio is examining how the pandemic is affecting the people who harvest and process food in the Central Valley.

In part one, a nonprofit manager pivoted his organization when needs changed drastically. In part two, workers speak out about high-risk conditions on the job. In part three, people who risk their lives to pick our fruit still struggle to make ends meet. In part four, school closures put extra pressure on farmworker families.

In the final part of this special series, Kathy Novak reports on an eye-catching display on the side of the road.

Riding along with Armando Valdez, who is delivering donations to farmworkers communities in Fresno county, we pass a spectacle on the side of the highway: 13-foot portraits of farmworkers wearing face coverings, with messages in Spanish that read "Wear a Mask" and "Save Lives."

They were commissioned by the manager of Terra Nova Ranch, Don Cameron, who had them modeled off photos of his employees.

"It’s been amazing because we’ve seen a lot of the farmworkers going to work stopping and taking their picture with them," he told KCBS Radio.

Those selfies can help spread awareness.

"Early on, I think that piece was missing," he said. "I think the public education for the Latino community was somewhat lacking."

A few months ago, he had the feeling a COVID-19 surge was on the way to the San Joaquin Valley. "We tested all of our employees. We found that we had three asymptomatic people here."

By the end of July, with positivity rates nearing 18% in some counties, the governor named the region a COVID-19 hotspot. He sent in strike teams and invested $52 million, promising to improve isolation, testing and quarantine.

Cameron sits on the Governor’s task force.

"I think we’ve turned the corner," he said. "I really feel optimistic. We’ve seen our cases drop."

New services are also available, including through the Healthy Harvest program, which provides hotel rooms for farmworkers who need to quarantine.

Misty Gattie-Blanco, Sanctuary Director for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, told KCBS Radio: "Large families tend to congregate together in our rural communities…our concern is with COVID-19 you want to be able to quarantine and I just don’t think that’s possible for someone living with eight to 10 family members. It’s hard enough when you’re living with two to three family members. So, providing that support for the hotels, I think, is crucial."

She said food, transportation and other support are also provided.

Valdez, who has been checking up on farmworker families since April, thinks the help is not coming quickly enough. "The city, county officials and state officials are just taking their time in implementing what they are promising to do."

So, he is doing what he can to help families directly, using money from donations to his center and a grant from the Latino Community Foundation.

As for Don Cameron, he is keeping up strict mask-wearing protocols on his farm, writing employees up for non-compliance. "We made it to where it was a way of life here," he explained. "And now you see them driving in a tractor by themselves with a mask on."

Nayamin Martinez, Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said many of the people still not wearing masks live near her in the wealthy suburbs of Fresno.

"If I would go and take a walk, I was the only one wearing a mask because people believe that this is a hoax," she told KCBS Radio.

She added farmworkers on the frontlines deserve to be thanked, just like doctors and nurses.

"Of course they are essential workers and my hat gets off to them because they did a wonderful job keeping us safe," she said of healthcare workers. "But, at the same time, it’s like, they were not the only ones who were working all along the pandemic. The farmworkers did, and none of them received this treatment of ‘heroes’ or even recognition for their work."

That recognition is part of what is behind those personalized cutouts.

"We wanted to really send the message to the community that we cared, we want them safe," said Cameron, "And we don’t want them to get COVID."