Seven alumni on how COVID-19 impacted their fields — and what they predict as we move closer to a post-pandemic future.
July 21, 2021
Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten:
The COVID-19 Outlook is Cautiously Optimistic
County of San Diego Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten, M.D. (’90) leads the COVID-19 pandemic response and protects the health of more than 3 million residents — a job she takes very seriously.
When California reopened on June 15, COVID-19 vaccination rates were up and hospitalizations and ICU admissions down in San Diego County. But Dr. Wooten wouldn’t be an effective public health officer if she threw caution to the wind. So she’s sticking with her “Failure is not an option” pandemic mantra for now.
As a result, the county is laser-focused on working with community partners and health care workers to conduct outreach and education to get as many people as possible vaccinated.
The state goal is to administer at least one dose to 75% of the eligible population. At the time of this writing in late June, the county was already there with 77% having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 65% of all residents, age 12 and older, fully vaccinated — the highest vaccination rate in Southern California.
“We are still cautiously optimistic,” Dr. Wooten says. “But we do see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Dr. Wooten has provided steady leadership since the pandemic began, even as other public health officers in California and nationwide resigned after harassment and resistance to public health orders. The San Diego Union-Tribune named her San Diegan of the Year in 2020, noting she “stood firm in advocating for best practices,” such as wearing masks, social distancing, limiting travel and avoiding indoor gatherings.
If there’s an upside to the ordeal, Dr. Wooten says it may be the spotlight it cast on disparities in health services. “This pandemic really shed light on ills of our society that played an important part in who was getting sick and who was getting tested and who’s getting vaccinated — and so we had to pay closer attention to that,” she says.
Attention is also being focused on strengthening public health infrastructure — including the workforce, she says. That’s why the longstanding relationship between the county and SDSU’s School of Public Health has been so important.
“SDSU was one of the first contractors we partnered with to push health workers into the community to engage those individuals that could not be reached by our case investigators or contact tracers,” Dr. Wooten says. The effort continues around testing and encouraging vaccination.
The county also relies on a pipeline of students to fill their ranks: An estimated 75% of their public health workforce are SDSU alumni. And Dr. Wooten only sees more interest in public health work from students called to action by the “once in a lifetime” nature of the pandemic.
“I’m certain that we will have more outbreaks and epidemics,” she says, “but a pandemic of this magnitude — I hope that is not experienced again in our lifetime.” —Lisa Haney
Architect Mathilda Bialk:
Everyone Needs Safe Living Spaces
Public health threats throughout the centuries have inspired design and architecture styles.
Following tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1800s and the 1918 flu pandemic, architects incorporated sunshine and fresh air, believed curatives, into homes in the form of sleeping porches and loggias (rooms with one or more open sides) for napping and sunbathing. You can still see examples in many Craftsman bungalows in Southern California, though many have since been glazed in, according to Studio E Architects in San Diego.
Principal at the firm Mathilda Bialk (’04) says whether the COVID-19 pandemic inspires similar design changes remains to be seen. But one lasting effect the architect hopes it will have is addressing equity issues in housing.
For example, if you were fortunate enough to have a single family home with windows on both sides for fresh air and ventilation and a yard to hang out outside and not be around people, it was a luxury, she points out. “Whereas if you live in a more urban context or traditional lower income housing where there’s minimal outdoor space and minimal ventilation, minimal windows, what a glaring inequality issue that is,” she says. “Even to leave your unit to walk down the corridor is so different from someone who has a single family home and doesn’t have that experience.” We might start to see more open-ended corridors to address that, she says.
A lot of these livability issues have always been around. “It’s just now, once you go through something, you realize how critical it is,” she says. Bialk’s firm primarily designs affording housing apartments with an emphasis on addressing such needs.
She’s currently hearing developers ask for more compartmentalization and workspaces both within living units and common spaces to accommodate those who are working from home and need to be able to close a door.
“We’re also changing how we think about outdoor space even,” Bialk says. “So rather than one huge outdoor communal space, trying to create some variety and ways that that can be broken up, so that people can have privacy and space between them and their neighbors.”
One change from the pandemic she sees as a positive is parklets creating more outdoor space. “I really hope that one of the outcomes of this is — specifically in San Diego — that really we start to realize maybe we don’t need so many cars,” Bialk says. “Maybe we need more outdoor spaces. Maybe grabbing a cup of coffee on the sidewalk is a really nice thing to do. And hopefully we can kind of harness that and keep that going.” —L.H.
Social Entrepreneur Mario Scade:
Outdoor and Mobile is Here to Stay
Mario Scade’s Aire Fitness company turns old shipping containers into mobile outdoor fitness centers. In 2020 during the pandemic, he devised a way to convert the containers into QuikLAB mobile COVID-19 testing units for TPT Med Tech. Now, with vaccines quelling the outbreak in the U.S., the entrepreneur is looking to outfit the labs for service as health care centers in underserved communities.
“It’s about access,” Scade (’02) says. “This could be a solution for those neighborhoods.”
The pandemic opened his eyes to other opportunities as well. With YMCAs, recreation centers and gyms forced to shut down or move their equipment outdoors, he saw a way to promote his mobile fitness centers as an affordable alternative to building and maintaining expensive fixed facilities. Additionally, his semi-permanent modular units can be moved anywhere, eliminating construction costs.
Scade has also observed that in the COVID-19 era, many people prefer fitness routines performed entirely outdoors. He is moving quickly to globalize his business as world economies rebound from the pandemic. In addition to an original location in Chula Vista, he has secured a second manufacturing facility in his native Spain, to serve the demand he foresees emerging across Europe and the Middle East.
Despite plans for rapid expansion, Scade stays true to the sustainability values his parents instilled in him. Recycling shipping containers remains at the core of his plans.
“Sustainability is the key — it’s my favorite word and what I have always worked for,” Scade says. “It’s about making the right choice: the right choice for the environment, the right choice for social impact, and the right choice economically for a company to be financially sustainable.”
Currently, he is negotiating deals he says will increase his business tenfold over last year. Up next? Aire Home, mobile fitness units for homeowners.
“Right now it’s a gym, but tomorrow you could transform it into an office or a granny flat,” Scade says. “That’s the opportunity I’m seeing now. I see opportunities everywhere.” —Tobin Vaughn
Mainly Mozart Co-founder Nancy Laturno:
San Diego Kept Live Music Alive
Early in July 2020, hundreds of San Diegans pulled into the Del Mar Fairgrounds parking lot, rolled down their car windows and listened as eight San Diego Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians played Mozart and Mendelsohn from a small stage.
Mainly Mozart had secured the spot for the free concert just a week before. The dirt parking lot off I-5 was a stark contrast to the organization’s usual highly anticipated event: the All-Star Orchestra Festival of top musicians from the nation’s leading orchestras that the organization had put on every June for more than 30 years, most recently at Balboa Theatre.
Yet the small drive-in show was a success. The audience beeped its appreciation. Musicians, overjoyed to perform for a crowd again, cried.
Mainly Mozart later learned it had pulled off the nation’s first classical music performance for a live audience since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Newsweek recognized the feat, and The New Yorker and Musical America both included it in lists of the year’s key moments.
The organization wanted little more than to find a way to stay true to their mission, and felt Zoom Happy Hours with musicians, while popular, weren’t enough. “We started doing everything we were doing under the banner of keeping live music alive,” says Nancy Laturno (’79), co-founder and chief executive officer of Mainly Mozart. It was a leap of faith — and one they were unsure would work. “Whether it was an audience of five or an audience of 5,000 was really not at all the relevant point,” she says.
Turns out it was an audience of 70 cars, the most Laturno’s team determined could fit close enough to the stage to get good sound. After a few more free concerts, they moved to a larger parking area at the Fairgrounds where they could fit 350 cars and a larger stage. Most shows sold out.
About 60% of the attendees had never attended a Mainly Mozart concert before. It was a time when people were starved for entertainment and socially distanced activities, sure. But Laturno thinks it was more than that: The drive-in venue was attracting families with young children who might have traditionally been turned off by the serious concert hall setting. “This isn’t an audience we can turn our backs on as we go forward,” she says.
The Fairgrounds drive-in shows wrapped in April and the nine-day All-Star Orchestra Festival took place in June at Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park. A return to a concert hall is likely for summer 2022, but Laturno hopes to maintain an element of outdoor performance in the festival, as well as the occasional free drive-in community concert. “Sentimentally, I don’t think that we can move completely away from drive-ins,” she says.
The constantly changing dynamics of the pandemic were challenging, with every day feeling like a plan B with no contingency, but they forced Mainly Mozart to be creative.
“We never could have afforded to take this risk,” Laturno says. “This risk was forced upon us. And for us, it’s been a rebirth.” —L.H.
Wham-O President Todd Richards:
Low-Tech Fun is Back
Stay-at-home during the pandemic led to more play-at-home.
At the end of July 2020 it was impossible to buy a Hula Hoop — Wham-O, the company that makes them, was sold out. The company’s Slip ‘N Slides were sliding off store shelves faster than they could replace them and two years-worth of Boogie Boards inventory was wiped out. Frisbee sales were soaring, up more than 45% from the previous year.
“People were buying up everything they could find on the shelves to keep themselves and their kids entertained,” says Todd Richards (’87), president of Wham-O.
The demand was due to the double whammy of people being stuck at home during the pandemic and, Richards thinks, needing something to help them disconnect from electronic screens after days full of Zoom meetings and classes. “And certainly our products do that,” he says of the zero-tech beloved brands for backyard and outdoor fun. “What is so unique about our products is they don’t come with instructions,” he says. “Kids are making up their own rules.”
During his SDSU days, Richards was a star linebacker for the Aztecs with his sights set on the NFL — and he did sign on briefly as a free agent for the San Francisco 49ers after graduation. But it’s probably not surprising to those who knew him then that he would end up in his current position. When he wasn’t in class or at football practice, he was surfing or playing Hacky Sack (another Wham-O bestseller) on the steps in front of the library.
And his affinity for the brand goes back even farther. As a 10-year-old he would visit a friend whose family had a bicycle shop in San Gabriel, a few miles from the original Wham-O location. “We’d always sneak off and go to the Wham-O factory and dig through the dumpsters,” he says. “We would find prototypes and samples and go back to the bike shop and say, ‘Let’s see what we can build out of this stuff.’”
The joy the toys gave him then — and others, for more than 70 years — is the same joy he noticed being rediscovered during the pandemic.
“We saw an amazing resurgence in our brand awareness,” he says. “People who had a Slip ‘N Slide as a kid went, ‘Oh my gosh, my kids will have so much fun on this. I had so much fun on this.’”
Further evidence of that toy’s iconic status and renewed relevance: The classic backyard game is now turning into a competition game show on NBC, with Richards serving as an executive producer. “Ultimate Slip ‘N Slide,” featuring teams of friends, family members, couples and co-workers navigating a 65-foot-tall slippery yellow slide and other challenges, began filming in spring 2021.
Good thing the Slip ‘N Slide inventory is replenished. —L.H.
TV Executive Mort Marcus:
We’re Bingeing More, Tuning in Less
The broadcast television networks unveiled their fall schedules in May with all the usual hoopla: an all “Law & Order” night; reboots of “The Wonder Years” and the original “CSI.”
What remains to be seen, however, is whether television itself rebounds as the medium recovers from a stunning upheaval in viewing habits during the pandemic.
Mort Marcus (’77), a syndication executive says some of the changes may be here to stay. “The biggest thing that happened to TV viewing is ratings are down,” says Marcus. “You would think ratings would be up – people are home. But ABC, NBC, CBS, the networks (are) all down 20 to 30%.”
Marcus, who was music director at SDSU’s KCR radio station while earning a B.A. in telecommunications, is the “Mar” in Debmar-Mercury, a Santa Monica-based syndication company whose properties include the Steve Harvey-hosted “Family Feud” game show and repeats of “Schitt’s Creek.”
He thinks one reason for the dropoff may have been the need for peace and quiet in the work-from-home and virtual classroom settings that took over households under COVID-19. (“Can you turn that off? I’m on Zoom.”) Wendy Williams, another Debmar-Mercury show, lost about a quarter of her pre-COVID audience. Professional sports and awards shows all dropped precipitously.
“TV got moved around quite a bit,” Marcus says, “and I guess the big question is, is it going to come back to whatever normal is.”
What’s up — and another source of change — are TV subscriptions. Netflix and other streaming services have diminished some viewers’ patience for the classic one-episode-per-week experience by releasing an entire season at once. Streaming series also tend to be highly serialized, Marcus notes, meaning viewers now watch episodes in order and then never want to see them again, a huge shift from the “Seinfeld” era.
In the long term, Marcus sees no cause for panic. Radio was going to kill theater. TV was going to kill radio. Cable was going to kill the legacy networks, but now ABC, CBS and NBC are all part of corporations with streaming platforms to balance any loss of viewers.
“They’re still generating billions of dollars, so I don’t see them going away so soon, even as the audience continues to shrink,” he says. —Jeff Ristine
National City Councilmember Marcus Bush:
Citizenship Via Zoom is a Boon
As a city councilmember in the South Bay community of National City, Marcus Bush (’10) attends a number of additional public meetings: including committee sessions and public workshops — often biking between them. It comes with the territory.
Over the years, elected officials across the country have struggled to get the public actively engaged with the meetings, where critical decisions that shape the future of their respective communities are discussed and debated — with only a fraction of the population in attendance.
It’s through this lens that Bush, who was elected to public office in November 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, sees a potential positive emerging from the months of online and Zoom-based public meetings: increased public engagement.
“The pandemic shutdowns necessitated the need for online meetings, including City Council hearings and community workshops,” says Bush. “Although in-person meetings tend to be the most effective at getting input from community members, it was challenging to get attendance, particularly in working class communities like National City.”
In many communities, public meetings and workshops occur during the workday or at its end, making it tough for people to attend. To Bush, virtual meetings have been a boon for the community, giving people the option of attending in the comfort of their own homes or on their mobile devices.
“Having virtual meetings allows more flexibility for community members to attend and provides another way to engage for those who are uncomfortable attending in-person meetings,” he says.
At one point, the city’s representative to the Port of San Diego, Commissioner Sandy Naranjo, took the lead on organizing an online workshop to get feedback and ideas on design for a new park expansion. “It was by far the largest-attended workshop for National City that I had seen,” Bush says: over 100 attendees instead of the usual five to 10.
In addition to being more convenient, taking advantage of online platforms gives officials a chance to be more interactive with meeting attendees.
“The organizers made sure the (port) workshop actively engaged community members by having online polls and breakout rooms where people could brainstorm ideas with each other,” Bush says. “Moving forward as we begin opening up, virtual meetings and hybrid in-person and online workshops can provide an opportunity for increased participation.”
The next step to ensuring this model becomes viable?
“We as leaders need to make sure that we are also addressing the digital divide and making sure residents can access these online platforms,” he says. —Aaron Burgin