Watsonville plaza on Dec. 15, 2020.
Watsonville City Plaza
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID South County

‘Devastated’ Watsonville looks to create monument honoring lives lost to COVID-19

Watsonville leaders are eyeing a permanent, public memorial to honor residents who have died of COVID-19 given the way the virus has disproportionately impacted the city and the large number of lives it has claimed.

Although only 18% of Santa Cruz County residents live in Watsonville, the city has been home to more than 52% of all COVID-19 cases in the county. Watsonville and South County residents have consistently made up a larger share of COVID-19 deaths countywide, too.

COVID South County

COVID South County, Lookout’s look at how the pandemic has disproportionately affected Watsonville and the surrounding area, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of its toll. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

Many factors are contributing to the disparity, including the area’s large frontline and essential worker population, many multigenerational households, and other socioeconomic inequities that make the community more vulnerable to a disease outbreak.

The city is still in the early planning stages, getting input from community organizations and considering forming a committee to spearhead the project. Although it’s too soon to say where the memorial will be located or what form it will take, Mayor Jimmy Dutra said he envisions “definitely something physical,” such as a mural or sculpture.

“South County has been just devastated. We have well over two-to-one when it comes to infection, death rate” countywide, Dutra said. “So the community has really suffered from this pandemic and we’ve lost a lot of community members because of it.”

The exact number of deaths of Watsonville residents isn’t regularly released by county or state officials. But between nursing-home deaths within the city and its large population of Latinx people — who also have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 nationally — the monument could contain at least several dozen names, based on a Lookout review of data that’s been released to date.

As of Friday, the virus had claimed the lives of 168 people in Santa Cruz County. The youngest of them, 30-year-old Miriam Villalobos, lived in Watsonville.

The last time Watsonville was rocked by such widespread loss, officials say, was during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed large sections of both Watsonville and Santa Cruz. The city has a memorial that commemorates the rebuilding of the city after the tragedy, which claimed one life in Watsonville and six others in Santa Cruz County.

“We’ve done something before, for a time in our history that was really painful and impacted us. So, in a way, that’s how COVID is now impacting us,” Dutra said.

The timeline for the monument will depend on what kind of art installation is chosen, City Manager Matt Huffaker said.

“Our hope is to work through those decisions in the coming weeks and move forward with the project this summer,” he wrote in an email to Lookout. “We want the process to move forward quickly and haven’t decided whether an official committee will be established.”

Community members will have a chance to share their input and help select the final piece, and the Parks and Recreation Commission will give final approval, according to Huffaker.