Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, talks to supporters on election night. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In the weeks following Election Day, Democratic candidates, activists and operatives did what they normally do: They celebrated victories together and enjoyed a temporary end to the demanding hours they kept in the runup to polls closing.

But this year, those days aligned with the early days of the novel coronavirus spreading through San Diego, and it appears many in those social-professional Democratic circles may have been infecting one another.

Chula Vista Councilman Steve Padilla tested positive more than a week ago, becoming the first elected official in California to publicly announce a positive test for the disease. He was later admitted to an ICU with worsening symptoms and has been put on a ventilator, his daughter announced in a statement.

In the week since, Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the local Democratic Party, and Kelvin Barrios, who came in first in the primary election for the District 9 City Council seat, both announced they too had tested positive.

Andrea Cardenas, a political consultant and party organizer who advanced to a November runoff election for a Chula Vista City Council seat, thinks she’s got it, too. She came down with what she thought was the flu on March 9, then went to urgent care on March 13 when she started experiencing shortness of breath and dizziness. She was treated for pneumonia and sent home.

The next day, she learned about Padilla, with whom she had spent a lot of time after the election. And by then she knew Rodriguez-Kennedy and Barrios, both of whom she had also spent time with, were sick, though they had not yet tested positive for coronavirus. Another friend and colleague – Jehoan Espinoza, a member of the group San Diego Democrats for Equality who also worked on Ammar Campa-Najjar’s congressional campaign – had also tested positive, she said.

Cardenas went in for a test at Sharp Urgent Care in Chula Vista on Monday, March 16, when she finished her pneumonia medication and her situation hadn’t improved. She hasn’t received her results eight days later, she said.

“It would be very much a miracle if I wasn’t positive,” she said. “We had all been around each other for post-election stuff. And there’s other people we’ve been around who are sick, and they’re just like – there’s no point. No one is getting their tests back. People either aren’t getting tested, or they are and we don’t know the results.”

The LGBTQ Victory Brunch was a significant post-election event, an annual affair in which elected officials, political professionals and activists celebrate LGBTQ officials.

It occurred on March 8, and many party members noted that several of the people who’ve announced positive tests were in attendance. Padilla, though, said his doctors thought he could have been exposed March 10 when he flew through San Jose, where TSA agents had been infected, on his way to chair a California Coastal Commission hearing in Santa Cruz. But that occurred after the Victory Brunch.

“It’s just such a tight-knit community where we don’t know how far it’s reached,” Cardenas said. “We don’t really know how it got introduced, but the reality is it did affect our community really closely, and it hit home for a lot of people.”

The apparent spread within the Democratic community has rattled many activists and campaign workers who frequent those circles. Many have announced on social media that they too have been sick, though some have tested negative or didn’t seek testing.

Eva Posner, a Democratic political consultant who is handling media requests for the party while Rodriguez-Kennedy is hospitalized, said she hasn’t been told whether the cases have been transmitted within political circles, but noted the virus hit San Diego in late February and early March just as candidates, campaigns and organizers were knocking doors, attending rallies and spending long hours together.

“The truth is it’s impossible to know for sure, and I’m not going to pretend to be an epidemiologist or public health expert when I’m not,” she said.

She said she’s aware of other people within party circles who are currently self-quarantining, but that there have not been any other confirmed cases.

Cardenas said she also knows some other South Bay activists who were tested on Saturday and have not yet learned their results.

“I think there had to be some exposure among all of us,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the congressional campaign for which Jehoan Espinoza worked.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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