Sonoma County allows more businesses to reopen following Gov. Newsom’s guidance

Everyone will be able to use child care facilities starting Friday, thanks to a new Sonoma County health order that follows Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidance in loosening coronavirus restrictions.

Newsom announced Tuesday that additional businesses could reopen across the state, as long as they followed social distancing guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading or contracting the coronavirus. The new Sonoma County order, effective at 12:01 a.m. Friday, implements the statewide reopening locally.

The directive allows established child care providers to serve any family, not just those of essential workers, and comes as Sonoma County supervisors have pressed Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s public health officer, to reopen certain sectors of the local economy faster.

The revised guidance also allows pet groomers, dog walking services, car washes and several other types of businesses to resume, though restaurant dining rooms, hair and nail salons and winery tasting rooms remain closed.

“That is really critical as the economy and everything starts to reopen - you have to have child care for anyone who needs it,” said Melanie Dodson, executive director of Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs. “That is really good news.”

Sonoma County supervisors applauded the amended order from Mase, while stressing the need to continue lobbying efforts at the state level as the county’s gradual reopening takes shape.

California counties have expressed repeated frustration at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s surprise rollout of new orders and initiatives, with officials likening the process to a form of whiplash.

In Sonoma County, where supervisors have urged their public health officer to stay in lockstep with statewide guidance, new orders challenge officials to quickly pivot to enact localized measures of their own.

“It’s been challenging to not have advanced warning of what the governor is going to say on a given day,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

“We find out in real-time, when the rest of California does.”

Still, Hopkins said the local amendment announced Thursday afternoon shows the county is able to quickly respond to state action, which she said is important.

Susan Gorin, who chairs the Board of Supervisors, said the new order is the “next logical step.” She joked about dog grooming businesses perhaps seeing more business from people who are still locked out of shuttered hair salons.

And she lamented the modern world, where a single wage earner can no longer support a family, which she said made the newly relaxed restrictions on child care access crucial.

“We cannot effectively reopen our businesses unless we start our child care operations up again,” said Gorin, who has served on the Sonoma County Office of Education Childcare Planning Council.

Hopkins, who has three young children, agreed, and said the county will need to grapple with the issue into the fall, when kids still aren’t expected to return to school normalcy.

But the new health order doesn’t mean that all providers will reopen right away.

The facilities must adhere to certain regulations - there can be no more than 12 children in a group, each group must be in a separate room and one adult can only work with one group of children.

Dodson and others in the industry expressed concern about the viability of some operations going forward, given the “greatly reduced capacity” in an already tight provider market for Sonoma County families.

“It is an individual decision,” Dodson said. “Each business, each program has to assess their own ability, they have to assess their staffing capacity, they have to assess their business capacity: Can they function on 50% of the income?”

Of the 606 child care providers in Sonoma County, 330 remain closed as of Thursday, according to data compiled by 4Cs. Of the 261 currently open child care operations, 42% have no vacancies.

And for those that are open, the rules for operation are now in some ways radically different.

Temperatures are taken at the door, parents drop off their kids at the threshold and children and staffers wear masks.

Toys, tables and other highly used things in the classrooms must be sanitized after use.

Dodson said she remains optimistic because she’s seen some child care centers that have stayed open throughout the shelter-in-place order.

Mt. Taylor Children’s Center’s three locations is one of them, and staffers have implemented the new regulations as they’ve been updated, according to owner Terry Ziegler.

Staffers put children’s names on the carpet where they are to sit the proper distance apart. There is tape on the ground to emphasize social distancing, just as there is in grocery stores.

When the shutdown first went into effect, daily attendance dropped astronomically. People were scared to have their children out of their homes, Ziegler said.

Enrollment is back up to about 50% of what it was in early March.

But some new rules have been harder to implement than others - for instance, siblings have to be kept together now. That means an 8-year-old who needs play time must be grouped all day with a 2-year-old sibling in need of naptime, she said.

And despite the vigilance, fear is a prevailing emotion for many families, Ziegler said.

“I have lost clients because more than one generation lives in the house and they are worried about exposing the elders in the house or people with underlying conditions,” she said. “Now if the kids go to school, they can’t see the grandparents anymore, right? It’s a big problem for them.”

Mase said reopening any businesses will increase the spread of the coronavirus, but added that she was confident that the risk among child care facilities will remain relatively low if providers follow the safety regulations.

“On the whole, children are not affected (by COVID-19) like people over 65,” Mase said. “Opening anything adds a risk, but it’s a risk-benefit analysis.”

Sonoma County reported 14 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total number up to 351. Of those, 147 remain active and 200 have recovered. Four people have died, and 32 people confirmed to have the virus have been hospitalized.

Mase’s new order also allows the following businesses to reopen: car washes, pet groomers, dog walking services, residential and janitorial cleaning services, outdoor museums, open air galleries, botanical gardens and other outdoor exhibition spaces.

Shopping malls, strip malls and outlets can begin curbside pickup, delivery or shipping, but all storefront access must remain closed to the public. Outdoor restaurants, cafes, bars, hair salons and nail salons are still not permitted to reopen.

The directive allows activities in office workspaces where remote work is not possible, but the workspaces are not permitted to be open to the public.

Dog groomers had insisted all along they could operate safely, and had argued their essential nature, noting that much of what they do goes beyond the cosmetic and addresses a pet’s - and its owners’ - health.

Ina Rocha, who owns Classic Tails in Petaluma, is certain she can abide by the new social distancing rules.

“We can stagger clients, not let anyone in the shop,” Rocha said. “Just like the vets, we’ll go outside with (a) mask and gloves, and take the dog inside. We can even call and take the dog back out to the car. We’ll be limited for a while. We want to make sure we’re very careful. Like, maybe not take in new clients for haircuts, but only for nail trimming and cleaning.”

Her major concern is spooking pets with gloves and masks, and switching leashes. Even the animals must adjust to COVID-19.

Rocha said the lack of work has been “pretty devastating” for Classic Tails, noting that the shop was booked for two months out when the original stay-at-home order landed.

“We’re struggling to pay rent,” she said. “I had to call Comcast and ask them to bring our utilities back to the minimum. Hopefully, they won’t shut us all down again.”

One bit of good news: Rocha’s office phone was ringing off the hook as she spoke.

Staff Writer Phil Barber contributed to this report.

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