Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce head blasts lack of business input on latest Sonoma County COVID-19 health order

Some leaders in Santa Rosa’s business community say they were never consulted before Sonoma County issued its health order prohibiting large public gatherings -- even though it will cost local firms hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in lost revenue.

Peter Rumble, chief executive officer of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, told The Press Democrat on Thursday he and his members were particularly incensed about the abruptness of the 30-day order, which went into effect Wednesday.

The order left many businesses scrambling ― especially those within the events industry ―and saw an increase in cancellations for tourism visits, which Rumble called “absolutely infuriating.”

Dr. Sundari R. Mase, the county health officer, issued the order on Monday afternoon. It bans indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and outdoor events of 100 or more.

Since the pandemic, the county has typically issued such public health orders in concert with other Bay Area counties, but this time it acted unilaterally in the face of the alarming spike in cases.

“I think people are trying to figure out what’s going on because the county decided to do this without talking to anybody and understanding what kind of impact it will have,” said Rumble, who previously worked as a deputy county administrator.

“Somehow, they’re thinking all of the knowledge and insight would be in the four walls of the county complex.”

Rumble stressed the Chamber supports health protocols to limit the spread of the coronavirus and that his organization is in support of requiring employees to be vaccinated.

His comments came on a day where the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration from implementing requirements for large private companies to require their employees to be vaccinated or be tested regularly.

Rumble said, however, that he would like to see more focus on targeting the unvaccinated, particularly as 78% of eligible county residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated and another 8% are partially vaccinated.

Rumble said the effects of the order have gone beyond the tourism industry, where group bookings are now at risk for the foreseeable future as headlines about the order have appeared statewide and beyond.

“We've got even local businesses that aren't reliant on tourism and travel are having members and clients cancel on them because of this message … but (also) an extremely mixed message suggesting that you shouldn't even leave your house. And it is absolutely infuriating for businesses and other organizations trying to adapt to this,” Rumble said.

In addition to the county health order, officials asked residents to voluntarily shelter in place and limit themselves to only essential travel, such as to work, school or the doctor.

Rumble said he has had “very limited” discussions with Mase over the past two years but has made his position clear to board supervisors, though he noted the five members don’t typically get much of a heads-up as well.

“I’m expressing my frustration to supervisors quite frequently,” he said.

An attempt to reach Mase for comment by cellphone was unsuccessful Thursday night. Her voice mailbox was full, and she did not immediately respond to a text message.

Supervisor James Gore, chair of the board, and Supervisor David Rabbitt said the county’s communication about the order could have been better.

The Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which is under the purview of county government, also was not notified ahead of the health order, Gore said.

“That’s something that has to be fixed immediately,” Gore said.

The board is expected to hold a public, virtual meeting on Wednesday to go over the current health order. They are expected to review the specifics of what prompted the order and discuss potential process improvements.

Supervisor Chris Coursey said business owners have reached out to him to voice their concerns since the health order was announced.

“In hindsight, yes, absolutely I think that it would be better for our many businesses, our business associations for us to try to get the word out directly to folks rather than have them read it in the headline in the morning paper,” Coursey said.

Rabbitt and Gore said they are looking to establish more clarity as far as the county’s process for sharing information.

Rabbitt said he does understand businesses’ frustrations but added he does not “know if there’s an alternative quite frankly.”

“We can’t dumb it down for people, and we need to really put all the facts and data on the table and say ‘here’s what’s happening right now here’s why this is a good move, this is how we will measure success in this particular move going forward and track that,” Rabbitt said. “If we do that we’ll get a lot more buy in.”

He also noted that he does have concerns about impacts of the order, particularly on school extracurricular programs including sporting events.

The order has had a particular effect on those businesses that have events even during the slow winter of the tourism season.

Most notably, Russian River Brewing Co. delayed its popular Pliny the Younger beer release until the end of March as co-owner Natalie Cilurzo made the announcement on Wednesday after consulting with Gore.

The Epicenter sports and entertainment complex in Santa Rosa has had to cancel two upcoming comedy shows and has lost scheduled upcoming corporate events because of the order, said Brad Bergum, chief financial officer, in an email.

Bergum declined to comment on the order itself but noted Epicenter will comply with it.

The order also has perplexed Rohnert Park City Councilman Gerard Giudice, who also is co-founder of SOMO Village’s Sally Tomatoes catering company and cafe. He said he is mostly concerned over the rules for holding outdoor events and noted that the local Rotary club has a crab festival planned for his site next Saturday.

After reading the complete order, he doesn’t know if he will be in violation, even though he has a four-acre site where he can impose social-distance protocols. He mentioned that Rabbitt gave him Mase’s phone number, but he had not heard back from her as of Thursday afternoon.

“It’s absolutely crushing us. I don’t know how to proceed. The county has not contacted us, especially the businesses that are unique,” Giudice said. “I need some clarity.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to add comments Friday from Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt stating his concerns with the new public health order.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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