14 Sonoma County winery employees positive for coronavirus

The county’s public health director has said that local spread of the virus is shifting from households to workplaces and that more cases are expected as businesses begin to reopen.|

Fourteen workers at a Sonoma County winery recently tested positive for coronavirus, Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Friday, offering no other details about the outbreak.

The incident is one of three separate workplace outbreaks Mase recently cited as part of the reason she halted further steps to reopen the local economy this week.

During a previous press briefing, Mase said recent infections were also found among workers at a water filter manufacturing plant and among a group of farmworkers. But she and other health officials have failed to respond to repeated inquiries about the outbreaks, including the names of the businesses, when they occurred and how many employees had been affected.

Mase has said that local spread of the virus is shifting from households to workplaces and that more cases are expected as activities and businesses in the county begin to reopen. Mase did say Friday that the three workplace outbreaks occurred at businesses that were considered essential and were not shut by the county’s stay-at-home order issued in mid-March.

“I can tell you there’s a winery that’s involved, there are 14 persons that are positive in that winery and there’s others that are under investigation,” Mase said during her daily press briefing. “These, I think, are considered more essential workers, this is not … something that’s happening in the outdoor tasting section for the winery, this is actually in the central worker group.”

Mase said she did not have details readily available and would need to “sit and look at that data to give you very accurate information.” She said she would need to consult a county epidemiologist “to map out the clusters, figure out the numbers in each.”

Also on Friday, the county announced 17 new active cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 548 since the start of the pandemic. Of that number, 322 are active cases, 222 people have recovered and four have died. As of Friday, there were 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Sonoma County hospitals and another eight people suspected of having the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The news of a significant outbreak at a local winery comes at a time when county health officials and members of the Board of Supervisors were scrambling to respond to Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick’s declaration Thursday that he would not enforce the local shelter-in-place rule.

Essick said on Facebook that beginning June 1 he could not “in good conscience” enforce local public health emergency orders without more information supporting these measures. During Mase’s press briefing Friday, she was joined by Supervisor Susan Gorin and Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, with all three saying they had had productive and positive discussions with Essick and agreed to provide more information and to improve communications with his office.

But as of 6 p.m. Friday, Essick said his decision had not changed and that his office will not be enforcing the rule beginning June 1.

In Mendocino County, health officials reported the first two cases of coronavirus transmission in the community at large. There have been 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 21 of which are tied to close contacts with those who are known to have the virus, officials said.

A 30th case is being investigated as a possible false positive test result, said Public Health Officer Dr. Noemi Doohan during a Facebook Live briefing.

“This is a time which I had predicted would be when the pandemic would start to hit us hard,” Doohan said. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better because we are opening up.”

Doohan previously issued a new health order that went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, which allows places of worship to hold up to 100 people or 25% of their capacity - whichever is less.

Up to 100 people are also allowed to gather for a protest, permitted they abide by social distancing guidelines, and swimming pools can reopen solely for physical therapy purposes. Hair salons and other businesses involving hair services can reopen, but not to treat facial hair, Doohan said.

Doohan said Mendocino County will not reopen any further for about two weeks so officials can evaluate the impact of these new measures.

The news of an outbreak at a local winery was no surprise to one health care provider whose clients are predominantly farmworkers and their family members.

Michael Valdovinos, a clinical psychologist who works for Santa Rosa Community Health, the county’s largest network of health centers, said many of his patients say they are under a great deal of pressure to work even if they’re sick. Others say they have no choice but to carpool with other workers or they live in crowded conditions where social distancing is next to impossible.

“The outbreak doesn’t surprise me because of the inherent risks that farmworkers have to deal with,” he said. “I have talked to migrant farmworkers who live in houses, up to 20 people in a house, sharing one kitchen, one bathroom.”

Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, could not be reached for comment Friday evening. Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse could also not be reached Friday.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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