Anti-vaccine protesters force change to Sonoma County supervisors debate
The first in-person debate in the races for Sonoma County’s 2nd and 4th district supervisors seats has moved to a virtual setting after anti-vaccine protesters bombarded the debate venue, a Rohnert Park restaurant and event space, with calls, emails and an in-person visit.
Los Cien, the local Latino leadership organization in Sonoma County that planned the Thursday debate, had requested attendees wear a mask and provide proof of vaccination.
The backlash hit Sally Tomatoes, the debate venue, Tuesday and Wednesday, after news of the debate plans became more widespread.
Unidentified protesters left anonymous voicemails and emails criticizing the proof of vaccine request, according to Gerard Giudice, owner of Sally Tomatoes. He played a voicemail for The Press Democrat where one caller slammed the vaccine verification “discrimination,” “bulls---” and threatened “a huge huge blowup” if the policy was not changed.
One of the protesters showed up at Sally Tomatoes in person on Tuesday, demanding to speak with Giudice and repeating similar messages, Giudice said.
Giudice said he was hosting a tasting with a bride, groom and brides parents at the time, and could hear and see the protester but said he did not know who he was. Guidice said his manager got between the man and the doorway to prevent him from reaching Giudice.
Giudice, who is a Rohnert Park councilman, said he decided to pull Sally Tomatoes from the debate out of concern for his staff.
“I’m responsible for so many other people and I have to think about my staff I have to think about my business partner, my family,” Giudice said.
He noted it was Los Cien’s decision to request proof of vaccination.
“It’s not my rule,” Giudice said. “When people come to Sally Tomatoes and they order a cheeseburger we ask them two questions, ‘how do you want it cooked?’ and ‘what cheese do you want?’”
Los Cien announced the switch to a virtual debate on Wednesday.
“We are so grateful and fully supportive of Sally Tomatoes, of what they’ve done for us,” said Fernando Carrillo, co-chair of Los Cien’s program committee. “But unfortunately we cannot hold it in a physical capacity.”
Fourth Disrict Supervisor James Gore, his lone opponent Richard “Andy” Springer, 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt and his two opponents Blake Hooper and Kevin Hayenga are all expected to participate in the virtual debate, which will focus on equity.
Wednesday, Hooper expressed his support for Giudice and disappointment in the change of plans.
“An unruly few shouldn't get in the way of discussing important and meaningful issues that will shape the next decade of Sonoma County,” Hooper’s statement read. “Threats will not silence us, and I stand ready to participate in face-to-face debates, any time, any place.”
Rabbitt and Gore also said they were disappointed by the switch to a virtual format.
“The Zoom world is still two dimensional, you can’t sit there and get the nuances,” Gore said. “It’ll be very important, people are much more able to control themselves as opposed to siting in the arena and I like to be in the arena.“
Gore and Rabbitt noted anti-vaccine protesters have become a regular part of public discourse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion and they’re entitled to protest as they see fit and stay within the law,” Gore said. “It’s part of doing business these days, it’s not ideal but they’re within their rights to protest as they would like.”
In his statement, Hooper echoed that sentiment.
“I respect their right to protest, even if I strongly disagree with their position: it is Los Cien's freedom to decide conditions of entry for their event, just as it will be other debate organizers’ rights to determine their own conditions of entry."
The debate will run from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. online. Los Cien expects to email a link to the virtual debate, to everyone who has registered for the event, Carrillo said.
Those interested, can register online at conta.cc/3iMSkQr.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MurphReports.
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.