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As COVID-19 fears escalate, steps taken to curb transmission during Lazy Bear Week in Guerneville

As visitors begin descending on Guerneville for the one of its biggest tourism weekends, local health officials and business leaders are hoping to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 by conducting rapid testing, urging indoor masking and requiring proof of vaccination at local hotels and restaurants.

Monday was the official start of the 25th annual Lazy Bear Week, a popular fundraising event that attracts hundreds of mostly large hairy, gay men from across the globe to Guerneville for pool and beach parties, dancing and other social gatherings.

On Sunday, local community clinic staff conducted rapid antigen testing in the Guerneville Plaza, focusing on services workers, including hotel and restaurant staff. Dr. Jason Cunningham, CEO of West County Health Centers, said that of 78 tests performed, 9 turned up positive.

Cunningham said that level of test positivity, about 11%, would indicate “widespread” transmission, although he cautioned drawing broad conclusions about the results of a single day of testing.

“But I think that’s consistent with what we’re hearing, that there’s widespread COVID in the community,” Cunningham said.

Concern over the potential for a superspreader event is heightened by a recent surge in virus transmission in Sonoma County, as well as across the state and in many parts of the country. Health experts say the latest wave of cases is being driven by the highly contagious delta strain of the virus that’s rapidly spreading through groups of unvaccinated people.

In Sonoma County, which recently joined five other Bay Area counties in recommending that masks be worn indoors, the virus transmission rate has risen to 9.8 new daily cases per 100,000 residents.

“We are providing rapid antigen test kits, providing increased testing through our testing team with a focus on Lazy Bear Week,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.

Mase said the county public health staff are also planning a pop-up vaccination clinic and recommending that Lazy Bear participants wear masks indoors. She said she’s asked state public health officials to assist with vaccinations.

Lazy Bear Week attracts people from across the globe and helps generate money for organizations that support LGBTQ communities. Participants donate at least $200 for a event pass, with funds going to such organizations as the West County Health Centers and food banks.

Over the last quarter century, the events have raised about $2 million in donations, organizers said.

David Barker, president of Lazy Bear Fund, the nonprofit group that organizes the event, said he’s implemented a number of measures to ensure a safe event. He said all the events are being held outdoors, where people have a lot of room to spread out.

Also, people have to match their IDs with proof of being fully vaccinated, which for most people means it’s been two weeks since a person has received their second dose of a two-shot inoculation.

“This event is safety first,” he said, adding that everyone involved has been “tested and retested and vaccinated.”

R3 Hotel owner Jeff Bridges said said he has similar COVID-19 requirements.

“As of last Saturday, I announced anyone coming on to the property must show proof of vaccination to enter the premises,” Bridges said. “We’re urging masking when people are out and about, same as before ... we’re also asking people to practice social distancing.”

Bridges said the response from the community has been positive. He said members of his staff were among those who were tested on Saturday.

“My guys tested negative and everyone of my staff has been vaccinated,” he said. “We’re getting tested regularly here.”

Cunningham applauded the steps local business and community leaders are taking.

“There’s a strong commitment within that community to take care of one another,” he said, adding that he hopes to expand testing this week beyond local service industry workers.

“Now we're mobilizing with the county to try to get more widespread testing and outreach and education,” Cunningham said.

On Monday, public health officials reported the latest pandemic-related death, a man between the ages of 50 and 64 who died on July 15 at a local hospital. Officials said the man was unvaccinated and had underlying health conditions.

The man is one of 329 Sonoma County residents who have died since the pandemic started more than 16 months ago. He is one of 10 COVID-19 patients who have died this month, compared with 10 in June and one in May.

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

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