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Restaurants, wineries, gyms welcome more customers inside as Sonoma County eases pandemic rules

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Armand Ausiello, owner of Ausiello’s Bar & Grill in downtown Santa Rosa, was thrilled Wednesday to welcome more diners inside his restaurant to eat and drink.

When asked at lunchtime whether he planned to take immediate advantage of being able to boost indoor capacity to half of his dining area under new pandemic guidelines, Ausiello raised his Giants baseball cap.

“Am I bald?” he replied with a smile. “Of course, I can’t wait.”

On Wednesday, Sonoma County advanced to the second-least restrictive stage of California’s four-part color-coded community reopening plan, loosening public health regulations on a broad range of businesses and daily public activities. The state allowed the move because it hit a vaccination milestone of 4 million shots given to residents in its poorest neighborhoods.

With the county steadily containing coronavirus transmission, it jumped to the orange tier, clearing the way for increased indoor service at restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, gyms and other enterprises. Wineries, breweries and distilleries, meanwhile, can now serve customers inside under limitations, while bars that don’t serve food can operate outdoors at reduced capacity after a yearlong closure. Bars, however, aren’t permitted to serve inside.

Offices for nonessential workers also got the green light to reopen with modifications. And houses of worship are allowed to expand inside to 50% capacity at religious services.

Over lunch at Ausiello’s, patrons watched spring baseball games on widescreen television screens. The restaurant wasn’t much busier than the past few weeks, the owner said, since indoor dining resumed at 25% capacity in mid-March. But Ausiello expected more of a crowd to arrive by nightfall.

“We’re more of a tavern than a restaurant, so people want to come inside and socialize,” Ausiello said, adding that he’s keeping bar seating closed and will continue enforcing prudent social distance between tables.

A block over at Mac’s Deli, Kathleen Nielsen, 69, and Lou Edney, 58, met for their first indoor lunch together since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Both said they were more comfortable in public settings, since they recently got their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Nielsen started coming to Mac’s more than 30 years ago. Over the years, she’s become close with the restaurant’s ownership and staff.

“It’s awesome to see my old friends again,” she said.

Ironically, the relaxed public health restrictions went into effect as new daily virus cases have begun to tick up in Sonoma County. The county’s daily case rate on Wednesday jumped from 4.3 to 4.9 cases per 100,000 residents, according to county officials. That could stall progress to reaching the state’s next reopening stage, the yellow tier, which requires new daily case rates to fall to at most 2 per 100,000 people.

Mike Holbrook, owner of The Batcave Comics and Toys in Santa Rosa, has yet to reopen the store during the pandemic, despite stores being allowed to resume full operations inside. He said he’s in a high-risk group to get infected by the virus and hasn’t been inoculated.

“We’d rather be open, but it’s just not safe to do right now,” Holbrook said.

While the local vaccination effort has ramped up in recent weeks as more people have become eligible for shots, half the county population over 16 has not received a single shot as of Wednesday, according to county public data. Health officials have described the vaccination push as a race against the spread of the more contagious variants of the virus that have been detected in Sonoma County, throughout the Bay Area and the country.

Despite the threat of the new, more contagious COVID-19 variants, local nonessential office workers were given the go-ahead to return to the job on Wednesday. Still, it’s unclear if many of their employers are eager to reopen workplaces. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which employs about 800 people in Sonoma County, will keep all office employees working remotely through the end of the year.

“We will continue to evaluate how and when we return remote workers to our offices, with their health and safety as our foremost concern,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

Another big step for reopening in the county was wineries that don’t serve food now being able to host tastings indoors at 25% capacity. Williamson Wines, which resumed outdoor tastings in March, reopened its two tasting rooms in downtown Healdsburg on Wednesday.

“People are excited to be inside, but many people still want to be outside in the nice weather,” said Lauren Ronkowski, marketing associate with Williamson. “It just allows us to host more people.”

Gyms and yoga studios got a small boost by being able to operate indoors at 25% capacity instead of 10%. Jeff Renfro, owner pf Yoga Hell, said his gym will continue focusing on outdoor and virtual classes instead of trying to fit more students into his studio.

“(The new rules) don’t really make a big difference for us, because we still need to honor being 6 feet apart,” Renfro said.

Even though entering the orange tier amounts to only incremental changes for certain businesses, an attempt at a full return to normalcy appears in sight. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced California is aiming to fully reopen in all 58 counties by June 15, as long as it has sufficient vaccine supply and virus-related hospitalizations remain low.

Ausiello, the restaurant owner, is hopeful that complete reopening will arrive on schedule.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to in June, being in here, the Giants are playing, it’s a big game, and somebody hits a home run, and the place lifts,” he said.

Staff Writer Phil Barber contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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