Some businesses shun countywide shutdown as 'essential' operations continue
Jim Curoso’s Santa Rosa plumbing business has been booming since last week, when Sonoma County residents were ? given historic orders to stay home to curb the coronavirus pandemic. People stocked up on toilet paper, ramped up cooking and started hunkering down - spurring a wave of calls for home help that have kept Curoso and other plumbers very busy.
“Ever since everyone’s been in the house, it’s been crazy,” Curoso said Wednesday.
But the shelter-at-home life imposed last week by Sundari Mase, the county health officer, has dramatically shuttered or hampered a wide range of other businesses operating in Sonoma County, with a similar drop-off in private sector activity seen statewide and across the nation in places ordered to shut down.
Only businesses that provide “essential products and services” or that “supply other essential businesses with the support or supplies necessary to operate” are allowed to stay open under the three-week order, provided they comply with social distancing requirements.
For restaurants, the order instructs them to close or limit food service to takeout or delivery options only, and residents have responded, in part, by breaking out the recipe books and firing up the stove.
The pandemic has prompted Curoso to take extra job site precautions to avoid spreading or contracting COVID-19, the respiratory virus caused by the new coronavirus. And for Curoso and his three employees, the surge in home cooking means unclogging more kitchen sinks and responding to after-hours calls. On Tuesday, his work took him to 10:30 p.m.
“Everyone’s a little bit on edge,” Curoso said, “but the customers are pretty thankful and understanding.”
Curoso is allowed to keep working under Mase’s three-week shelter order because plumbing is specifically called out as an example of an essential business, a category that also includes hospitals, grocery and hardware stores, gas stations, laundromats and dry cleaners and a narrow range of other businesses that provide or allow for access to necessary goods and services.
Some defy order
But the distinction is not exact, leaving more than a few shoppers befuddled on their trips out of the house when they find a store opened that they expected to be closed. What about that nail salon? That barbershop? That tobacco and vape retailer?
And local enforcement so far has been lax.
Officials have adopted a policy of education, not punishment, while noting they have authority should they could choose to crack down on defiant businesses.
“We’ve had some reports that certain businesses are open or it’s clear that not everybody is actually in line with the shelter-in-place,” Mase said Tuesday. “So we wanted to ensure that our law enforcement, when they are made aware of such things, go and check them out and see if there is any need for them to gently nudge (business owners) and say, ‘Oh you’re not in compliance with the order.’?”
Mase’s order spells out numerous types of essential businesses and allows others to operate with limits, but it leaves more than a few proprietors asking themselves: Are we essential or nonessential?
The answer can be elusive. Crossing the Jordan, a nonprofit that sells used clothes to fund its mission of helping abuse victims, homeless people and recovering addicts, had retail shops that remained opened to shoppers until late Tuesday morning.
At the Rohnert Park store around noon, employees milled about inside - one even offered to shake a reporter’s hand. Crossing the Jordan continues to accept donations to its secondhand clothes stores, but those shops, including several Santa Rosa sites, are now closed to shoppers.
Dana Bryant, the nonprofit’s co-founder and executive director, acknowledged people had complained about her business being open and said the organization had been contacted multiple times by local law enforcement, though she wasn’t aware of any formal request to shut down. She said Crossing the Jordan had focused on a provision of Mase’s order allowing businesses that provide “food, shelter, and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals” as justification for staying open.
She conceded that while secondhand clothing sales may fund those services, they don’t count as the services themselves.
“This gray area is dangerous for us,” Bryant said, adding that she had sought and not received guidance from local officials on whether to keep operating.
A Santa Rosa city spokeswoman confirmed that the Police Department had told Crossing the Jordan it needed to close in the city. Bryant and her husband, co-founder Michael Bryant, decided about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to close all of their retail locations, citing additional contact with the Sheriff’s Office.