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Some businesses shun countywide shutdown as 'essential' operations continue

What Is An Essential Business?

These businesses are deemed essential under Health Officer Sundari Mase's shelter-in-place order, which also allows operation of “businesses that supply products needed for people to work from home” and “businesses that supply other essential businesses with the support or supplies necessary to operate.”

- Health care operations including hospitals, clinics, dentists, pharmacies, dispensaries, mental health providers and “any related and/or ancillary healthcare services,” not including indoor gyms and recreation centers

- Grocery stores, farmers' markets, food banks, convenience stores and other food shops

- Public works construction, housing construction, utilities including gas and electricity, and other infrastructure-related activities

- Agriculture and food producers, wineries, breweries and suppliers of the food and beverage industry

- Restaurants and food trucks, but only for drive-through, delivery or carry-out

- Companies that delivery food or groceries to homes

- Newspapers and other media outlets

- Gas stations and facilities related to automotive supply and repair, including tow trucks

- Banks and other financial institutions, including money-wiring businesses

- Hardware stores

- Plumbers, electricians and other service providers necessary for sanitation of homes and essential businesses

- Mailers and shippers, including P.O. boxes

- K-12 schools and colleges, though many have moved to remote learning

- Childcare facilities, which are subject to additional requirements

- Laundromats and dry cleaners

- Airlines, taxis, and ride-share companies

- Lawyers, accountants and other professional services “when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities”

- Cemeteries, though funeral and burial services are not allowed

How to contact us

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at

coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

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.

What Is An Essential Business?

These businesses are deemed essential under Health Officer Sundari Mase's shelter-in-place order, which also allows operation of “businesses that supply products needed for people to work from home” and “businesses that supply other essential businesses with the support or supplies necessary to operate.”

- Health care operations including hospitals, clinics, dentists, pharmacies, dispensaries, mental health providers and “any related and/or ancillary healthcare services,” not including indoor gyms and recreation centers

- Grocery stores, farmers' markets, food banks, convenience stores and other food shops

- Public works construction, housing construction, utilities including gas and electricity, and other infrastructure-related activities

- Agriculture and food producers, wineries, breweries and suppliers of the food and beverage industry

- Restaurants and food trucks, but only for drive-through, delivery or carry-out

- Companies that delivery food or groceries to homes

- Newspapers and other media outlets

- Gas stations and facilities related to automotive supply and repair, including tow trucks

- Banks and other financial institutions, including money-wiring businesses

- Hardware stores

- Plumbers, electricians and other service providers necessary for sanitation of homes and essential businesses

- Mailers and shippers, including P.O. boxes

- K-12 schools and colleges, though many have moved to remote learning

- Childcare facilities, which are subject to additional requirements

- Laundromats and dry cleaners

- Airlines, taxis, and ride-share companies

- Lawyers, accountants and other professional services “when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities”

- Cemeteries, though funeral and burial services are not allowed

How to contact us

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at

coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

Florists are not essential businesses, but in southwest Santa Rosa, Floreria Selena continues to assemble bouquets.

“We are open, but we are not open,” owner Carlos Ortiz said on Tuesday, clarifying that his shop is not doing walk-in businesses but continues to take order for deliveries despite trouble securing flowers from providers.

“We are kind of confused,” he said. “We are just trying to run the business, try to be ready for next month, pay the bills.”

A manager and employee at a Rohnert Park GNC, which sells dietary products and exercise supplements, said they weren’t permitted to talk to the press.

But they pointed to shelves of protein-infused food and fitness beverages, indicating they could be considered a type of convenience store under the order. The manager also provided a letter from a GNC executive - with explicit instructions to present the letter if local employees are confronted by authorities - saying the company “will remain open as a provider of essential health and wellness products” both in-store and through curb-side delivery.

Robert Thomas, owner of Valentino’s Barber Lounge in Cotati, said he’s already worried about paying bills after shutting down on Tuesday, noting that he initially stayed open because he thought he could keep operating as long as he kept occupancy under 10 people. Instead of a going to a licensed barbershop like his, he said, people may end up getting their hair cut in a garage or a friend’s bathroom.

“I feel like this is going to get people to get their hair cut in a less sanitary way,” Thomas said.

And at Smoke Depot in Petaluma, owner Rob Alkhouri likened the smoke shop’s tins of chewing tobacco, packs of cigarettes and assortment of vaping devices to what you’d see on the shelves of a gas station or convenience store - both essential businesses, according to Mase’s order.

Plus, Alkhouri said Tuesday while juggling a stream of customers, “people would go insane with no nicotine.”

A county spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that tobacco and vape shops did not qualify as essential businesses.

For Curoso, work now involves wearing N95 masks and other protective gear in customers’ homes. It brings back memories of the 2017 fires, when he went running around Santa Rosa cutting off gas lines to prevent the Tubbs fire from causing even more destruction. As he goes about Sonoma County these days to help residents regain the use of their facilities, he’s filled with a sense of pride.

“It just seems that we have more a purpose now to help people,” he said.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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