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Sonoma County added to state coronavirus watchlist with restrictions expected by next week

New restrictions on commercial indoor activities are expected Monday.|

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Sonoma County joined 29 other California counties on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist Friday, starting a three-day countdown to newly imposed restrictions on indoor businesses expected to come by early next week.

Assuming the county remains on the list for three successive days — an outcome that’s in no real doubt — indoor commercial drinking and dining establishments, as well as museums and entertainment centers, will have to close down as soon as Monday.

Outdoor food and beverage service still will be permitted.

But the prospect of painful, renewed restrictions on commercial activity just weeks into the county’s economic recovery prompted anxiety and stress around the area this week, as well as scrambling by business owners trying to plan for changed conditions.

“I just think that so many business owners before this impending shutdown were already barely hanging on,” west county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “And I know that a lot of business owners had just called back their staff, and they had just discontinued unemployment, and now they are looking at having to make those layoffs again.”

State intervention is a result of rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts — including 89 more confirmed cases Friday — as well as related hospitalizations. Those numbers have veered sharply upward around the country, including in California, where infections have been heavily concentrated in large urban counties like Los Angeles, though rural counties like southern Imperial County have had disproportionately high case rates.

Under a California Department of Public Health monitoring protocol, the state designated certain data points to measure county transmission rates, identifying for each county what benchmarks would be used to trigger state involvement to rein in viral transmission.

A key measure is the 14-day case rate, which in Sonoma County is now about 113 per 100,000 population, more than five times what it was five weeks ago. Anything above 100 per 100,000 is considered out of compliance.

Sonoma County has been above the accepted case rate threshold since July 3. But the county has exceeded eight different benchmarks, and it was rising hospitalizations that state Public Health initially cited in flagging it for the watchlist.

On Friday, the change in the three-day average of COVID-related hospitalizations was 44%. The maximum threshold is 10%.

Sonoma County Health Officer Sundari Mase said Friday that the recent increased in hospitalizations reflected outbreaks among especially vulnerable populations, particularly those in skilled nursing and residential care facilities.

The county has recorded 64 cases among residents of such facilities, including 32 at a single skilled nursing center, Sonoma’s Broadway Villa Post Acute, as well as 49 staff members.

The county overall has now had 1,650 confirmed COVID-19 cases since March, including 89 new cases posted Friday. Fourteen people have died, including five skilled nursing facility patients and two from residential care facilities.

Twenty-six confirmed COVID patients were hospitalized Friday, two fewer than a day earlier.

Local health officials updated the county doubling rate Friday to 28 days, meaning continuing at the current transmission rate would lead to 3,300 cases by Aug 7.

Intervention by the state is meant to reduce the rate of infection, however, first by imposing standard closures on indoor business sectors “which promote the mixing of populations beyond households and make adherence to physical distancing with face coverings difficult,” and then by working with county health officials to identify factors that drive local transmission and adopting strategies to address problem areas.

Early next week, likely Monday, the state health officer will call for the closure of bars and clubs, museums, cardrooms, entertainment centers and movie theaters, and require restaurants and wine tasting rooms to move their service outdoors.

While wine tasting may continue without any requirement for food to be included, however, beer and spirit tasting can only occur if a meal is involved in the same transaction.

“Welcome to California,” Barber Lee Spirit co-founder Aaron Lee said of the unequal treatment that drew plenty of notice in Sonoma County, which is home to a plethora of craft beer and spirit producers, as well as vintners.

But Lee said he was hoping by next week to find a food vendor to work with so his company could pair with cocktails to go served curbside from the Petaluma distillery.

The return to more a restrictive commercial landscape also seemed to prompt an upwelling of public frustration about those who fail to adhere to county and state health orders requiring things like facial coverings in public indoor spaces, social distancing and avoidance of social gatherings involving more than 12 people.

With the county facing renewed closures, there were reports of people gathered to party indoor and out without masks or social distancing, shopping in at the mall without their faces covered, even traveling after testing positive for coronavirus.

“We are definitely seeing an uptick of those kinds of emails and phone calls,” said Hopkins.

“Some of them actually have racist overtones, which is unfortunate and unacceptable,” she added, referencing disproportionate transmission rates among the county’s Latino population.

In fact, she said, large number of people visiting the Russian River in her district, for example, are white, she said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he was concerned that closing indoor businesses might not target the actual source of infections in Sonoma County.

State interventions, he said, “should really take into account the things that we’re vulnerable to that we know are causing spikes.”

It’s also “an opportunity for us to step up the outreach, talk about what needs to occur and explain why the mitigations are important,” Rabbit said.

Said Hopkins, “For me, it’s a call for really stepping up as a community right now. How can we make sure not only that we are investing our dollars locally, but that we are truly following the letter of the health order, making essential trips, wearing our masks and social distancing?”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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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