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Sonoma County again fails to qualify for broader reopening under state guidelines

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

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Although hopes ran high coming into this week, Sonoma County on Tuesday again failed to qualify to more broadly reopen business and industry under the state’s community reopening plan amid the pandemic.

Despite a sharp decline in coronavirus cases and related hospitalizations locally the past few weeks, Sonoma County’s new daily case rate per 100,000 residents — a key measure of transmission of the virus — remains slightly above the state’s threshold to advance from the most restrictive stage of the state’s four-part reopening regimen.

“Hang in there, we are so close,” county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said. “We are on the cusp of going into the red” tier, a less restrictive stage that will, among other things, enable restaurants to finally resume limited indoor dining after a hiatus since late last summer.

The county has been stuck in the purple tier, reserved for those areas among California’s 58 counties with widespread COVID-19 circulation, since the state launched its Blueprint for a Safer Economy reopening road map in late August.

For local residents and businesses alike, the stiff restrictions have been painful. There’s continued isolation and at-home virtual education for most students and massive financial hemorrhaging at many companies.

Experts in the business community estimated last week that between 75 and 100 county businesses, many of them smaller enterprises, have gone under during the pandemic that began last March. Although a big group has returned to work, more than 30,000 people were forced out of work in the yearlong battle against the pathogen that’s killed more than 300 local residents and infected over 28,500 people.

Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said he received several messages from chamber members Tuesday who were let down by the county again being deemed ineligible to resume more commercial activities.

But on the bright side there’s another realistic scenario that could develop as soon as later this week to make the county qualify to further reopen its economy.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide vaccine push into the poorest California neighborhoods — home to 8 million residents. State officials said that as soon as COVID-19 inoculations go into the arms of 2 million people living in those disadvantaged communities, they would make the key viral transmission benchmark for reopening slightly higher.

Once the 2 million vaccination threshold is reached, a county in the purple tier like Sonoma would need a daily virus infection rate no higher than 10 per 100,000 residents, up from 7. Sonoma County’s case rate Tuesday sat at 9, and the adjusted level was 8.2 per 100,000, which would qualify the county to expand community reopening as long as its virus test positivity rates don’t jump.

State public health officials confirmed Tuesday that in such cases, a purple-tier county could move into the red tier the day after the state reaches the 2 million inoculation threshold in impoverished communities — none of which are in Sonoma County. As of Monday, the state had vaccinated almost 1.9 million of its poorest residents, according to the state’s online vaccination dashboard.

“The glimmer of hope is through vaccination,” said Rumble, hoping state health officials soon hit their inoculation goal. “It makes sense for us to start looking at vaccinations as the key to how we can safely operate and move back to what won’t be normal, but something that gets us out of the pure lockdown scenario.”

The county’s campaign to immunize residents against COVID-19 continues to be hobbled by tight supplies of vaccine doses. Still, 11.6% of adults in the county of about 490,000 people have been fully vaccinated, while 28% have received one of two shots required with two of the three vaccines approved by federal authorities.

For now in the Bay Area, only Sonoma and Contra Costa counties are still in the purple reopening tier. As of Tuesday, the day the state makes its weekly assignments for counties in reopening stages, 34 counties across the state remained in the tough purple stage.

Neighboring Bay Area counties Napa, Marin and Solano have advanced to less limited stages. However, outside the region to the north of us Mendocino and Lake counties join Sonoma in the purple tier.

Once Sonoma County advances to the red reopening stage, local restaurants would be able to resume indoor dining at 25% customer capacity and several other businesses could expand operations. For example, gyms could resume workouts inside at 10% capacity and grocery stores could expand from 50% to full capacity. For now, restaurants and brewpubs are required to continue with outdoor food, drink and takeout service.

Meanwhile, county public health officials reported Tuesday three more fatalities from complications of the coronavirus, bringing the pandemic death toll to 306. The three latest deaths occurred March 2, 4, and 5.

The three victims were a woman and a man both over 64 living in the general population. The third was a man between 18 and 49, also living in the community rather than a senior care home.

Of the 306 overall deaths, 168, or 55% of them, were local residents of skilled nursing homes and assisted living centers. Even virus-related deaths and new infections among senior care home residents — who suffered the deadliest brunt of the pandemic disease — have sharply reduced in recent weeks.

With the significant progress county residents have made tamping down the virus, Mase said “rather than being disheartened, we should continue with all of the (coronavirus) mitigation measures and all the things that people are doing.”

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

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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