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Sonoma County and Bay Area brace for tighter pandemic restrictions

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Sweeping new restrictions to be imposed around California over the coming weeks to combat a severe resurgence of the coronavirus are expected to exact an excruciating toll on consumers and business owners already struggling amid pandemic fears and limits.

Sonoma County and its Bay Area neighbors are in a more favorable position than most parts of the state, given area hospitalizations of virus patients are still at a manageable level.

But each of five California regions is expected by late December to reach a critical limit on available intensive-care hospital beds, triggering new stay-home requirements Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that greatly limit commercial operations, recreational and worshipping opportunities and social gatherings beyond what’s now allowed.

The result will be disruptive conditions slightly more liberal than those in place back in March and April after the onset of the pandemic, when county and state public health officials first adopted emergency orders that suspended all but the most essential activities, like grocery shopping and trips to the pharmacy.

Once the tighter restrictions and closures are enacted in a particular region, they will remain for three weeks. Among the hardest hit will be: restaurants, which will be limited to takeout and delivery; hair and nail salons which will be closed; stores only able to operate at 20% of customer capacity; churches curtailed to services outdoors; and hotels limited to booking overnight guests that are “essential” business travelers.

The far-reaching rules will deliver a mighty blow to personal service providers and business owners who already have made significant and costly adjustments to accommodate existing pandemic restrictions, some investing heavily only to find they now will likely have to close or further limit operations.

Certain restaurateurs, retailers and service providers are barely staying afloat as it is and could find they can’t recover after this, said Peter Rumble, chief executive of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

“I think there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety right now, especially in the retail sector,” Rumble said. “Members in the retail sector, who essentially make their year based on holiday spending, are profoundly concerned with what greater restrictions can mean.”

The state order calls for the stricter provisions to take effect 24 hours after hospital ICU bed capacity falls below 15% in any of the designated five regions of California. Regions with ICU bed availability greater than that would not be subject to the closures and new limits.

Newsom urged residents to bear in mind that what’s coming “is not a permanent step” but a bridge through the most challenging time of the pandemic that began in March.

The new state order comes in response to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, soaring hospitalizations and increasing fatalities around California and the rest of the nation. It is designed to limit social mixing and, particularly, those activities that occur indoors and involve eating, drinking and people being together for extended periods.

The ultimate goal is to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed, which is why ICU capacity for severely ill people afflicted with the virus has been established as the key factor.

Barney Aldridge, owner of The Barlow marketplace of trendy shops and food and drink establishments in Sebastopol, nonetheless called the additional restrictions “a horrific overstep of authority.”

The 12-acre trendy shopping mecca has nine eateries that have shifted operations to meet requirements of socially distanced outdoor service and will have to resort to takeout and delivery only.

“It’s been an incredible burden on all restaurants and people in service businesses on so many levels,” Aldridge said, “and it’s hugely impacted morale, well-being and has the overall effect of making hundreds of thousands of people under siege.”

In contrast, Barbara Gonnella, owner of the old Union Hotel Restaurant in Occidental, said she was saddened by the prospect of having to turn away sit-down guests — particularly given a beautiful new wooden pergola installed in front of the business just last week.

“But most importantly, it’s about the health of everyone, and our little takeout counter will be just abundant with cookies and soups and pastas and pizzas,” she said.

In Sonoma County, increased coronavirus hospitalizations and other critical patient care needs meant 79 of 82 ICU beds were occupied Thursday, meaning local hospitals were down to less than 4% of capacity. County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said local hospital leaders already have plans set to secure additional staffing if needed for surge capacity.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The Bay Area region, of which Sonoma is a part, had more than 25% of its hospital ICU capacity remaining Thursday and wasn’t expected to reach the 15% trigger point until mid-to-late December, according to the California Department of Public Health. Besides Sonoma, the region includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Solano counties.

The other four regions with fewer ICU beds available now — Northern California (18.6%), Greater Sacramento (22%), San Joaquin Valley (19.7%) and Southern California (20.6%) — likely face tighter restrictions in the next couple of days or weeks as COVID-19 patients’ conditions worsen. Mendocino and Lake counties are part of the Northern California region and thus likely face having new restrictions imposed soon.

If the new trigger is reached in Sonoma County, local wineries expect to go back to the status they operated under last spring when production and agriculture work was allowed but on-site wine tasting was prohibited, said Tim Schmelzer, a vice president at the Wine Institute, the main trade group for California wineries.

“You can do pickups and people can do online orders with delivery, but there is no more wine tasting,” Schmelzer said.

The closures would come as the Sonoma County wine sector continues grappling with diminished tourism and fewer visitors expected this holiday season, given prohibitions on indoor food and beverage service and colder weather. The effect will be more severe for smaller wineries that rely on direct-to-consumer sales as opposed to larger operations, such as Jackson Family Wines and E. & J. Gallo Winery, which make a vast amount of revenue from retail sales.

In one notable example, Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg last month opted to pause its wine tastings until at least January.

“It’s another blow to our industry, as we rely on tourism,” said Rene Byck, owner of Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa. “We rely on people visiting us to buy wine.”

At Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa, which has more than a dozen tasting rooms in Sonoma and Napa counties, including the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens, CEO Rick Tigner said in a statement his company was monitoring the new state directive.

“Our goal is to keep our region’s COVID-19 numbers down so that we don’t have to shut down our tasting rooms,” Tigner said. “Obviously, this is disappointing since those of us in the industry, including restaurants, have taken significant steps to winterize our outdoor spaces and keep them safe for employees and guests. That said, we will do our part to ensure everyone remains safe through the holidays.”

Tom Bugbee, chief operating officer of CourseCo, which manages the two golf courses in Oakmont Village near Santa Rosa, said he thinks golf will be allowed even under the tighter public health rules.

CourseCo operates other golf clubs in Los Angeles County, which was placed under more restrictive health orders earlier this week, and golf courses stayed open because by the nature of the sport players keep plenty of distance, Bugbee said.

“That’s our interpretation today. As you know,” he said, “these things have a way of changing from one day to the next.”

Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Co., was pleased to learn an outdoor dining shutdown isn’t necessarily imminent, and that it may be weeks before the Bay Area dips under the 15% ICU bed availability threshold.

“We’ll take it. It’s a win,” said Cilurzo, noting the terrible timing this is, happening “during the middle of the holiday season. I hate having to furlough more employees.”

Ina Rodrigues, owner of the Fox and the Hair salon on Kentucky Street in Petaluma, spent Thursday afternoon calming co-workers.

“If it needs to happen, to keep people safe, we feel like it should,” Rodrigues said of the broader restrictions. “On the other hand, the federal government has let us down. I know a lot of people want to blame Gavin Newsom.”

Staff Writers Bill Swindell and Austin Murphy contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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