Sonoma County cleared to advance to orange reopening tier as COVID-19 fades
With the coronavirus only spreading moderately, Sonoma County on Tuesday got approval from state health officials to move to the next less restrictive stage of the state’s four-part reopening plan.
This means under state health department guidelines, the county jumps to the orange tier and can more broadly reopen businesses and public activities on Wednesday.
The anticipated go-ahead locally comes after California achieved a key vaccination milestone of inoculating 4 million people in its poorest neighborhoods. By hitting this target, state health officials made it easier for 15 counties, including Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa, to advance to the orange tier, and further ease restrictions on many commercial and public activities.
“I’m really excited that we finally met the metrics for the orange, but I am also very cautious,” said county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, urging county residents to continue wearing masks, keeping prudent social distance and avoiding group gatherings.
Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer of Providence St. Joseph Health, which runs Santa Rosa Memorial, Petaluma Valley and Healdsburg hospitals, called the reopening advancement hopeful news.
Memorial Hospital, the county’s largest medical center, continues to treat COVID-19 patients, though not nearly as many as during the winter surge in December and January.
There are 14 patients with the coronavirus being treated Monday in county hospitals, including three in intensive care. At one time in early January, local hospitals had 110 coronavirus patients.
On Tuesday, the state reported Sonoma County had a virus transmission rate of 4.2 new cases per 100,000 residents, well within the new range for the orange tier of 2 to 5.9 cases per 100,000. That range had been tougher to attain, between 1 and 3.9 cases per 100,000 prior to the state reaching the 4 million vaccinations in the arms of residents in the most underserved neighborhoods.
Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, expressed relief over the additional business expansion prospects, though he didn’t anticipate Newsom’s bombshell announcement of a full California reopening June 15.
“If one thing’s been consistent through all of this, it’s been his ability to announce extremely impactful things with no warning or notice,” Rumble said of the governor. “The state had some of the most restrictive measures in place in the country, and understandably so. I think everyone is excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel getting closer and closer.”
On March 14, Sonoma County officially had moved ahead from the purple stage, where it had been since late August, to the red tier. Since then, spread of COVID-19 has steadily diminished and the county’s vaccination campaign has accelerated with almost 30% of local adult residents fully inoculated.
Under the state’s orange reopening level, the county can allow bars to reopen outdoors with modifications and many businesses will be able to welcome more customers inside.
Restaurants and movie theaters can bump indoor capacity from 25% or 100 people, whichever is less, to 50% or 200 people. Wineries, breweries and distilleries, where no food is served, can reopen indoors and outdoors at 25% capacity, or 100 people, whichever is less.
Houses of worship and museums can increase indoor capacity from 25% to 50%, and gyms and yoga studios from 10% to 25%.
For restaurants, the benefits of progressing from red to orange may well depend on the size and configuration of each site, said Terri Stark, who owns seven county dining establishments along with her husband, Mark.
Bravas tapas bar in Healdsburg, she said, would hardly be affected because its outdoor space is much more substantial than its inside dining. For Stark’s Steak & Seafood, on Adams Street in Santa Rosa, the move to orange should represent a bigger change.
“But they’ve been pretty unclear,” Stark said of county and state health officials. “They’re saying 50% or 200 people, whichever is less. But they haven’t said whether that means 6 feet apart. We’re still doing that, just to be responsible. But we haven’t heard that in a very long time.”
Also, Tuesday Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state would be doing away with its color-coded reopening regimen on June 15, allowing all 58 counties to fully reopen their communities. That’ll be two months after April 15, when all California residents age 16 or older will be eligible for immunization against the coronavirus.
Newsom said the move was owed to a continued decline in COVID-19 cases and ongoing vaccination progress. He said 20 million vaccine doses have been administered statewide and he anticipates there will be enough supply in the future to do away with county-by-county public health restrictions by summer.
Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley infectious disease expert, said he has mixed feelings about Newsom’s announcement. Swartzberg said that while California continues to do an exceptional job suppressing the virus, many parts of the country are experiencing a fourth wave of new cases and the virus is “exploding“ in places like Brazil, India, Europe and sections of Canada.
“The world surrounding us is filled with COVID,” he said, fearing Newsom’s call for a full reopening in mid-June will be interpreted by many Californians as meaning that the pandemic is over.
Meanwhile, Rumble, the Santa Rosa chamber CEO, continues to worry about Sonoma County’s small businesses.
“Certainly, as we step down within the (reopening) tiers, there’s a better survival rate for these businesses,” he said. “We’ve gone through more than a year now with business owners not being able to pay their bills.”
Staff Writer Phil Barber contributed to this story.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or email@example.com. On Twitter @pressreno.