Sonoma County extends stay-home order indefinitely, but eases some restrictions

Sonoma County health officials on Friday began peeling back local coronavirus restrictions, paving the way for more people to go back to work in areas such as construction, auto sales, landscaping and other outdoor businesses while maintaining key stay-home rules and bans on gatherings of any size.

The new directive, which becomes effective 12:01 a.m. Monday, when the current one expires, has no end date and aligns the county’s rules with California’s indefinite public health order. Both are aimed at continuing to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent a surge of seriously sick people from overwhelming hospitals.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, unveiled the changes during her daily Facebook Live address. She said the county was able to begin easing restrictions because of successful local compliance with public health measures.

“This loosening of restrictions in our new shelter-in-place order is possible because of the significant interruption of community transmission of the virus,” Mase said.

Under the new order, all kinds of construction will be allowed to resume, not just fire rebuilds or affordable housing projects permitted by the prior order. Real estate agencies, landscaping companies, car dealers, bike shops, florists, golf courses and pool cleaners will also be able to restore parts of their businesses.

But in easing restrictions and allowing some people to go back to work, new anti-coronavirus protocols will now be required, such as keeping strict social distancing, maintaining effective hygiene protocols and requiring protective gear.

“Nobody knows how this is going to go until we get the ball rolling and get people back to work,” said Boyd Stockham, owner of Stockham Construction, a big union metal stud and drywall taping company based in Cotati.

Stockham, who has nearly 600 employees, many of them temporarily laid off, applauded the loosening of restrictions on construction because it will hopefully let him get many workers back on the job in the coming weeks. He said that while there are likely to be added costs to all the safety precautions, the safety of his employees is his priority.

Sonoma County has all but quashed the spread of the virus within the community by keeping most people home and tracking all those who test positive for COVID-19. As of late Friday, tests had confirmed 248 cases in a county of a half-million residents. Of those, 128 have recovered and 118 were still active. Two people in the county have died from the disease. More than 6,000 tests have been conducted, 96% of which were negative.

Mase said the order was indefinite to allow officials who are “constantly reevaluating” the impact of shelter-in-place to make changes on the fly, such as if statewide rules suddenly change.

“If things are loosened up a lot more quickly, we’ll have to immediately modify the order to allow for the retail places to open, that sort of thing, and I’d rather not be locked in to a particular date,” she said. “It allows us to be a lot more flexible, either with tightening or loosening.”

Mase said the initial order had an end date because at that time no one knew how long the emergency would last. Now, she said, “We know it’s going to be with us a while, it doesn’t make sense to have end dates on orders.”

Allowing more construction projects to resume is expected to be the most significant of the changes because the industry directly employs more than 17,000 ?people in Sonoma County and fuels commerce with related sectors like supply warehouses and even gas stations.

In addition to construction, Mase eased restrictions on industries such as landscaping, tree and gardening work, home repair, real estate showings and retail sales at plant nurseries - which were supposed to be limited to food production or urgent repairs.

Golf courses can reopen. During her daily press briefing, Mase called golfing a “low-risk activity,” explaining that she allowed golf courses to reopen because they’re more conducive to social distancing than other activities, such as basketball.

Florists will be able to reopen for retail sales, just in time for the May 10 Mother’s Day crush. Auto dealerships and bicycle shops can now operate beyond maintenance and repairs and offer retail sales.

Faith-based organizations can provide food, shelter and services to the needy, but counseling and religious services must remain online. Real estate and rental viewings can move forward with stringent sanitation and distancing protocols, especially with occupied dwellings.

David and Erika Rendino, co-owners of Re/Max Marketplace in Cotati, welcomed the opportunity to show occupied homes, which represent a significant share of homes listed and sold each month. Erika Rendino said that because the virus continues to be transmitted, there’s still likely to be a good deal of anxiety. “We’re not going to be stampeding into homes left and right, we’re going to be very careful,” she said.

All businesses will be required to implement physical distancing and face-covering procedures, and the order includes social distancing protocols for businesses to follow.

However, workers in key industries remain shut out of the local economy because of prohibitions that have shuttered much of the hospitality and tourism sector, central to so many local jobs in Wine Country.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin admitted the county isn’t “taking gigantic leaps.” She described the modifications as prudent while the county pivots to prepare other kinds of businesses to operate in a new era that will require them to protect customers and employees from exposure to the virus.

“The pain that employees and businesses are feeling is intense and is only going to increase over time, so we want to move forward,” Gorin said.

Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler cautioned that there remained a “long road ahead” for the local economy, which he estimated could take 18 months to recover from such a swift and brutal hit to commerce from the shutdown. One in 10 workers - almost 25,000 people in the county - filed applications for unemployment benefits in March, and the number is expected to soar when new data is released.

However, allowing construction to move forward is a wise choice because of the ways that industry could provide an economic benefit to others, he said. Next, the county should allow more types of manufacturing and medical offices to open fully, he said.

“The more you can open up, the more other parts of the economy can rebound,” Eyler said. “There’s a lot of income there that spreads its wings.”

The new order is a step toward getting people back to work but it is a far cry from the desire of county supervisors and industry leaders to reopen the economy as quickly and safely as possible. Many have called for an end to industrywide bans and instead move toward risk-based rules that would allow businesses of any kind to operate if they can adopt strict standards, such as physical distancing and face covering, to limit contact among employees and customers.

That is not currently possible because the state order divides businesses into two categories - “essential,” which can stay open, and “nonessential,” which cannot - and the county’s health order follows suit.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said “meaningful augmentations” to the state order are expected in “many days, not weeks.” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county is developing guidance to help businesses prepare to reopen with modified operations aimed at limiting employees’ and customers’ exposure to the virus once the state’s order is modified.

“We don’t yet know when the starting gun is going to go off and we will be able to jump into the race,” Hopkins said. “We want to make sure our businesses are at the starting line so when the gun goes off, we’re ready.”

Stockham, the construction business owner, said the shutdown forced him to lay off more than 400 ?workers. He said his business does work locally as well as in San Francisco for companies including Google, Facebook and Salesforce.

“It’s had a hell of an impact on our business,” Stockham said, adding that only 125 of his 550 construction employees are currently working.

“I had to furlough a fair amount of my office, still covering their benefits but they had to go out on unemployment,” he said.

Stockham said he’s excited for his “guys in the field” because they’ll start getting paychecks again. But he said he’s just as excited about the impact on the general economy and the tremendous role construction plays.

“Construction is the catalyst to the economy,” he said. “No matter where, when construction workers are busy, everyone is busy. It goes hand in hand.”

Samar Hattar, owner of Blissful Events, a Petaluma luxury wedding and events planner, said her company had 10 weddings planned for this year when the coronavirus reached Sonoma County and triggered the unprecedented shutdown. Six of the weddings have been pushed off into next year, and the remainder are in a holding pattern to see if restrictions are loosened later in the season. Hattar said the season runs from June to October, with September being the busiest month.

Each wedding, which takes some 200 to 250 hours to plan, requires the labor of a couple dozen workers, including caterers, photographers, videographers, florists and others. The weddings, high-end luxury events at premiere venues, draw an average of 125 ?guests.

“We’re taking it day by day in our industry,” Hattar said. “This affects so many vendors, including caterers, photographers and florists.”

During her press briefing, Mase said she and other health officials would continue to examine other areas where restrictions could be eased, including retail, manufacturing, more public spaces and offices where “tele-work” is not possible.

“It’s really risk stratification that we’re doing,” she said.

Staff Writers Chantelle Lee and Will Schmitt contributed to this report.

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