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Sonoma County gets clearance from California to reopen outdoor restaurants, wineries

On the same day Sonoma County reported a new single-day high of positive COVID-19 cases, state officials gave their blessing to reopen more of the local economy and civic life, allowing limited patio service at restaurants, breweries and tasting rooms, as well as drive-thru graduation ceremonies and drive-up religious services.

The state’s Department of Public Health and a county spokesman Friday confirmed that Sonoma had joined the ranks of counties deemed ready for swifter reopening of some commercial activities.

The details of the relaxed rules are contained in a new stay-at-home order, effective Saturday, issued by Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer. The new order, which like its predecessor is indefinite, takes effect at the beginning of what will be a three-day weekend for many.

“As we head into the Memorial Day weekend that many regard as the beginning of summer, I wish for everybody to be safe,” Mase said. “Parks are open, as are other activities, and please do go out and enjoy things - with general guidance for facial coverings, and with all of our mitigation measures.”

Outdoor seating at restaurants will be allowed as long as dining establishments follow certain guidelines, such as allowing no more than 10 people (all from the same household) per table, Mase said.

People at the same table don’t need to be seated 6 feet apart, but all tables need 6 feet of space between them, according to the order. Better not be late - all members of a party must be taken to their table at the same time.

Wineries, bars and pubs will be allowed to serve patrons outdoors as well as long as sit-down meals are served - including by food trucks - with seating restrictions similar to those imposed on restaurants. The order seeks to discourage booze-only trips to purveyors of alcoholic beverages, requiring alcohol to be served only as part of a meal. Retail alcohol-only sales will be allowed after meals via curbside pickup, delivery or shipping.

A total of 467 cases have been detected in Sonoma County - including 23 new cases reported Friday - though the true spread of the virus is likely greater due to asymptomatic cases and the lack of broad testing infrastructure earlier this year. As of Friday afternoon, 256 COVID-19 cases were active, 207 patients had recovered, and four people had died.

The new order also contains guidelines that allow youth summer camps where kids are supervised for no more than 24 hours. Educational and religious ceremonies in which participants remain in vehicles will be allowed - providing people don’t change cars mid-service and don’t try to pack too many people into a ride. (Motorcycles, open-top convertibles, vehicles without doors and bicycles aren’t suitable.)

The changes Sonoma County made in response to state feedback pertained to outdoor wine tastings, library service and movies, Mase said. She said the county’s apparent disproportionately high rate of COVID-19 spread among Latinos was not a factor in the alterations.

Mase said she will be keeping an eye out for how case totals change after Memorial Day - within Sonoma County as well as in counties that are under higher degrees of social restriction, such as Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties. The stay-at-home order is meant to limit nonessential travel across county lines, she said.

“We’re considered more of a destination point,” she said, alluding to rules curtailing access to coastal parks. “I think we’ll also see a lot of folks out and about here in our county that are our own residents, so we’ll just see how this goes.”

Sonoma is the third Bay Area county after Napa and Solano to secure state approval to move ahead with its Phase 2 reopening. Lake and Mendocino counties also have received state approval to move forward.

Starting in June, the county also will require the use of a coronavirus screening app and mandatory temperature checks before workers start shifts at job sites away from their homes.

The app, SoCo COVID-19 Check, is available on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

Employers can use an “alternative system” to the app as long as it performs the same assessments and allows for the electronic reporting of aggregate data to the county, according to the order.

Sonoma County’s request, submitted earlier this week, outlines the steps officials has taken to better account for the spread of the pandemic and to react in case of an increase in case numbers beyond state thresholds.

Surpassing the state limits could trigger renewed restrictions on local economic activity - the county noted that no more than 10 people with COVID-19 had been hospitalized from May 3 to May 17, the two-week period preceding Mase’s request.

However, while the county will be keeping its eyes peeled, “red flags” such as a rise in community transmission, may not be apparent for two weeks to a month, Mase said. More recent increases in numbers are the early reflections of opening up parks, construction, real estate activities and potentially curbside pickup and delivery for retail stores, she said.

“I suspect that it’d be fairly straightforward and quick if we decide to be more restrictive in certain areas,” Mase said.

Curbside pickup of library books and other materials and drive-in movie screenings also will be allowed. The order also clarifies that “counseling provided by faith-based organizations can be provided in-person if teleworking is not possible.”

After the county released the new order, the city of Santa Rosa announced it would work to open up more outdoor space for businesses, starting with sidewalk space. The city - which earlier this month discussed the idea of shutting down a few blocks of Fourth Street to vehicle traffic - next planned to explore “parklet” spaces that will expand sidewalks into the street.

The county has conducted about 19,800 tests, and a little more than 2% of those have been positive. About two-thirds of cases have come from close contact with COVID-19 patients, with about 20% coming via community spread.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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