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Sonoma County health officer puts brakes on further resumption of economic activity

Even as Gov. Gavin Newsom continues easing public health restrictions, Sonoma County’s top public health official struck a cautionary and concerned tone Tuesday, warning she does not expect this week to allow reopening of area shopping malls, barbershops, hair salons and in-person church services because the new coronavirus has recently spread further in the community.

Her remarks represented a slowdown for a county that just last week secured approval from state health officials to move faster to restart business and industry since the virus threat appeared tempered. And the local economy certainly needed a boost. The economic free-fall came into full view Friday with the release of a Great Depression-era April jobless rate of 15.2%, revealing almost 48,000 residents lost their jobs last month.

Now, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase’s caution and concern, after she allowed restaurants, wineries and breweries that serve food to resume outdoor dining over the holiday weekend, dashes at least temporarily the hopes of county residents.

Mase tapping the brakes on reopening the economy and more of public life also underscores the unpredictability of when and where this cruel virus will strike.

She pointed to a number of troubling new developments in the county’s fight against the highly contagious pathogen, which has stricken 524 residents, since the first case was announced March 2, and killed four older people with underlying health conditions.

“Right now, as of today, when the state is issuing orders, we are not moving forward with their recommendations for counties that can do so,” Mase, said during her daily press briefing. “The state recommendations are to apply local epidemiology ... to make the decision whether to open these areas.”

In the past two weeks, public health workers have discovered 203 new confirmed cases (including 48 over the holiday weekend) of COVID-19, mostly involving close contacts of people already infected, Mase said. That translates into 4.1 cases per 10,000 ?residents, a rate that exceeds the 3-case per 10,000 “trigger” county officials had set to slow or halt local efforts to reopen more businesses and public activities, she said.

She also said the number of county residents stricken by the infectious disease that need hospital care - some of whom need ventilators in the intensive-care units at local hospitals - are on the rise.

“We’re in a position where we’re getting more intubated ICU patients that are really sick,” Mase said.

In addition, she said there was a recent COVID-19 outbreak at a local senior residential care center she declined to name. She said two employees and two residents at a single facility had tested positive for the virus.

The new infections were discovered through the county’s efforts to test close contacts to infected people, and both the residents and employees who tested positive have been removed from the facility and isolated, Mase said. Other residents and employees there who came in contact with the four who tested positive have been quarantined and are being tested.

Nursing homes in the area and around the country have proven to be virus hot spots. County public health officials acknowledged that weeks ago and have been doing more testing at these places, along with other settings with a high concentration of people living close together such as the local jail and homeless shelters.

Following Mase’s press briefing, a Press Democrat reporter asked again for the county health officer to disclose the name of the senior residential care center where the outbreak occurred. Mase, through Rohish Lal, a spokesman for the county Department of Health Services, again declined.

Sonoma County is nearing three months since the first case of confirmed coronavirus emerged. As of Tuesday night, 23,356 ?local residents of the county’s nearly 500,000 population have been tested, with 524 resulting positive, or 2.3% of those tested.

Of the positive cases, 298 are active, while 222 people have recovered. Regarding the source of the virus, 351 ?cases are linked to close contacts of infected people; 94 cases are linked to community transmission of the virus from an unknown source; 49 are linked to travel and 30 remain under investigation.

To start the week, Newsom gave the green light for many counties - including Sonoma - to reopen another wave of business and industry, if the locales are ready to advance further into the second part of the state’s four-stage reopening plan by resuming shopping inside malls and in-person church services with a limited crowd.

Newsom on Tuesday added barbershops and hair salons - but not nail salons - to the list of potential commercial enterprises available to the 47 California counties that have been granted a “regional variance” because they exceeded state base public health guidelines in containing COVID-19 so they can move quicker with resumption of business sectors.

Mase said the governor’s intention was for local health officials to use their discretion when deciding what economic activities to reopen or keep closed. All but businesses deemed essential here have been shut since mid-March when the global pandemic, that as of Tuesday night has claimed the live of over 98,000 people in the United States, arrived in the county.

“It’s really up to the counties to decide whether we want to move forward on retail, religious services ... and barbershops and hair salons,” she said.

Regarding hair salons and barbershops, Mase said they place customers and hairstylists or barbers in close together usually in smaller spaces that don’t have a lot of air circulation, sometimes for hours.

“All of that makes it a little bit more risky, which is why we want to see where it is before we go towards opening indoor facilities like that,” she said.

For part of Tuesday, many hairstylists in Sonoma County were ready to reopen, having heard Newsom’s midday announcement and thinking Mase would follow to confirm they could restart cutting hair.

“It gave us something to look forward to, and hopefully a date,” Giselle Salazar, owner of the Color Bar Salon in Petaluma, said of the governor’s directive. “But now we’re just being discouraged with the new information.”

Also, the area’s Roman Catholic churches on Tuesday appeared to be on a collision course with the county’s health officer. Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese said he intended to reopen all the Catholic churches this weekend, though in accordance with state and county guidance.

Asked what she would say to Bishop Vasa’s plans, Mase replied that the number of COVID-19 cases is “ever climbing.”

“We’ve far surpassed Marin (County), probably Solano (County) at this point as well - definitely we’re much further along than Napa,” she said. “So I think what I would say is that the governor has given guidance for all these different settings with the understanding that those counties are going to look at their own epidemiology and decide what’s safe for their communities.”

Staff Writer Phil Barber contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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