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Sonoma County health officer set to fully reopen restaurants, stores for indoor shopping, churches by Saturday

Barring a spike in coronavirus cases or people needing hospital care for the highly contagious infectious disease, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Tuesday she plans to reopen a big portion of economic activity by Saturday.

Mase expects to allow the resumption of indoor dining at restaurants, wineries and brewpubs, in-store shopping at malls, and haircuts at barbershops and hair salons. Also, religious leaders will be able to again welcome people into churches, up to 100 at a time, for religious services.

She described the COVID-19 outbreak in the community as stable, and said if the situation holds steady the remainder of the week, she'd allow this critical portion of the county's vast services industry to fully reopen for the first time since her original stay-home order went into effect on March 18.

'If our epidemiology holds and we're still at 40 per 100,000 (residents) case rate and we don't see a big spike this week and we don't see a lot of hospitalizations and other negative outcomes, then we plan to open the things the state' gave the green light for restarting at the beginning of last week, Mase said during her daily press briefing.

The anticipated return of indoor restaurant dining was exactly the news Josh Silvers, owner of Jackson's Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, was patiently waiting to hear. Silvers said even if it doesn't occur Saturday because of an unforeseen setback, he can start planning for full operations.

'I'm so happy that at least they're making a plan,' the restaurateur said. 'I'm super happy about this. I called my manager. … We're trying to get a meeting together tomorrow to plan how we go forward.'

Undoubtedly, Silvers's reaction on Tuesday speaks for many county operators of food and drinking establishments that have lost millions of dollars and shed tens of thousands of workers since having to close in early March at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak — save for some who kept offering takeout meals and beverages for customers.

Mase said the reopening of more businesses would bring Sonoma County in line with steps taken by other counties that are restarting quicker than the entire state. Two weeks ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the go-ahead for more economic activities to resume, but Mase decided this county wasn't ready. County health officers statewide can keep public health restrictions more stringent than state rules, but not more relaxed. Sonoma County is one of many locales in California that sufficiently curtailed the risk of coronavirus so state health officials have allowed them to move faster, if ready, to reopen business and industry.

After Memorial Day, the health officer said she wanted to evaluate for two weeks the public health effects of the resumption of outdoor dining and drinking at restaurants, wineries and breweries, which began during the holiday weekend, to be sure people moving about more freely in public didn't lead to a spike in new virus cases. Also, when Mase hit the brakes for two weeks on allowing more economic activity, she expressed concern about a sharp increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases during the prior 14-day period, a cluster of recent workplace outbreaks and a handful of infected residents in serious condition at local hospitals.

Last week, The Press Democrat pressed Mase for details about the workplace outbreaks of the coronavirus. Over the ensuing few days, she revealed the outbreaks included an unnamed local winery where 14 workers tested positive, an unidentified water filtration plant and a group of farmworkers.

This week, the newspaper has continued pushing Mase to reveal more information about the workplace-related outbreaks, and she said Tuesday more details would be released on Wednesday. She did say workplace outbreaks amount to only 5% of the county's total cases of COVID-19.

Earlier Tuesday, Mase telegraphed her reopening intentions when she told Sonoma County supervisors local virus conditions have reached a 'plateau' and 'steady state.'

Still, businesses offering personal services, such as nail salons, tattoo parlors, and gyms, fitness or massage therapy studios, will remain closed. They would be in the group of business sectors next in line for reopening, but there's no definitive timetable for that.

Meanwhile, during her daily briefing, Mase again discussed the disproportionate effect the virus is having on the local Latino community. County data shows Latinos comprise 71% of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which dwarfs their 27% share of the local population. That disparity has worsened since three weeks ago when county health officials first started reporting an ethnic breakdown of COVID-19 cases and infections of Latinos were 59% of the county's overall cases.

Mase told county supervisors Tuesday the disparity is the result of 'systemic and longstanding inequities' in the county's Latino population. She said Latinos are more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure because they live in cramped housing arrangements and work in occupations like farming and other jobs requiring them to leave their homes. Also, she said they are less able to access appropriate health care and less likely to adhere to public health protocols because of language and cultural barriers. Overall, 19% of Latinos who have tested positive have no virus symptoms, compared to 5% of non-Hispanic residents.

One positive aspect regarding the confirmed infected Latino residents is that 85% are under age 50 and 65% have no underlying health condition, a greater share than that of residents of other ethnic groups.

'It is good news, because we're not having very negative outcomes, we're not having the hospitalizations and intubations (people on ventilators) in that group,' Mase said of Latinos. 'Yes, they are doing better in terms of outcomes and hopefully … they will all recover.'

As of Tuesday night, there have been 579 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the first county resident was diagnosed March 2. Only 42 of the infected residents have needed hospital care since the outbreak emerged three months ago. Of these, four older patients with underlying health conditions have died of virus-related complications. Of the total cases, 271 remain active, while 304 people have recovered.

Two-thirds of confirmed cases, 381, are people who were infected by a close contact known to have the virus. Only 99 people, or 17% of confirmed cases, contracted the pathogen from an unknown source transmitting the virus in the community. The other 99 cases are either still under investigation or related to travel to places considered high risk for COVID-19 exposure.

Of the 27,370 coronavirus tests that have been conducted among Sonoma County's population of nearly 500,000, 579 people, or 2%, have tested positive.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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