Sonoma County issues ban on large gatherings amid omicron surge
Amid an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the rapid spread of the omicron variant, Sonoma County health officials on Monday issued a 30-day ban on large public indoor and outdoor gatherings.
Health officials also issued a communitywide appeal for Sonoma County residents to avoid leaving their homes except to go to work or school or for other necessary trips, such as the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The appeal, also for 30 days, is not a strict local health mandate.
Since the pandemic, the county has typically issued such public health orders in concert with other Bay Area counties, but this time it acted unilaterally in the face of the alarming spike in cases.
The new health order — which takes effect 12:01 a.m. Wednesday — would prohibit large public gatherings indoors of more than 50 people, as well as outdoor gatherings of more than 100. The move is in response to skyrocketing COVID-19 case rates in Sonoma County, which threaten to overwhelm local hospitals, officials said.
County school officials said the order will limit spectator attendance to some school activities, such as athletic events and arts performances, but it does not apply to normal classroom or recess activities.
Many local entertainment venues, some already working through backlogs of events rescheduled from last year, were racing Monday afternoon to adapt to the latest restrictions.
The new health order was revealed late Monday, along with a videotaped appeal on YouTube from Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer. Mase asked local pandemic-weary residents to stay the course.
“While we may be done with COVID, COVID is not done with us,” Mase said. “Due to the Omicron variant, our case rate has never been higher and our hospitalizations are beginning to climb.”
Mase said in a telephone interview Monday evening that she understands people’s frustration with health orders and chose not to issue a strict shelter-in-place rule like one put in place early in the pandemic in 2020.
“I’m hoping the public will hear us and just try to stay at home, try not to gather, wear your masks, get vaccinated — that’s really the key,” she said, adding that a strict shelter-in-place order would be “too restrictive, especially because we do have some positive signs that potentially omicron is not as virulent.”
Mase said widespread community transmission is leading to more COVID-19 patients in the hospital — some are being treated for COVID-19 illness while others are going into the hospital for something else and testing positive for the virus when they are admitted.
But even if omicron causes less severe COVID-19 illness, health officials said something needs to be done to address the tsunami of cases being detected in Sonoma County. Limiting gatherings is a good place to start, Mase said.
Last week, local health officials reported that large and small gatherings are the cause of more than 50% of confirmed COVID-19 cases where the source of transmission has been determined.
Aside from limiting large gatherings in general, the order also specifies that gatherings of individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 must be limited to no more than 12 people, except for family gatherings.
Under the new order, a gathering is defined as any public or private event that brings people together in a single room or single space at the same time. This includes in an auditorium, gymnasium, stadium, arena, large conference room, wedding venue, meeting hall, or any other indoor or outdoor space.
Such gatherings may have either assigned or unassigned seating, and may be either general admission or gated, ticketed and permitted events, officials said.
The order exempts workplace settings, courthouse activities, places of worship, cafeterias, or any venue that is open to the public as part of regular operations, including shopping malls, stores, restaurants and museums.
The order does apply, however, to performing arts venues.
A sold-out performance by Cedric the Entertainer scheduled this weekend at Graton Casino and Resort has been rescheduled for March, and employees at the 1,600 seat Luther Burbank Center, officials were working to notify patrons and cancel or reschedule 10 large-scale events that had been scheduled for the coming month.
It was a similar scene playing out at other venues throughout the county Monday.
“Many of us are asking ourselves, “Is it the right thing to do to still gather?” said Michele Kappel, of The Lost Church music venue in downtown Santa Rosa. “We’re rolling with the punches. We’ve been through it once; we’ll do it again. We want our audiences to stay safe and our artists to feel comfortable performing.”