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Sonoma County joining California coronavirus watchlist on Friday

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Local health officials have been notified that Sonoma County will appear on the state coronavirus watchlist Friday, launching three days of discussions between state and county experts about how to curb viral transmissions that have spiked in recent weeks.

But whatever those conversations hold, the county can expect the state by Monday to impose an array of new restrictions locally, shutting down commercial activities like indoor dining and drinking at restaurants, bars and tasting rooms, as well as certain other designated establishments for at least three weeks.

County supervisors on Thursday decided unanimously, in the meantime, to explore the potential for enhanced enforcement of local health orders to bring down COVID-19 infection rates, similar to what has been proposed or adopted in other state-monitored counties.

That might mean working with law enforcement partners to issue citations or exploring additional civil alternatives through code enforcement, environmental health or other local government staff.

Napa County, its four cities and one town have recently designated staff for a compliance task force, for instance. Marin County, among many others, also is exploring its options, Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein told supervisors.

In Mendocino County, which is not on the watchlist, supervisors unanimously adopted an urgency ordinance Wednesday allowing designated county staff and contractors to issue citations for those failing to wear required facial coverings, with some limited exceptions.

The fine is $100 for a first offense, $200 for the second and $500 for a third or subsequent in an effort to encourage compliance and involve the citizenry in keeping transmission low, county Chief Executive Officer Carmel Angelo said.

Sonoma County Board Chair Susan Gorin raised the issue of enforcement almost immediately after the board’s weekly briefing on the local pandemic response Thursday, earning broad support for consideration of additional options at the July 23 meetings. Supervisors additionally called for messaging to remind residents of their stake in the future outcome, so “maybe they would think twice about having a little more cavalier attitude,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

But Supervisor Shirlee Zane said, “I just think, at the end of the day, if we want to turn back the trajectory of infections, it’s going to have to be at the enforcement level.”

Sonoma County will join more than two dozen other California counties on what the state formally calls its County Data Monitoring List, each placed there amid an alarming nationwide surge that this week brought the country above 3 million cases overall.

State health officials are monitoring key measures of coronavirus transmission and working with individual counties whose metrics exceed established thresholds to identify factors driving case rates and try to bring the virus under control.

Sonoma County’s 14-day case rate, one of those data points, has been above the state compliance rate of 100 per 100,000 population since July 3, Mase told supervisors Thursday.

So county officials have anticipated placement on the list and the ensuing rollback of economic reopenings that comes with it. But they acknowledged that uncertainty and confusion leading up to it have sparked anxiety among constituent businesses, most still struggling to get back on their feet after prolonged closures or constraints beginning last March.

The case rate on Thursday was nearly 111 per 100,000, compared with 20 per 100,000 in early June.

“It’s gone up five times in the past five weeks,” Mase said.

The county reported another 42 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total for the month to 380, representing nearly a quarter of the 1,561 people to test positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic first appeared locally in early March. Nine of the confirmed 14 deaths from complications of the virus have occurred since June 28.

Despite a number of noncompliant metrics, the state has focused on the county’s three-day average change in hospitalizations as the reason for its placement on the watchlist.

While anything above a three-day average increase of 10% is outside the threshold, Sonoma County was at 57% on Thursday, with 28 confirmed cases in local hospitals and another 10 suspected on Wednesday, according to the county health dashboard.

Local hospitals have enough staffing for two more intensive care unit beds, though Mase said surge capacity could be made available if needed.

County health officials have known with increasing certainty where many of those cases are concentrated — including communities of closely housed Latino families, skilled and senior care facilities, the folded Crossing the Jordan recovery program and vineyard workers. But Mase said her staff is seeing increasing numbers of people who test positive after travel outside the county, as well as a rising number who report attending large gatherings of people from outside their family or household, in excess of the 12 people permitted under local and state health orders.

“We’re seeing cases from those kinds of events, that at this point, are still now allowed by the state order,” she said of holiday and family gatherings.

She and other officials said residents need to be incentivized to abide by mandated measures like facial coverings, social distancing and prohibitions on large gatherings.

“If we want to get off the watchlist and move into a better place for the community in terms of reopening again, we’ve got to mind that everybody in the community is doing their piece to follow the mitigation efforts,” Mase said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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