Sonoma County lifts coronavirus limits for largest reopening since shutdown

Shopping at malls, indoor dining, barbershops, hair salons, pools and other outdoor recreational business are allowed to resume business, beginning Saturday.|

Sonoma County health officials on Friday took the most significant steps yet toward reopening a wider range of local businesses and activities, lifting pandemic restrictions that have barred people from restaurant dining rooms, shopping malls, hair salons and houses of worship for nearly three months.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the health officer, said the county is meeting most of the state benchmarks for continued reopening, with a low rate of hospitalizations, a high volume of testing and adequate hospital capacity. The county is still behind on two other benchmarks - rate of new confirmed cases and supply of intensive-care beds - but Mase said the rate of new cases appears to have leveled off.

“That’s why I feel quite comfortable at this point moving ahead with these significant sector revisions,” Mase said. “We’re cautiously moving forward.”

The new health order, effective Saturday at 12:01 a.m., will allow resumption of in-store retail shopping at outlets where it had not already been permitted, indoor dining at restaurants, wineries and brewpubs, in-person church services and haircuts and styling at barbershops and salons.

The new order also allows a number of outdoor recreational activities, including the resumption of charter boat excursions for sport fishing and rental of camping equipment and paddleboards and canoes popular on the Russian River this time of year. Swimming and fitness classes will be allowed in pools for exercise.

With each restriction lifted comes health and safety precautions aimed at keeping the risk of viral transmission low, officials emphasized Friday. Precautions include reducing the number of customers to promote physical distancing, wearing face coverings while indoors and a daily regimen of health self-checks for employees and customers.

“This should not be seen as a return to normal,” the new health order states. “The virus is not contained. There is still a clear and present danger to the community by its continued transmission.”

The order encourages businesses to continue outdoor and curbside activities where possible to reduce the risk of infections.

Many of the businesses affected by the latest modifications scrambled on Friday to prepare for walk-in customers.

Debbie McCormick, owner of Sunnyside Cottage in the Montecito Shopping Center, planned to reopen for in-store shopping at 9 a.m. Saturday. McCormick said that when health officials gave the green light to curbside shopping, she rearranged her store to have many items at her gift, toys and home decor shop visible through the front window.

Now, she’s had to reconfigure the store for walk-in shoppers.

“I’m excited and nervous,” McCormick said. “It’s been a lot of work getting the store ready to have people back in because I’ve gone through a lot of trouble to make everything face outward so people could window shop. And now I’m having to put everything back and it’s a lot of work.”

The latest changes to local health orders come exactly two weeks since Mase made her last modifications and a little more than a month since the first big step was taken to reopen the county in the wake of the March 18 shutdown.

On May 4, health officials allowed for more construction to resume outside of fire zones and loosened restrictions on real estate and landscape companies, car dealers, bike shops, florists, golf courses and pool cleaners. Curbside retail returned a week later, and on May 23, restaurants were allowed outdoor dining, along with wineries, bars and brewpubs as long as they served food.

Up to that point, the county was aligned with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening framework - until early last week, when Mase hit the pause button. The gap emerged on May 26, after Newsom cleared the way for counties such as Sonoma to push forward with a range of other commercial and civic activity.

But Mase said the county wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be for at least two weeks, noting several trends she said were worrisome: a spike in new cases; an uptick in hospitalizations; and outbreaks involving three or more cases in several workplaces, including a winery where 14 people tested positive for the virus.

Two days later, on May 28, Sheriff Mark Essick dropped a bombshell announcement, saying he could not defend the rationale behind Mase’s order and calling his deputies off from enforcing it while upholding the looser statewide restrictions. The move sent shockwaves through the local political establishment and it took four more days for top county lawmakers to broker a deal that brought Essick back on board.

Under that deal, county officials said they would commit to more of a risk-based approach that would not ban whole sectors from reopening, though Mase said that nothing had changed in the way her division was handling pandemic rules and reopening.

Still, by mid-week, after her own closed-door performance review with the Board of Supervisors, she signaled that barring some significant spike in COVID-19 cases or increase in related hospitalizations, the reopenings that some expected the previous week would be allowed. The formal order paving the way for those changes came at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

Mase, in her afternoon briefing, said it would probably be another two weeks - roughly June 22, provided the caseload remains on its current track - before any other local restrictions are lifted. She said it takes at least that long to evaluate the impact of changes to current restrictions, because the virus incubation period is thought to extend up to 14 days.

State health officials on Friday took steps to allow even more businesses and activities to reopen, clearing the way for up to 50 counties including Sonoma to advance into the third stage of Gov. Newsom’s four-stage reopening plan.

That third stage includes campgrounds, RV parks, and other outdoor recreation amenities, hotels, professional sports without spectators, cardrooms, satellite wagering facilities and racetracks. It also includes museums, galleries, zoos and aquariums, fitness facilities, music, film and television production sites and family entertainment centers such as video arcades, batting cages and bowling alleys.

Jimmy Scales, general manager of Coddingtown mall, said excitement is building among mall vendors and employees for the reopening Saturday. Scales said he’s received confirmation from a number of vendors that they will be ready for shops to reopen inside the mall, where shopping hours will be from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

“We’re ready, we’re definitely ready,” he said. “There’s some nervousness, but there’s a lot more excitement. People just want to get back to work and see familiar faces.”

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

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