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Sonoma County likely heading to orange tier Wednesday

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Sonoma County is likely to advance from the red to the orange tier of California’s coronavirus reopening framework Wednesday, county officials confirmed, a shift that will allow some long-shuttered businesses to reopen while letting many others increase their customer capacity.

The eagerly anticipated news comes even as Sonoma County’s coronavirus case rates plateau after several weeks of steady decline, raising fears of a possible “fourth wave” of viral spread like other parts of the country are already experiencing.

“We’re really on the cusp of reopening and returning to a sense normalcy,” Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, said Monday. “But we’re not there yet. It would be tragic to undo all the progress this close to the finish line.”

Sonoma County will need some help just to get to orange, as it turns out. The county has been well within two of the three metrics the state Department of Public Health uses to assign tiers, having achieved low positivity rates overall and among at-risk “health equity” communities.

The sticking point has been the county’s daily rate of new coronavirus cases. The state’s current threshold is 4 new cases per 100,000 residents. Sonoma County has hovered near that rate for some time, and was hoping to be below it when the state reassigns tiers Tuesday. But Mase reported Monday that the case rate here is now 4.2 per 100,000, which puts the county in the red.

There’s another path into the orange tier, though, related to California’s efforts to vaccinate its most underserved neighborhoods. The state previously announced it will adjust the red-to-orange metrics when it has delivered 4 million doses of vaccine to people in its lowest-income ZIP codes. As of Monday, it had counted 3.96 million of those shots.

Darker color indicates higher vaccination level. Click on each zip code for vaccination rates.

The state Department of Public Health expects to eclipse the 4 million mark Tuesday, Mase said, which would adjust the bar for the orange tier to a daily rate of 6 new cases per 100,000. Since Sonoma County has been below that threshold for several weeks, it would immediately move into orange Wednesday.

That would trigger a loosening of COVID-related safety restrictions in a number of settings. Bars can reopen outdoors with modifications in the orange tier, and many establishments will be able to welcome more people indoors. For example, houses of worship and museums can raise indoor capacity from 25% to 50%, and gyms and yoga studios from 10% to 25%. Restaurants and movie theaters can bump indoor capacity from 25% or 100 people, whichever is fewer, to 50% or 200 people.

More businesses reopening

For some businesses, the move from red to orange will present an even bigger change — from going dark to turning on the lights. That includes bowling alleys and card rooms, which will get the go-ahead to reopen indoors at 25% capacity.

Double Decker Lanes, the Rohnert Park bowling alley, had already found a small workaround to its state-imposed shutdown. The state association of bowling centers successfully lobbied the state Department of Public Health to treat those sites like gyms, said Jim Decker, whose father built Double Decker Lanes in 1974. For the past month, his facility has opened to league bowlers at 10% capacity for “training and conditioning.”

Now, Decker said, he can increase capacity and, just as important, can open his lounge and snack bar for food and drinks. Before the state granted alleys their training exemption, Double Decker had been closed for all but three weeks over the previous year.

Fortunately, Decker said, he owns the property under the building. Still, he has had to maintain equipment leases, and pay insurance premiums, permit fees and property taxes throughout. He counts his financial losses “in the millions.” Decker plans a soft opening for Double Decker Lanes next Monday, and to open the snack bar the following week.

“I’m just hoping once we get open and everybody comes back, I won’t be so bitter about this whole thing,” he said. “It’s so frustrating, since I’m president of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America and I’m seeing every other state open months now for bowling. My colleagues across the nation, first they felt sorry for us. Then they were almost like laughing at us. Now they’re just praying for us, that we make it through it.”

‘COVID is not going away’

Meanwhile, county officials were adamant that the anticipated move toward reopening in no way represents victory in the battle against the virus. Sonoma County has seen an 8% rise in diagnosed coronavirus cases over the previous week, Mase said.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

“The increase in cases, even the very slight increase we’ve seen, is a troubling sign that COVID is not going away,” she said. “Indeed, it could signal a further wave of cases like the one that’s now hitting Michigan, New York and the New England area.”

Sonoma County, like most parts of country, was subject to a huge spike in cases after summer vacation began, and again following the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season. Mase said her office will be carefully monitoring the potential for a similar surge in the wake of spring break and Easter.

Another cautionary note, this one sounded by deputy health officer Dr. Kismet Baldwin: Genetic labs have identified five cases of coronavirus variants that are troubling epidemiologists. Those included two cases of the UK variant known as B117, two cases of a California/Western variant known as B1429 and one case of another West Coast variant known as B1427. Baldwin said there appeared to be no contact link among any of the five cases.

Those viral mutations, and others, have the potential to render the current coronavirus vaccines less effective in preventing transmission and illness.

There was also good news on the local vaccine front, though. In the wake of a complaint from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors regarding flat allocations, the state has bumped next week’s allotment to about 17,000 doses, up from the roughly 12,000 that have come into the county for several weeks.

Further, Sonoma County will get an additional supply of about 1,500 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The county will distribute those doses to six community health centers and to Fox Home Health, which will use them to vaccinate homeless and homebound populations.

The county has now passed the milestone of vaccinating 50% of eligible recipients, site coordinator Ken Tasseff said. The county also announced the pandemic’s 309th casualty Monday, a male aged 50-64 who was living at home and died in the hospital March 25.

It was another day of hope and worry, driven by coronavirus trends.

“If you want to be a part of us moving into these expanded tiers, and staying open,” Supervisor James Gore said, “Be smart, mitigate the risk in your own lives and your own businesses, but No. 3, get tested.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Decker is president of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America. The name of the organization was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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