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Sonoma County nearing new closures as state moves to put county on watchlist

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A new wave of coronavirus-related restrictions on indoor businesses could arrive Monday, Sonoma County health officials acknowledge, as the region edges closer to inclusion on a state watchlist of counties with elevated hospitalizations and growing caseloads.

The prediction Wednesday evening followed a day of confusion and miscommunication among elected supervisors and public health officials over whether the county already had been been placed on the California Department of Public Health’s watchlist or was merely being monitored by the state.

An initial communication from county health officials to elected supervisors Tuesday night saying the county had been notified it was on the state’s watchlist proved incorrect. Instead, the county is partway through a monitoring period that public health officials expect will lead to placement on the watchlist as early as Friday.

Assuming the outlook does not improve over the subsequent days — and it is not expected to — the state will impose new restrictions at the beginning of next week, a prospect that had business owners on edge as they contemplated another cycle of disruptions and lost revenue.

“Zig zag,” said Gina Huntsinger, director of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which celebrated its reopening on Wednesday, only to brace for renewed closure. “We’re going to stay open until we know for sure. We just plan days at a time now, as opposed to years at a time.”

The state-imposed limits are designed to curtail indoor business activities "which promote the mixing of populations beyond households and make adherence to physical distancing and wearing face coverings difficult,“ according to the state Department of Public Health website.

That includes closing down bars, plus indoor dining and drinking at breweries, restaurants and wineries, many of which just reopened weeks ago.

Movie theaters, family entertainment centers, museum and card rooms also would have to be shuttered. The restrictions would last for at least three weeks, with possible extensions based on caseload conditions in the county.

More than two dozen counties statewide, including Marin and Napa, which was added Wednesday, also are on the watchlist, as much of the state reverses course on economic reopenings that at one point rewarded flattening the curve.

But even having three more days to operate before additional restrictions come into play in Sonoma County means that restaurateurs, bars, tasting rooms and others at least get the weekend before roping off their indoor seating or closing down, as some must do.

“I get to give my staff a little bit more notice that they’re not going to have shifts next week, as opposed to not having shifts two days from now,” said Crista Luedtke, who runs a bar and two restaurants in Guerneville, including one she just reopened Friday.

Sonoma County has had 1,519 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic emerged locally in early March, including 32 new cases Wednesday. Of that number, 338, or more than a fifth of the cases, have been confirmed in the first eight days of July, and nearly two-thirds of the positive cases have emerged since the start of June. Nine of the confirmed 14 deaths from complications of the virus occurred after June 28.

Though the county is out of compliance in eight coronavirus-related measures, three are of particular concern. They include a case rate of nearly 108 per 100,000 population and a diminishing number of available intensive care beds, now just 3%, or two actual beds, at local hospitals, though surge capacity can be made available, Health Officer Sundari Mase has said.

But it’s the three-day average increase in hospitalizations, last updated at 54%, that has generated the most scrutiny from the state. Anything above 10% is considered beyond the threshold, though Mase has repeatedly cautioned that Sonoma County’s relatively low hospitalization rate means even a small increase can throw off the percentage.

Mase said Wednesday, Day 2 of the current phase of state oversight, that discussions were underway in advance of what would be intense, targeted engagement with the state likely over the weekend to identify what the state has described as “drivers of the changing situation.”

These might include outbreaks at senior care facilities such as one that has involved 30 residents and 12 staff so far infected at Broadway Villa Post Acute, a skilled nursing facility in Sonoma.

Mike Empey, Broadway Villa’s administrator, confirmed June 30 during a brief interview on the property that two residents who had tested positive for the virus have died. Since then, county health officials have reported several more deaths among skilled nursing residents, but Empey on Wednesday declined to say whether any were from Broadway Villa.

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 state’s COVID-19 website of confirmed cases and deaths at skilled nursing facilities shows that none of the other 20 such facilities in the county have reported deaths related to coronavirus.

Mase said Wednesday that outbreaks at skilled nursing and residential care facilities are among the factors the state is considering when deciding which counties should be put on the state watchlist. Mase would not comment specifically about the outbreak at Broadway Villa, citing federal privacy laws protecting people’s health information.

Tuesday’s errant notice that Sonoma County was on the state watchlist came from Department of Health Services Director Barbie Robinson to the Board of Supervisors. It conflated the state’s monitoring of Sonoma County with its actual inclusion on the watchlist, or “County Data Monitoring List.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin used that mistaken interpretation in a post on Facebook late Tuesday night to say that the county had been added to the watchlist. As of Wednesday night, that move, though expected, was still a few days away.

In the meantime, industry groups and business owners were frantically trying to sort through mixed messages so they could make decisions about weekend staffing and supplies worth tens of thousands of dollars, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said.

“Small businesses are just hanging on by a thread right now, so three days can make a world of difference,” Hopkins said. “I’ve literally had those calls with business owners: I need to know, ’Do I order food?’ ”

Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the 500-member Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers, said she also was trying to get word out to her members as efficiently as possible.

“Our vintners want to keep their employees employed, and you really have to be strategic about that,” she said.

Robinson said an effort to convey the state notification about county monitoring in laymen’s terms resulted in the confusion about the state listing status.

“We’ve made an error in that communication,” Robinson said Wednesday, “and so, what we can do is move forward and clear that up.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to correct misinformation that was provided Tuesday and Wednesday by Sonoma County officials.

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