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Sonoma County officials seek to discourage Halloween gatherings during pandemic

Sonoma County officials sought to head off two large Halloween events planned for Saturday, issuing warnings of potential fines that could reach tens of thousands of dollars for the organizer of a half-marathon race and up to $1,000 for the hosts of a private gathering.

The Hallowine Run in Healdsburg took place Saturday morning, even though staff with the county’s permit department last week told the organizer of the longtime 5K, 10K and half-marathon run it could not proceed. Disobeying the request could result in up to $20,000 in fines, said permitting officials in charge of enforcing the county’s pandemic health ordinance.

Race organizer Matt Dockstader, who has held the event in October since 2008 under the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon name, said he scaled back Saturday’s run and made it virtual in nature when told he would not receive a permit from the county.

But county permit officials said they arrived in Healdsburg on Saturday to find an active event along Dry Creek Road and issued citations to Dockstader and staff — one for operating a large event without a permit, and the other for violating the county’s health ordinance, which currently forbids gatherings of more than 12 people.

“That was really disappointing, because we had been in conversation by telephone with Matt, the race sponsor,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s permit department. “We explained to him that we’re not issuing permits for events and have not been since March because of the health order, and we also followed up in writing and explained it to him again.”

Dockstader said the event that typically draws upward of 3,000 people was instead capped in size. Participants have from Saturday to the middle of November to complete the race, which drew approximately 125 people who he said all ran separately, wore masks and were physically distanced throughout the event.

“I’m just frustrated right now. We had a nice day, I just don’t understand,” Dockstader said by phone Saturday night. “It was completely within protocols within COVID. I felt like there was no reason not to go forward with it after I told the county health department twice. I just don’t know what we violated.”

On Friday afternoon, Wick and a code enforcement officer also visited the Mark West area home of Scott Flater and Molly Gallaher Flater after receiving a confidential complaint about the rental of three tents with the capacity for 50 people each to host an evening event on Halloween, Wick said. They left a warning notice at the gate after no one answered, when Scott Flater pulled into the driveway. Wick said Flater was told such an event would be a violation of the local ordinance, which for residences could result in fine of up to $1,000.

“He drove in, ripped the notice off the fence, and went in. That was it. He didn’t confirm nor deny (the event was happening),” Wick said.

Reached Saturday night, Gallaher Flater said she was hosting a socially distanced trick-or-treat path for friends and their children at her home’s more than 65 acres of property.

She did not answer a question about how many people attended the event, but denied that it broke the county’s health ordinance, describing it as a “safe alternative during our current situation.”

“I do know that I had a safe event with the precautions we took,” Gallaher Flater wrote by email.

The Flaters spent more than $1.7 million to defeat a proposed sales tax extension in March that would have supported Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. The measure, which required two-thirds of Sonoma and Marin county voters to extend the sales tax, garnered just 53.6% support.

Gallaher Flater, with her father, prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher, also launched a campaign in October to recall District Attorney Jill Ravitch.

Weekend enforcement of public health orders in unincorporated parts of the county falls on the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Neither an on-duty sergeant nor a department spokesman could be reached Saturday night to say whether they had visited the Flater home or describe their enforcement practices in general for Halloween weekend.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Flaters’ home, said Saturday that she hadn’t heard anything about any potential large Halloween event being held in her district. But she expressed anger about the possibility, citing the deadly impact of the coronavirus on local families.

Illicit gatherings, she said, could also likely have negative effects on the county’s ability to improve virus transmission rates that are the worst in the Bay Area.

“Unless people take COVID-19 very seriously and stop this foolish behavior, we will never get out of the purple tier,” Gorin said. The state has placed Sonoma County in its most restrictive tier of coronavirus regulations.

Wick said his department will meet Monday with the County Administrator’s Office and county counsel to review whether the Sheriff’s Office took action and if the events warranted a fine. At that time, they’ll also determine how much of a fine to levy upon Dockstader for continuing with the Hallowine Run.

Staff Writer Kaylee Torney contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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