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Sonoma County on the cusp of allowing broader business activity

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Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Co., already started plotting a staff schedule for shift changes at her Santa Rosa and Windsor brewpubs in preparation for a return to limited indoor dining, which realistically could occur in Sonoma County in late March after more than a six-month pandemic suspension.

The state announced Friday a change to its requirements for lifting restrictions and expanding business activities that would make it easier for Sonoma County and other locales to advance from the most restrictive stage of the state’s four-part reopening plan.

The county has been stuck in the dreaded purple tier, denoted for widespread coronavirus transmission, since late August when the state unveiled a reopening roadmap for California’s 58 counties.

The state’s top health official said once California gets 2 million shots in the arms of the 8 million residents living in the most disadvantaged areas of the state, that will prompt a loosening of limits on businesses in counties hit hardest by COVID-19, as long as they sufficiently have curtailed new infections of the pandemic disease.

So far, 1.6 million of those residents statewide have been fully vaccinated, and state officials expect to reach the 2-million-shot target in a week or two.

Even without the reopening adjustment, Sonoma County health officials said Thursday they’re hoping the sharp local reduction in new coronavirus cases could qualify the county to qualify for a less-restrictive business resumption stage as early as next week.

That means Cilurzo and other restaurant and brewpub owners soon could reopen for limited indoor food and beverage service, after the long hiatus serving only outdoors and takeout.

“We’ve started posting for certain positions that we predict we may need,” she said. “We’ve reached out to employees that have been laid off. We’ve already got the ball rolling in anticipation of being able to reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity.”

If the county is finally allowed to move to the less restrictive red reopening stage, other businesses also will benefit. For example, movie theaters could pull back the curtain at 25% capacity, too. Gyms would be allowed to reopen inside at 10% of member space. Grocery stores could expand to full customer capacity from the current 50%.

Zacarias Martin, owner of Los Molcajetes restaurants on Montecito Boulevard and West College Avenue in Santa Rosa, said restarting indoor dining using 25% of serving space means 25% more revenue and 25% more jobs. His eateries have room for 128 diners inside at Montecito plus 73 more at the West College location.

Los Molcajetes has outdoor dining capacity for 110 people at Montecito, and 30 at West College.

“We could have more people eating in the restaurant and that means people sitting at the bar,” Martin said, speaking in Spanish. “It means more tips for the bartenders and servers, which is very important for them.”

On Thursday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California health and human services director, revealed the state’s plans to set aside 40% of vaccine doses to people living in the most impoverished communities. The state’s goal is to get the most vulnerable residents inoculated as a way to help reduce the public health risk from the pandemic for all residents.

A county like Sonoma, in the stringent purple tier, will be able to advance to the looser red tier when it has reduced its coronavirus transmission rate to 10 new cases a day per 100,000 residents. The benchmark for the red tier is now 7 cases per 100,000.

In the state’s latest weekly assessment Tuesday of the county’s viral transmission levels, the case rate dropped to 10 new cases per 100,000 residents — matching what will be the new state daily case-rate threshold. By Thursday, that local new daily case number dropped to 8.5.

However, to resume more business activities counties also have to show overall COVID-19 test positivity rates between 5% and 8%, and the share of positive tests in disadvantaged communities must be between 5.3% and 8%. The latest local test positivity rate stood at 3.1%, and the test positivity level in disadvantaged communities was at 5.2%.

Local public health officials Thursday said the county is on track to possibly meet all three of the state’s reopening benchmarks by next Tuesday to jump to the red tier. Nearby Bay Area counties Napa, Santa Clara and San Francisco cleared that bar this week.

Under the state’s rules, a county must maintain less restrictive stage requirements for two weeks before being allowed to reopen under that tier’s guidelines. There is retroactivity credit granted, meaning when the state reaches the mark of 2 million shots in the poorest neighborhoods, Sonoma County would get credit for its week or weeks with 10 new virus cases per 100,000 residents.

Although the county conceivably could meet reopening requirements next week for the less-limited red tier, Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, cautioned that each of the three key metrics change daily and the only numbers that matter are the figures the state reviews early each week.

"We would hate to overpromise and underdeliver. These metrics change and they’re dependent on variables beyond our control,“ Mase said. ”But I’m optimistic that we’re headed in the right direction.“

David Rabbitt, a veteran county supervisor from Petaluma, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the county soon can put the purple stage that has particularly pulverized small businesses in the rearview mirror.

Now into the seventh month in the purple tier, county business leaders estimated this week that between 75 and 100 smaller local companies have collapsed due to pandemic financial hardship.

“It means a lot, especially for the restaurants,” Rabbitt said, of the prospect of allowing diners again to eat and drink inside as they keep fighting to survive until local vaccinations put the ongoing, yearlong pandemic into submission.

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

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.

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