Sonoma County readying for full June reopening, although details unclear

Public safety rules, including mask wearing, are expected to apply even when the state drops the four-part reopening regimen in place since late August.|

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In mid-June after 14 months of strict limits on businesses and public life, California aims to lift those restrictions and move into the next stage of the pandemic, one with much more freedom.

However, Sonoma County officials and industry leaders said Wednesday the expected full reawakening statewide will not be an immediate return to a pre-pandemic workplace. Hint: keep a face covering handy.

In their first public remarks to prepare area residents and businesses for the next chapter of the pandemic, they said public health guidelines likely will remain even when the state’s color-coded regimen of strict rules goes away.

The road ahead after June 15 will be a lot clearer as soon as Friday, when state officials are expected to release more details about it, including what will be expected of individuals and businesses.

“We are watching closely to see how the guidance develops,” Sheba Person-Whitley, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said of state guidance to businesses.

“As of right now, we can anticipate that businesses will be able to open for the most part without those capacity restrictions they currently have. But there will be masking requirements.”

And more, in all likelihood.

Now, Cal/OSHA, the state regulatory agency that oversees workplace safety, has an array of rules for employers. They include: 6 feet of social distancing among workers, which may require installing barriers or staggering break times; frequent handwashing; readily available hand sanitizer; routine disinfection of common surfaces; and mask wearing. It’s not yet known if all of those requirements will stay or get adjusted to coincide with a full reopening.

“It’s an ever-shifting environment,” said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

Before next month’s full reopening, Sonoma County has a chance next week to move to the least restrictive yellow tier of the state’s reopening plan. Mainly through its ongoing vaccination push — essentially half the county’s residents 16 and older are now fully vaccinated against the infectious disease — it has substantially slowed virus transmission. But officials acknowledged Wednesday the county’s reopening progress remains in flux, too.

Any loosening of restrictions remains dependent on possibly slim differences in coronavirus case rates and testing numbers.

To exit the orange stage and reach the yellow tier, a county must show a daily COVID-19 infection rate of fewer than 2 new cases per 100,000 people per day, an overall virus test positivity rate of less than 2% and positivity of less than 2.2% in underprivileged neighborhoods. And that county must hold those numbers for two consecutive weeks.

Sonoma County has one week logged. The state reevaluates data every Tuesday, and the county was below the threshold on all three metrics this week, based on figures from April 18 to 24. But next week will be tricky. If the state had reassigned tiers Wednesday, officials said Sonoma would have barely missed qualifying for the next level. The case rate here had edged up to 2.1 daily per cases 100,000, with the rate adjusted to right around 2.0 — just too high for yellow.

The amount of COVID testing being done in the county remains a key factor. The state Department of Public Health adjusts the daily case rate depending on the number of tests conducted. In the most recently evaluated week, the daily case rate here was lowered from 2.0 to 1.9 because the county was doing more testing than the state average.

The touch-and-go nature of Sonoma County’s hopes for reaching the least restrictive yellow stage of the state’s pandemic rules has public health officials pleading with residents to exercise caution and to still get tested for the coronavirus. Seven California counties have already moved into the yellow tier, including Mendocino and San Francisco.

Anyone weary of the restrictions contained in the state’s four-part reopening road map unveiled last August should be rooting for continued coronavirus stability.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in early April that he will abandon the tier system for each of the state’s 58 counties June 15, but he left some wiggle room. The grand reopening is contingent upon equitable vaccine availability for all Californians, and upon low hospitalization rates.

The state health department has not fully defined either requirement.

Meanwhile, local businesses are preparing their spaces for greater capacity, while warily eyeing the county’s coronavirus transmission level and awaiting more detailed guidance. The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center is an example.

If Sonoma County goes from orange to yellow next week, the museum could increase its capacity from 50% to 100%, and its movie theater could go from 25% to 50%. That’s easy enough to interpret, said Gina Huntsinger, the museum’s director. But she and her staff plan to keep their current cap on the hands-on education room.

“Because we are still trying to understand,” Huntsinger said Wednesday. “And we’re still looking at our summer camps, waiting like everybody else in the community to see if we can open those up. A lot of parents want to send their kids to camp. We’re starting to sell out, because we’re at a reduced amount. We haven’t heard if it’s changing for the yellow tier.”

Gyms are another business that are poised to gain from relaxed limits.

In a stroke of luck, the Coaches Corner gym in Sebastopol had installed a redesign just before the pandemic exploded in March of 2020 that put weight machines and free-weight benches 6 feet apart, said co-owner Chip Castleberry. But Coaches Corner had to move classes outside and shut down its aerobics/dance studio.

“I haven’t had a paycheck in a year, or Dean (Lamb, the co-owner,” Castleberry said. “Luckily, we’re both retired teachers. We do have that income. But it’s been tough, really tough.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said the county is discussing the waiving of fees for things like permits and inspections for small business owners.

The yearlong lockdown has been hard on Castleberry’s gym members, too. Their joy upon getting back in the swing has been evident, he said.

“I go down in the morning, and people are coming in like kids coming back from summer vacation,” Castleberry said. “They’re giving air high-fives. It’s great to see.”

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

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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