Sonoma County restaurants, tasting rooms and salons race to reopen after sudden lifting of stay-home order
Sonoma County restaurants, tap and tasting rooms and nail and hair salons sprang to action Monday after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the latest pandemic stay-home order for the Bay Area, clearing the way for county officials to once again allow activities including outdoor dining and limited personal care services.
The sudden pivot in pandemic rules was a welcome surprise for many local businesses that had been shuttered or restricted to all but takeout service since Dec. 12, when the county joined a state-mandated regional shutdown meant to curb new coronavirus infections and conserve limited hospital capacity.
Acting on early news reports Monday, James Holt, co-founder of Flagship Taproom, posted by 10 a.m. on social media that the patios at his two locations in Santa Rosa and Cotati would be open for beers, sandwiches and small bites by the afternoon and into the early evening. Before the latest shutdown, Holt and his business partner were forced to furlough about 20 employees, but they quickly began scheduling shifts to support the return to outdoor, on-site service.
“It’s a good day and all of our employees are overwhelmingly happy to get back after it. They were clamoring to get back to work and get some normalcy,” Holt said.
Within the first half-hour of opening, he already had four customers, he said. “We forget about how nice it is just to serve a beer in the glass. We’ll do everything we can to keep it safe and running.”
Josh Sutton, owner of Crown Hair Salon in Petaluma, said he received word from one of his stylists early Monday about an imminent reopening, under which they will remain limited to a quarter of normal capacity. For this very occasion, he had kept his clients scheduled for appointments and could easily invite them back, he said. Six of the seven people booked on Monday were able to maintain their appointment.
“Yeah, it was rad. It worked out well where I could just hit up my clients,” Sutton said. “I basically came straight back to work.”
Other eateries and drinking spots were similarly prepared Monday, reassembling overhead canopies and firing up outdoor propane heaters to serve their first wintertime guests.
However, turning on a dime and reopening isn’t so easy for parts of the hospitality sector that again furloughed or laid off staff to cut costs during the shutdown. That includes hotels that have been limited to guests on essential business and hundreds of Wine Country tasting rooms that in normal years are a main driver of off-season tourism.
And reopening for outdoor or modified operations a day before the heaviest rainfall forecast so far this winter is not ideal, said Clay Mauritson, president and co-owner of Mauritson Wines in Healdsburg. He’s grateful to again offer limited tastings, but the abrupt shift led him to redouble his request that industry leaders have more say over public health rules governing their business.
“It’s kind of a backhanded compliment ahead of the biggest storm of the year and some of the coldest temperatures we’ve seen really in the last six months,” Mauritson said. “It doesn’t provide for an enjoyable experience for a consumer and, at end the of the day, we have so much great wine in Sonoma County and I think what differentiates one winery from the next is the experience we provide for guests. It makes it difficult under the conditions.”
Even so, a group of more than 50 restaurants, wineries and hotels in Sonoma and Napa counties that last week sued Gov. Newsom to reopen outdoor dining applauded Monday’s action. The Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening said they planned to speak with their attorneys about next steps to ensure members are protected into the future.
“The fundamental request in our lawsuit was that he simply follow the science regarding outdoor dining and wine tasting ... and end the ban. More than anything, however, we’re gratified that we can return to our work and to serving our communities,” restaurateurs Carl Dene and Cynthia Ariosta, spokespeople for the coalition, said in a joint written statement.
Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa plans to reopen two of its tasting rooms on Tuesday — the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Fulton and La Crema at Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. Six others in Sonoma County, all limited to appointment-only visits, will open up as soon as staffing can be assured.
“We didn’t have any forewarning that it was going to be opening today. We were surprised, but also very excited. We just weren’t quite ready with our staffing in place,” said Marlow Bruce, spokeswoman for Jackson Family Wines.
The county’s bar and restaurant sector has suffered mightily during the pandemic, including nearly 11 months of on-again, off-again stay-home orders and closed eateries piling up across the region. In October, employment in the sector was down to 9,200 workers, roughly half the total from the same time last year, according to the state’s Employment Development Department.
Collin McDonnell, chief executive officer of Santa Rosa-based HenHouse Brewing Company, said he did not have to lay off any of his 60 employees since first shutting down in March. The brewer relied on the wholesale business and walk-up can sales and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan of about $500,000, which ensured he could retain staff during reshuffling for outdoor service.
On Monday afternoon, HenHouse workers cleaned out tap lines at their Petaluma location, aiming to be ready by this weekend for on-site beer service accompanied by visiting food trucks.
“The last-minute nature of this is pretty frustrating. The back and forth creates so much chaos and stress,” McDonnell said. “For us, keeping our team together has always been for the past year our priority, and not knowing if our tasting rooms will be busy, or able to be open at all … makes it incredibly hard to make any decisions about the future.
“So we’ll do it as fast as we can, but thought out and planned out,” he added. “We’ll make sure it’s not some rush to get in there, which is how you run into problems. But everyone’s ready to go out for a beer, and I think it’s well earned.”
Staff Writer Bill Swindell contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.