Sonoma County shelter-in-place order spurs closures, scaled-back business and worry
The verdant plazas that Sonoma and Healdsburg laud as must-see Wine Country destinations were empty Wednesday and Santa Rosa's downtown square was deserted.
Sebastopol's normally bustling Barlow shopping district kept customers outside its prized grocery and Hotel Petaluma had just five of 91 rooms occupied, with three of 30 employees on the clock — and probably not for long.
Only three reservations were on the books for Thursday.
A new era dawned in Sonoma County on Wednesday, cold and gray, with mandatory home isolation affecting most of the half million residents and limits on all but essential business — an unprecedented but widening regional shutdown meant to curb the spread of a deadly global pandemic.
In places, it opened sharp contrasts in community life where only days ago enterprise and movement were routine, reliable, flourishing. Now much civic life —though perhaps less commercial business — was idled, shuttered or closed indefinitely.
On Highway 101, the artery that is the county's lifeblood, rush-hour traffic was light, with morning motorists breezing through regular bottlenecks.
On Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa's main thoroughfare, at a stretch traversed daily by tens of thousands of junior college and high school students, government workers and retail customers, the lanes in both directions were clear of traffic for block after block.
The contrasts offered a stark snapshot of the fallout from the most significant local move to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that continues to circulate within the county, through the Bay Area, and across the state and nation, infecting more than 9,300 in the U.S., where at least 144 have died.
'The reality is, this is a life-or-death situation,' said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, reflecting on what some have called draconian cuts to Sonoma County's social fabric. 'The more people that stay home, the more lives will be saved.'
The county reported two new coronavirus cases Wednesday, bringing the total local caseload to eight. The county's shelter-in-place order put it in lockstep with all other Bay Area counties, which implemented similar mandates this week covering cities and communities that are home to more than 7 million people. The latest in the group were Napa and Solano counties, which issued orders Wednesday, along with Mendocino and Lake counties.
The rollout of that new reality was uneven, with commercial hubs closed in some places and retail and construction activity proceeding apace in others.
At Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa, the quiet was punctuated by the work of demolition crews tearing down the two-story building next to the Hotel E in the historic Empire Building. Two downtown workers who are regulars on the square remarked that they had only seen Santa Rosa so quiet on the holidays or in the first days of the 2017 fires.
'This is crazy,' said one worker, who declined to share his name. 'It's bad for the economy.'
The three-week shelter-in-place order issued Tuesday night by Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County's interim public health officer, applies to a broad class of businesses, including gift or flower shops, clothing and furniture stores, as well as fitness centers, bowling alleys and even churches. But exemptions take in large swaths of the county's grocery, gas and automotive, health care and agriculture sectors, along with first responders and other key industries.
The dichotomy fostered clashing realities Wednesday that will likely grow more pronounced in the coming weeks.
Construction crews continued their work on the Sendero Townhomes off Highway 12 in west Santa Rosa. Grocery stores marshaled small armies of overnight and early morning stockers to fill shelves emptied by daily swarms of shoppers.
At Santa Rosa Hydromatic, which touts itself as 'Sonoma County's Oldest Transmission Shop,' business was steady. Cars were lined up at the 60-year-old iconic, pink W.M. Price Building at College and Cleveland avenues.
Owner Steve Ferguson arrived about 9 a.m. to check on things.
'People are showing up for their appointments,' said Ferguson, a towering 6-foot-5-inch presence in the shop he has owned for 16 years.
'You can't just stop,' Ferguson said. 'Life has to go on.'
Elsewhere, life had slowed to a crawl.
The coronavirus and the rain combined to dampen turnout at the Santa Rosa Community Farmers Market at Farmers Lane Plaza in east Santa Rosa, though a number of vendors set up booths to sell soap, bagels, popcorn and more.
Farmers' markets, like grocery stores, are essential businesses under the county's shelter-in-place order. To deter the market from becoming more than a type of grocer, Jim Fenton, the market manager, said tables and chairs had been removed and musical performances at the market would be canceled going forward.
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