Sonoma County shelter-in-place order spurs closures, scaled-back business and worry

The rollout of the new reality in Sonoma County was uneven, with commercial hubs shuttered in places and retail and construction activity proceeding apace in others.|

Sonoma County Health Officer Issues Shelter-In-Place Orders




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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.

'I feel pretty comfortable because of the space,' Fenton said, gesturing at the 6 feet between himself and a reporter and adding with a laugh, 'I go inside, and I start freaking out.'

Complaints and questions began pouring in Wednesday morning to The Press Democrat and county officials, targeting businesses that opted to remain open. The County Counsel's Office is reviewing complaints on a case-by-case basis, Rabbitt said.

The Sheriff's Office is approaching shelter-in-place as an educational mission at this point, and urges residents and business owners not to 'force' them to take action to enforce the new law, said Sgt. Juan Valencia, a department spokesman.

Valencia said there's still some ambiguity in the order, and the Sheriff's Office wants to ensure it is properly interpreted before taking action in any single case.

Petaluma police were actively patrolling the streets, hoping to maintain a watchful presence, said Chief Ken Savano.

'We're asking people to use common sense when they think about what they want to do, and if it's essential or not,' Savano said. 'There's no checkpoints. We're not stopping people and going onto businesses to question what they're doing. We're asking people to take the order seriously and realize this is to prevent local spread.'

For some businesses allowed to remain open, however, there were new rules Wednesday.

Shoppers at Sebastopol's Community Market, for instance, encountered an odd cluster of customers at the entranceway Wednesday morning.

Under a system adopted by the co-op's board a day earlier, the market now offers concierge service only, requiring consumers to place their orders with a personal shopper at the door or by phone ahead of time and wait outside while their groceries are collected.

Though staff members were wearing latex gloves, they were accepting only card payments to avoid handling cash, said Henry Ramirez, maintenance manager.

'I think this is maybe our new reality,' said Armand Gilinsky, a professor in the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University, who was shopping at the market Wednesday.

The county's hard-hit restaurant industry, now reduced to takeout and delivery service only, adopted other ways to stay in business and stay safe.

At Goguette, a French bread bakery in Santa Rosa, owners are keeping patrons out of the store and bringing out fresh loaves that have already been paid for online.

Beneath the surface of the new normal, economic anxiety pervades.

Hotel Petaluma General Manager Dustin Groff said that with hundreds of bookings and events canceled he's considering a temporary shutdown of the iconic property. That would force him to furlough the 20 full-time and 10 part-time workers.

'It's getting pretty desperate,' Groff said. 'It's really hard on my staff. They're scared, and what's hard is we can't tell them, 'Hang on two weeks and we'll be back.' We're getting cancellations for April, and we don't know when we'll be able to bring people back.'

In Healdsburg, the downtown plaza that is a constant draw for tourists and residents sat nearly abandoned Wednesday morning. Most small shops and businesses were shuttered, so few people had reason to stop by, and all but a few landscapers and dog owners were about.

'I haven't seen it this dead since I was a kid,' said Cathy Waterbury, 61. 'And when I was kid, we had nothing but bars and gas stations. It reminds me of the time the fire hit Santa Rosa. It was like this, and there were no cars then.'

In downtown Sonoma, the few pedestrians were local residents walking their dogs.

The Basque Boulangerie bakery and coffee shop was the only storefront open for business at noon Wednesday on the plaza. It had a full takeout menu but no table service, adhering to state and local limits.

Its daily output also falls into the essential business category: baking bread sold by local grocery stores.

Sonoma resident Sheila Martin, who was sent home from her winery job this week when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered tasting rooms, bars and brewpubs to close, said she has been interspersing her remote work with yoga and meditation.

'I guess you could see a small silver lining to this situation,' said Martin. 'Time is a gift and we're getting a chance to reset.'

Santa Rosa business owner John Winter was less sanguine about the situation. He looked out over a rain-soaked Fourth Street from his SR Central Cleaners. The dry cleaning shop is among the essential industries allowed to remain in operation and Winter plans to stay open.

'We'll still clean clothes and kill viruses on clothes,' Winter said.

But business has been 'extremely slow' in March, especially over the past week, Winter said. Like most, he has no clue what the future holds.

'Financially, are we going to survive? I hope so,' he said. 'It's pretty touchy to decide which bills you're going to pay at the end of the month.'

Staff Writers Tyler Silvy and Kevin Fixler and Sonoma Index-Tribune Managing Editor Lorna Sheridan contributed reporting. The Press Democrat wants to know what stories our readers see emerging and what they are experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at

Sonoma County Health Officer Issues Shelter-In-Place Orders




For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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