Sonoma County to let ban on large gatherings expire next week as COVID-19 cases drop

Public health officials said the ban can be safely lifted due to the improving pandemic landscape. “The numbers are trending in the right direction,” the county’s health officer said.|

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Amid a significant and ongoing decline in new COVID-19 infections, Sonoma County health officials said Friday they will allow the 30-day ban on large gatherings to expire on Feb. 10 at 11:59 p.m.

The order, which took effect Jan. 12, bans indoor gatherings of 50 or more people and outdoor events of 100 or more people. Last week the ban was loosened to exempt certain participants of indoor events and sports games, such as athletes, coaches, musicians, performers and staff.

County public health officials said the bans can be safely lifted due to the improving pandemic landscape.

“The numbers are trending in the right direction, and there are clear signs that we are now past the peak of the winter surge in COVID-19 cases,” Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said in a statement.

Officials said that at the time the health order was issued, more than half the county’s positive cases were tied to gatherings and virus transmission had reached record levels. January saw infection rates reach 250 new cases per day per 100,000 people, compared to 126 new daily cases today, officials said.

Mase said the monthlong restriction on gatherings helped keep local hospitals from being overrun, though the number of hospital patients with a COVID-19 diagnosis did surpass last year’s winter surge.

Although the omicron variant produced less severe illness, the sheer number of infections among both patients and medical staff greatly strained local hospitals and other medical facilities.

Sonoma County’s decision to loosen restrictions on gatherings comes as other counties take steps to end pandemic measures triggered by the omicron-fueled winter surge.

Earlier this week, San Francisco health officials eased mask restrictions for gyms and other indoor spaces with stable groups of people. And Los Angeles County health officials announced on Thursday that masking rules there would be loosened when hospitalizations fell to under 2,500 for seven straight days.

Both Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom have been widely criticized for appearing in photos — without masks — with Magic Johnson while attending last Sunday’s Los Angeles Rams-San Francisco 49ers playoff game. Garcetti reportedly said he was holding his breath, and Newsom said he briefly took off his mask for the photo.

Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, welcomed the news that the local ban on gatherings would be lifted. Rumble said the restriction has significantly impacted a wide swath of local businesses.

“The wedding industry is hurt, trade associations, performing arts are shut down, and businesses that support the performing arts are impacted,” Rumble said. “It ripples on and on. If my business is catering for events … if my business does audio/video for concerts, I’m done.”

Rumble said lifting the ban on large events is a higher priority in terms of the local economy than eliminating the mask rule. “It’s more comfortable to be walking around without a mask, but I’ll take a mask requirement over an industrywide business shutdown any day,” he said.

Health officials point out that local hospitalizations remain high. According to the latest state data, there were 95 hospital patients with a COVID-19 diagnosis as of Thursday. Hospitalizations have declined slightly, from a high of 116 on Jan. 21.

Paul Gullixson, a spokesman for the county, said COVID-19 transmission rates are still extremely high, surpassing levels reached during the previous surges. The county is currently nowhere near meeting last year’s pandemic benchmarks for loosening restrictions.

But Gullixson conceded that previous pandemic surges were fueled by far more deadly variants, including delta. Omicron fatality rates are lower than previous COVID-19 waves, something local health officials will be taking into consideration when evaluating whether to lift restrictions, he said.

“We know that the omicron virus has significantly changed the dynamics of the situation,” Gullixson said. “And given that, Dr. Mase and the health team are looking at various options for how and when to lift the mask mandate. … We hope to have more information about that hopefully by next week.”

But Gullixson said that even though omicron is “not as deadly” as delta variant, the current mutation is anything but harmless. He said older residents with underlying health conditions, whether vaccinated or not, continue to be at greatest risk.

On Friday, the county announced three more COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total number of pandemic deaths to 448. Last month, there were 25 pandemic-related deaths.

The fatalities included two vaccinated men between 80 and 90 who died in the hospital on Jan. 19, and an unvaccinated man between 90 and 100 who died in a skilled nursing facility on Jan. 23. All three had underlying health conditions.

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.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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