Sonoma County’s health officer will wait two more weeks before reopening more businesses

“Lifting too many restrictions too soon could potentially lead to a large increase in cases and result in avoidable hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr. Sundari Mase said Monday.|

Two days after allowing a broad range of businesses to resume in Sonoma County, the top public health official said Monday it would take at least two weeks to determine whether restaurateurs welcoming back diners inside and cosmetologists cutting and styling clients’ hair, along with other commercial activities, will increase local spread of the coronavirus and, if so, cause serious illness.

Taking a cautionary approach with that in mind, Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said she has no plans to clear the way for another area reopening wave, including fitness centers, campgrounds and hotels for leisure travelers, until June 22 so she and her team can assess the effects of public interaction at the enterprises that just resumed operations. And that’s despite state officials saying those additional business sectors and public venues could restart on June 12.

“Lifting too many restrictions too soon could potentially lead to a large increase in cases and result in avoidable hospitalizations and deaths,” Mase said Monday, during a press briefing. “It may also lead to longer term economic harms.”

Public health officials will keep a close eye on a range of virus-related factors, including the rate of local infections per 100,000 people, the number of residents with COVID-19 admitted to local hospitals, the ones that need intensive care and the level of new cases from community transmission. Those are the most troublesome because they involve people getting stricken in the community from an unknown source.

Mase acknowledged public health investigators are seeing more cases likely as a result of the variety of work and public activities that have resumed, including businesses that were closed, over the past month.

“There have been cases in businesses that have recently been opened that are concerning,” she said, declining to identify them.

After being pressed, she did reveal new cases are being found among a wide variety of employees, including people working in agriculture, sales, manufacturing, landscaping and outdoor maintenance, sanitation and public works, health care, public safety, and food and beverage services. Over the weekend, the county reported 29 new cases, 18 on Saturday and 11 more on Sunday.

Also, the health officer said more cases are emerging because of the increased coronavirus testing - 12,296 in the past 24 hours - and the 31,061 residents that have been tested overall of the county’s nearly 500,000 population.

If the pathogen flares up in the community, she said, it may be necessary to reinstate certain restrictions. However, Mase said corrective actions would be “targeted” instead of clamping down activities across broad sections of the community. For example, if a large number of new cases are linked to a specific park or business, rules or closures would be imposed at those locations, she said.

Again, Mase noted the escalated virus risk that goes along with the ongoing protests and demonstrations, mostly in Santa Rosa, that have taken place in the aftermath of the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. She said anyone who attended a demonstration or rally should “certainly get tested” if they are showing COVID-19 symptoms or are concerned about possible exposure to the highly contagious disease. It will take at least another month to learn if such gatherings definitely caused virus infections.

“There’s definitely some worry that if even one person were a case, we’d have a lot of cases,” the health officer said. “Absolutely, if people weren’t able to social or physically distance, if they weren’t wearing facial coverings, it’s totally appropriate that they get tested.”

Regarding testing, the county conducted a large-scale testing effort last week at Sonoma County Jail after the first inmate there had tested positive. Tests all came back negative over the weekend on 127 people, including 86 employees of the county Sheriff’s Office and 41 inmates who were housed in the same unit with the inmate stricken by the virus, Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Al Vernon said.

The infected inmate, a man who was housed alone in a cell and had appeared in court on March 27, immediately was moved to a negative pressure cell designed to isolate inmates with airborne diseases. He remained isolated in the cell over the weekend, Vernon said, noting as of Monday there are no additional COVID-19 cases.

“What we have set up worked the way it was supposed to work,” Vernon said of the jail’s efforts to curtail the virus from spreading.

Meanwhile, Mase’s latest public health order that went into effect Saturday allowed the reopening of restaurants, wineries and brewpubs inside food and drink service, retail stores and malls, hair salons and churches for on-site services with up to 100 people. Also, people were able to resume a number of outdoor recreational activities, including charter boat sportfishing and kayak, canoe and camping equipment rentals. Gov. Gavin Newsom had given the green light to these activities restarting on May 26, but Mase took a slower approach to give the county two weeks in between this reopening phase and the previous one on Memorial Day weekend.

The health officer’s slow course of reopening the flagging Sonoma County economy has been met with criticism in certain corners of the community and business sectors. She’s consistently defended the pace of her decisions to restart business and industry and public venues like parks and beaches as prudent based on public health benchmarks related to the severity and scope of the local virus outbreak.

“I understand how hard it is for people to go backwards,” she said, explaining her rationale and why any backslide would be handled with specific remedies and restrictions for the business or sector of public life that’s sustaining a spike of virus infections.

Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report.

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