‘We’re getting crushed’: The economic toll of Sonoma County’s latest ban on large gatherings
Gerard Giudice is a business owner and member of Rohnert Park’s city council. He is not, as he emphasized during a recent interview, a scientist. Nor does he play one on TV.
That explains his confusion around the edict handed down last month by Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase. That controversial order, intended to slow a dramatic spike in COVID-19 in the county, banned large gatherings from Jan. 12 to Feb. 11. The rule forbade indoor assemblies of 50 or more people, and outdoor events of 100 or more.
But Giudice and others found themselves confounded by what did and did not constitute a large gathering, in the county’s eyes. The 30-day ban on assemblies did not include workplaces, cafeterias, or places of worship, for instance.
“I mean, I go to church,” said Giudice, a co-founder of Sally Tomatoes, a restaurant, catering service and event space in Rohnert Park. “You have your mask, you’re sitting in your pew, you’re right next to your fellow worshipper.”
It’s unclear to him, said the former Rohnert Park mayor, how that’s different from a gathering in an auditorium, or from other meetings that are prohibited. (In fact, the Supreme Court has struck down COVID-19-related bans on indoor church services.)
But this much is perfectly clear to Giudice and other business owners, leaders, executives and entrepreneurs: This order is costing them a bundle.
Mase’s directive forced Giudice to cancel events totaling $60,000. On top of that, he suspects the ban on gatherings is at least partly responsible for a sharp downturn in walk-ins to the restaurant, which remains open. Since the order, he said, business has been down $2,500 a day, forcing him to reduce hours for staff.
That’s been a frequent refrain across Sonoma County, with businesses hemorrhaging money since the imposition of the ban.
Sixty business owners, responding to a recent confidential survey conducted by Sonoma County Tourism, reported lost income of $6.1 million as a direct result of the health order, according to Claudia Vecchio, its president and CEO.
Spread across the county’s thousands of businesses — hospitality-based and otherwise — it’s easy to calculate losses in excess of $10 million, said Sonoma State economics professor Robert Eyler. And the toll could be far higher.
The ban has been a “kick in the teeth” to the local economy, said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.
An unreliable destination?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sonoma County has typically issued public health orders in concert with other Bay Area counties. This time, Mase went it alone in the face of an alarming, omicron-driven spike in case rates that caused a surge in hospital admissions, along with widespread outbreaks in local skilled nursing facilities, homeless shelters and the Sonoma County Jail.
Mase did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning but has said in the past that the order was necessary because Sonoma County has more aging, vulnerable residents and less hospital capacity than other counties in the region.
At the time she issued the order, the county’s case rate had spiked 398% over a two-week period. Many of the cases with a known source of infection were due to large gatherings.
“We recognize that there is an economic cost to any change in health guidance,” Board of Supervisors Chair James Gore said in a statement Friday. “And we appreciate how the county as a whole has responded to the orders and guidance that has been issued to limit transmission and to keep our community safe.
He added that, ”A healthy economy and a healthy community go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.”
Firmly grounded in science though it was, the health order caused immediate pain to businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector, rippling out to caterers, limo drivers, linen providers, florists, photographers — “the entire ecosystem of the hospitality industry,” noted Vecchio.
And it could have a more far-reaching effect, she said, giving oxygen “to the idea that Sonoma County is an uncertain, unreliable destination.”