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‘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.”

Mirian Herrera, left, and Piedad Paniagua put away wine glasses at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
Mirian Herrera, left, and Piedad Paniagua put away wine glasses at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

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.

Diego Bautista moves stacks of party chairs at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Diego Bautista moves stacks of party chairs at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

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.”

“That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had more deaths on our hands. We don’t know what detritus would’ve been left in the wake of those decisions.” Robert Eyler

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.”

“There’s no doubt,” said Eyler, that local businesses lost revenue to other Bay Area counties “that weren’t making the same restrictive choices.”

That said, Eyler cautions against “playing Monday morning quarterback.”

Had the health department been “slightly less restrictive,” he said, “We may have had a better economic outcome.

“That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had more deaths on our hands. We don’t know what detritus would’ve been left in the wake of those decisions.”

Workers set aside a newly stained divider during repair day at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
Workers set aside a newly stained divider during repair day at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

A kick in the teeth’

The county dropped its bombshell with little notice to or consultation with business owners, infuriating many, including Rumble.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Rumble said the shock waves of the ban extended beyond the hospitality sector. He’s talked to solo, small-scale entrepreneurs, people living paycheck to paycheck, who have lost much-needed revenue and customers as a result of “a health order that comes out saying it’s unsafe to leave your home.” (The county edict was accompanied by an appeal to residents to voluntarily stay at home, when possible.)

Those losses, he said, have left some struggling to pay their mortgage, and put food on the table.

Rumble pointed to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University, which concluded that “lockdowns have had little to no public health effects” while imposing “enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted.”

“That’s Johns Hopkins, not Fox News,” Rumble said.

Flatware at Encore Events Rentals Company on display in the company showroom in Windsor, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
Flatware at Encore Events Rentals Company on display in the company showroom in Windsor, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

Joe Bartolomei, a leading voice for the county’s hospitality sector, was left incredulous by the abrupt, unilateral nature of the health department’s fiat.

“After three horrific fire years, a flood year and an epidemic,” said Bartolomei, owner of Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, “it’s not like we can really take any hit. My frustration is that none of that was considered, we weren’t at the table, we weren’t asked what the impacts will be.”

Farmhouse, which tends to book smaller events, has so far avoided serious fallout from the order. Likewise, many wineries and tasting rooms were insulated from major financial harm, due to the timing of the ban.

“After three horrific fire years, a flood year and an epidemic, it’s not like we can really take any hit. My frustration is that none of that was considered, we weren’t at the table, we weren’t asked what the impacts will be.” Joe Bartolomei

January tends to be a slow time of year for such operations, with many winemakers traveling outside the region to promote their products.

“If it was going to happen any month of the year, January is a good one,” said Lauren Wong, vice president of sales and marketing at Aperture Cellars in Healdsburg. “I’m just glad we’re not having this conversation in June.”

Like many wineries, Aperture doesn’t seat groups over 50 indoors. Still, the ban’s overall effect on “consumer confidence” may have kept a few folks away in January, Wong said. Aperture, she noted, is “booked solid” for February and looks forward to a rip-roaring 2022.

One silver lining of the ban, said Bridget Doherty, owner and president of Encore Events in Windsor, was where it fell on the calendar. January and February are slow months in the hospitality business. While her company’s sales have taken as great as a 40% hit during those two months, due to cancellations and postponements, she’s confident business will rebound quickly.

But the ban will have consequences in the longer term, she worries — a dynamic described by Eyler, the economist, as “brand damage.”

When a young couple is looking to book a wedding, or a planner is considering a corporate outing to Wine Country in June, she said, they might recall the abrupt and “unsettling” health order that came down in January.

“And they’ll go to Napa, or Marin, or Mendocino.”

Trish Rooney bowls at Double Decker Lanes during senior league bowling in Rohnert Park on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Trish Rooney bowls at Double Decker Lanes during senior league bowling in Rohnert Park on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

A blunt instrument

Kneecapped by the pandemic, Sonoma County’s hospitality industry had come galloping back since March 2021. The health department’s recent order “paused” that momentum, said Doherty, and introduced an element of instability in the county.

The entire destination was affected, agreed Bartolomei, who, like Giudice, was irked by the seeming arbitrariness of the order.

“Movie theaters can stay open, no issues, no restrictions. Costco, Best Buy, no issues, no restrictions. Some of the largest opportunities for transmission — those venues were omitted from the ban.”

Meanwhile, the hospitality industry, a key driver of the local economy which for years has honed its COVID-19 protocols and practices, was punished, “literally erasing tens of millions of dollars off the books of hotel and lodging properties throughout the county,” said Bartolomei.

“Movie theaters can stay open, no issues, no restrictions. Costco, Best Buy, no issues, no restrictions. Some of the largest opportunities for transmission — those venues were omitted from the ban.” Joe Bartolomei

He mentioned, in particular, one prominent Sonoma County hotel and spa that lost $1.1 million in bookings. (That property’s general manager did not respond to voice mails left by the Press Democrat.)

Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau, returned a reporter’s call from the city of Sonoma. “I’m standing on First Street, looking at four or five parklets that have gone up during this pandemic.”

His point being, the hospitality business is “very flexible and really good at operations and people and flow.” He would’ve preferred to see Mase give business owners “density requirements,” rather than imposing the “blunt instrument” of that order.

Vecchio, Zahner and others acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19. But if the county health department had “just taken the time to converse and talk” with them, said Zahner, “I think the outcomes would’ve been a lot better.”

As it is, he noted, “a lot of people just went to Napa.”

Bonnie Rolandelli, left, high-fives Mike Britz after bowling a strike during senior league bowling at Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Bonnie Rolandelli, left, high-fives Mike Britz after bowling a strike during senior league bowling at Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Bust, boom, bust

“If it wasn’t for Napa Valley, we probably wouldn’t be in business right now,” said Gary Buffo, founder and owner of Pure Luxury Transportation, whose coaches, vans and SUVs ferry clients on wine tours across the North Bay.

When COVID-19 first hit, Buffo’s Petaluma-based fleet shrunk from 200 vehicles to around 80. That bust was followed by the reopening boom — “People are finally going out, cars are getting booked, buses are getting booked” — which lasted until January’s directive.

“All the sudden, these bookings are cancellations,” said Buffo, who says he has lost $100,000 in business as a result of the ban on gatherings.

He is grateful that business is bountiful one county east. “Napa is absolutely booming,” said Buffo, heaping praise on what he described as its more flexible, common sense and business-friendly COVID-19 protocols.

In Sonoma County, meanwhile, “We’re getting crushed.”

Amber Balshaw and her husband, Jim, own Petaluma-based Preferred Sonoma Caterers. Cancellations resulting from the county ban on gatherings will end up costing them north of $100,000, she estimates.

“We’re left to be the bad guys to these brides.” Amber Balshaw

But they’re booked pretty solid, starting in April, she points out.

Relentlessly upbeat, Amber nonetheless resents the health department for acting unilaterally to impose the bans — “We were the only county that did it,” she said — and for forcing them to deliver bad news.

“We’re left to be the bad guys to these brides,” she said.

It goes against her grain, but there was one event she was OK nixing. A number of area fire departments got together to throw a belated holiday party. “It was canceled, and that was good,” said Balshaw, who said she did not want to “put 300 firefighters together with omicron. I would not want to be responsible for taking down all the firefighters.”

A worker moves stacks of party chairs at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
A worker moves stacks of party chairs at the Encore Events Rentals warehouse in Windsor on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Plenty of pain to go around

While the hospitality industry has taken the biggest hit, there’s been plenty of economic suffering to go around. Bowlers had come flocking back to DoubleDecker Lanes in Rohnert Park, with business surging 30% over what it was before the coronavirus cast its pall.

That increase disappeared in January, wiped away by the health order — even though, by owner Jim Decker’s reckoning, his business was permitted to stay open. The lanes also had five large parties cancel, erasing profits from “bowling and the bar,” noted manager Dennis Ganduglia.

While its sister property in Novato is free to schedule indoor events, the Hopmonks in Sebastopol has canceled several shows, as has the Mystic Theater in Petaluma. The 1,681-seat Luther Burbank Center for the Arts postponed nine events, canceling one.

Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, lost significant advertising revenue when venues like the Luther Burbank Center, Sonoma State’s Green Music Center and others canceled ads promoting shows and ticket sales.

That, coupled with local retailers canceling ads due to reduced customer traffic, cost the company in excess of $500,000 since Mase’s order was issued, said Steve Falk, Sonoma Media Investments CEO.

Back at Sally Tomatoes, Giudice was worried about a hangover from the ban on gatherings — which so far hasn’t been extended past Feb. 11. Reservations for Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day were way down from previous years.

He’s had to lay off one kitchen worker, and fervently hopes that the virus abates, and business picks up.

Will it?

Giudice doesn’t know. “I’m not a scientist,” he said. “I’m a business owner, just trying to survive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a comment from Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, the board chair.

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