Close to Home: A framework for reopening Sonoma County

More than 57,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, as of Tuesday. For perspective, that is seven times the number of American deaths in the Iraq wars. It is a sober milestone. With any milestone, it is a time to reflect on what has brought us here and what lies ahead.

As a father, son and husband, I am grateful for the quick and bold action taken by our leaders in California to dramatically slow the spread of the coronavirus. From Gov. Gavin Newsom to Dr. Sundari Mase and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, their actions to establish strong shelter-in-place orders and build out our medical infrastructure have saved lives. Our hospitals have capacity to handle more critical cases, testing is beginning to ramp up, and while our hearts have been broken by some deaths in our community, we aren't establishing temporary morgues outside of hospitals as they are in New York City.

The government didn't act alone - incredible sacrifices have been made throughout the community. Parents have had to balance working and teaching from home. Thousands have had to figure out how to pay for food and shelter after losing a job without the ability to find a new one. Yet we need to realize how hard the path ahead is, and get on with the journey as soon as possible.

In short, without similar swift and significant action to insulate businesses and individuals from financial ruin caused by the shelter-in-place orders, we will soon experience a host of catastrophic health impacts due to an economic collapse that harkens back to the Dust Bowl.

Approximately 16,000 people are filing for unemployment in Sonoma County each week now, and the New York Times recently reported the national unemployment number exceeded 26 million in just a couple of weeks. These are the highest numbers ever recorded, locally and nationally. Food and housing insecurity have spiked as reported in this paper and others; anecdotally, our medical community is seeing an increase in suicidal behavior.

The national conversation to open “back to normal” is gravely irresponsible. Without clear health standards, this approach will surely cost lives. And yet, as currently structured by arbitrarily selecting “essential” versus “nonessential” businesses, communities are left in a limbo of interpretation, with some allowing people to flout necessary health precautions while others forbid even safe activities. To paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, we can imagine a better path forward, but will we choose to act?

Over the past two weeks, a small group of business leaders, doctors and health leaders have worked long hours to create a framework for our county to reopen for business. At the heart of this framework are critical health standards that must apply across industries and the community. Broadly stated, they fall into categories of physical distancing, sanitation and symptom screening. It is a framework based on health risk, not subjective decision-making. Before any reopening, specific measures must be met, including:

- Adequate COVID-19 testing capacity.

- Tracking of local and regional transmission.

- Comprehensive measurement of health impacts of COVID-19 and other public health data.

- Adequate isolation and quarantine capacity.

- Capacity in the medical system to handle critical COVID-19 cases.

Businesses could then create best-management practices for operating. Not every business will have the ability to meet them, but every business would have the opportunity to try.

An economic working group would collect and organize best management practices, validate these with a medical advisory group to ensure the health standards are met for the safety of workers and the public, and offer its opinions on reopening to Mase.

The public health officer must maintain independence, but we humbly offer that businesses can offer the best solutions for how to put the health standards into place. The Board of Supervisors has the proposal now.

Our community has survived, persevered, risen again, then again over the past several years. We have shown an amazing ability to come together during crisis and find a path forward, helping each other along the way. The crisis we are in now - the entire world is in now - isn't like those that have come in recent years. During my sleepless nights since March, I find hope in the thought that our community is up to this challenge, particularly if we can see it for what it is.

Peter Rumble is chief executive of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce.

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