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Closures and layoffs begin for Sonoma County restaurants as coronavirus safeguards limit most business

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How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
• Avoid touching your eyes and face
• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow
• Stay home when ill
• Get a flu shot, and it’s not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county’s 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Chef Matthew Williams of Sebastopol’s Ramen Gaijin has furloughed all but two of his 42 employees as a series of increasingly stringent federal, state and local health guidelines were announced this week curtailing restaurant service to takeout and delivery only to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Williams, who made that difficult move Monday, called it the worst day in his hospitality career, even after suffering through power outages, fires and floods over the past three years. And he’s far from alone.

The new restrictions include an order that urges residents to stay at home through April 7 and limits all but essential business, with only a small carve out for restaurants — allowing takeout and delivery service.

The public health measures, while understood and supported in the industry, are pushing nearly every restaurateur in Sonoma County into a perilous economic corner where they are forced to cut staff, eliminate overhead and face the very real possibility of imminent bankruptcy or permanent closure.

The result is likely to leave thousands of local food industry workers — from servers and cooks to bar staff and dishwashers — without work indefinitely.

Restaurant workers, who often earn minimum wage, live paycheck to paycheck and lack benefits such as sick pay or even health insurance, face a frightening scenario.

Documented workers who qualify may find some relief if they file for unemployment. Federal lawmakers are considering several aid measures, but that relief may be weeks or months away.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order authorizing local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners, slow foreclosures and protect against utility shut-offs for Californians affected by COVID-19, the respiratory disease linked to the coronavirus. The order will remain in place until late May.

“I don’t know what to do. I've never filed for unemployment before,” said server Laura Larsen of Santa Rosa. The longtime restaurant worker said most staff furloughed today are worried but don’t blame their employers for the hard decisions they’ve had to make.

“There’s just nothing anyone can do,” said Larsen, whose second job, as a fitness instructor, also has been sidelined. “As a single parent, things are always tight month to month, but adding this in ... it’s pretty hard to wrap my head around at this point,” she added.

“Most of us don't have a lot of other options. It’s not like we can just go get another job. No one is hiring.”

Bracing for what seemed inevitable after closure orders for eateries in New York, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington and Illinois, most Sonoma County restaurants — from high-end luxury spots in Healdsburg to small bakeries and pizzerias — already have pivoted to providing curbside takeout or delivery as a stopgap.

It’s a potentially risky move as many don’t know how many people will show up to purchase meals.

John Franchetti of Franchetti’s restaurant in Santa Rosa was forced to let most of his staff go until further notice.

“It’s just me, my wife, Gesine, and our business manager, Jennifer Berry,” he said.

With his skeleton crew, he’s created a special “Quarantine Menu” for the week with comforting dishes like chicken noodle soup, lasagna and butternut squash ravioli and pizza, available by pickup and delivery.

How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
• Avoid touching your eyes and face
• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow
• Stay home when ill
• Get a flu shot, and it’s not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county’s 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

On Tuesday night as the shelter-in place order hit Sonoma County, he, like many others, was trying to figure out the impact to his business.

In Santa Rosa, Spinster Sisters was changing its plans as the week played out. The restaurant will limit its hours to breakfast and lunch takeout from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and special to-go dinners, starting Thursday. Other restaurants are simply closing up shop.

On Tuesday, Stark Reality Group closed all six of their restaurants indefinitely. That includes the recently re-opened Willi’s Wine Bar along with Monti’s, Stark Steak and Seafood, Bird and Bottle, Willi’s Seafood and Bravas.

Their newest restaurant, Grossman’s Deli, was set to open Friday. Instead, Chef Mark Stark made the decision to open Wednesday, but with takeout only, of bagels and lox, corned beef, matzoh ball soup, smoked fish chowder and several other menu items.

Sondra Bernstein announced Monday she would close all of her food businesses, including Sonoma’s Girl and the Fig Cafe and her catering businesses. Others are quickly following suit as they pencil out the cost-benefit analysis, including Cloverdale’s Trading Post.

“Our staff needs the work,” Bernstein said. “We know this will be a financial challenge for all of us, but we know it is the right decision on this day. We want to do what we can do to curb the spread of germs and the virus, and we believe that this is in the best interest of public health.”

Even luxe upscale eateries aren’t immune to the financial strain.

“We aren’t taking it day by day. We’re taking it hour by hour,” said Kyle Connaughton of Healdsburg’s Single Thread Restaurant and Farm. Though his typical diner is willing to spend hundred of dollars for a bespoke, multi-course gourmet meal, cancellations and a staff of 84 have him looking for solutions.

Connaughton’s restaurant offers its employees full benefits, including sick leave. With most now using up those benefits, he’s seeing trouble ahead.

“We are looking out for our own, but as a business it is already crushing us. As a business it drains us fast,” he said.

Help for business owners is still a work in progress, but the Sonoma County Economic Development Board is offering some resources.

“We are aware of the challenges coming our way during this evolving situation and are here to support the business community through the various programs being offered at all levels, whether it be a working capital loan or employee assistance with unemployment,” said Executive Director Sheba Person-Whitley.

“Although our offices are temporarily closed, our business assistance team is still working to support local business in all industries throughout the region.” Online help is available at sonomaedb.org.

Though it’s cold comfort, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, told state restaurateurs on Tuesday that their sacrifices were known, their cooperation appreciated.

“We know this isn’t easy,” he said.

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