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Sonoma County grapples with widening fallout from coronavirus pandemic

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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.

The drumbeat of cancellations and postponements that convulsed the nation starting Wednesday night over the coronavirus pandemic picked up tempo and volume Thursday, echoing from halls of the nation’s largest sports leagues to Wall Street, Wine Country performance venues and school campuses across the North Coast.

In a breathtaking span of just over 24 hours, the country’s borders had been ordered barred to most European travelers, starting Friday, as pro basketball, baseball and hockey leagues shelved their seasons, college hoops’ March Madness extravaganza was canceled, Disneyland said it would shut its gates in Anaheim and the U.S. stock market saw its biggest crash since 1987.

Politico branded it “the Great American Shutdown.”

In Sonoma County, the reverberations included a litany of concert halls, museums and local governments announcing plans Thursday to cancel or postpone events and programs. The tremors were almost indiscriminate, scuttling picnic reservations in Santa Rosa city parks, ending visitor contact with inmates at the Sonoma County Jail and scrubbing all events and performances at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, the Green Music Center and the Sonoma County Library until April.

The disruptions caused by the new coronavirus — and meant to guard against COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed nearly 5,000 worldwide — now extend to both of Sonoma County’s two public colleges and could soon alter campus life across the county’s public K-12 system, in total affecting more than 100,000 students.

Employers large and small, public and private, are implementing or considering their own preventative measures, including bans on nonessential travel and orders that would have thousands of employees work from home to prevent the spread of the virus.

Altogether, the upheaval appears to carry enough commercial and civic weight to shake the foundations of daily life in a way that even disaster-wracked Sonoma County and the wider North Coast have not seen in generations.

“We’re experiencing something most Americans have never experienced,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Sonoma County’s senior congressman. “This pandemic has hit us very hard, and it’s going to take some time to work through it.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 132,000  people worldwide, and it is surging in the United States, with confirmed cases at more than 1,600, up by a third in the past two days. As Sonoma County ramps up testing, leaders here have yet to confirm any community spread, an inflection point that would trigger a dramatic shift in the county’s response.

The three Sonoma County patients confirmed to have the virus remained in isolation Thursday night at hospitals in Santa Rosa, a Department of Health Services spokesman said. All were passengers on virus-hit cruise ships.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins joined Thompson in critiquing the federal government’s slow response, including the dearth of test kits for the disease. She said the county may soon see evidence of community spread as testing results come back.

“It feels like there is this unseen enemy replicating in our community, and we don’t know where it is,” Hopkins said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidance late Wednesday advising against even small gatherings of people set in motion Thursday the wave of local and statewide postponements and cancellations.

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.

“We have agency. We can change the future,” Newsom said Thursday, urging Californians to fundamentally alter their behavior in order to halt the virus’ spread. “It is the sum total of our individual decisions that will determine the fate of this virus … I have confidence we’ll meet the moment.”

Local social justice advocates said the fallout is happening and will be widely felt.

Far too many people don’t have the resources to withstand the upheaval, to keep up with rent or the mortgage, stock the pantry with food or meet other basic needs, said Susan Shaw, executive director of the North Bay Organizing Project.

Shaw said local agencies must ensure people living paycheck to paycheck who fall ill can get tested and treated for free. They need protections against evictions and power shut-offs when they miss rent and utility payments, she added.

“It feels extremely profound because it’s affecting everyone,” Shaw said. “But of course it’s affecting hourly workers, low-wage workers, immigrants, seniors and people with existing conditions in a much bigger way.”

When schools and other child care institutions close, low-wage working parents with young children may be forced to make tough decisions about how to ensure their care while still going to work, said Marty Bennett, with Unite Here Local 2850 that represents hotel, gaming and restaurant workers.

“This is an extraordinary moment and a public health crisis which our community and our region, we’re unprepared for this,” Bennett said.

From athletic gyms and movie theaters to museums and libraries, civic institutions and community hubs are shutting down, providing a startling glimpse of life with locked doors and fewer community resources.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said it was important for the United States to learn from other nations, and he warned those who would call for a less restrictive path to combat the pandemic.

“These closures and other actions are not something to fear. They’re the very best way to defeat the virus,” McGuire said. “Of course it’s an incredible sacrifice by millions of Californians, and yes it’s scary. But the alternative is unthinkable.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane sought to soothe her constituents and social media followers, uploading a video on her Facebook page targeting seniors. Zane, who spent 10 years as CEO of the Council on Aging, urged seniors to get outside in the sunshine, adding in an interview that the incessant warnings for elderly residents — those thought to be most at-risk in an outbreak — could overwhelm them with anxiety.

“This virus is spreading throughout the world. If you’re older, it can kill you,” Zane said. “That’s all true. But if you hear it every five minutes, it’s got to be terrifying.”

Seniors, especially, have been told to avoid large crowds, which has ostensibly ruled out gatherings places such as church, Rotary clubs, bingo nights and any number of events not already canceled this week.

The list continues to grow: Sebastopol and Healdsburg senior centers suspended services until the end of the month, the latest blow to programming for one of Sonoma County’s largest demographics.

“Being connected to your community is one of the best things you can do as you age,” Zane said. “This is severing some of those connections.”

She worried, too, about the Sonoma County Jail, an environment ripe for contagion, telegraphing a move Thursday afternoon by Sheriff Mark Essick to suspend contact visits with inmates indefinitely.

The county’s calendar of charity and cultural events has been left in tatters. The cancellations Thursday included beloved events: Chef Charlie Palmer’s annual gastronomic Healdsburg celebration Pigs & Pinot; the Who’s Got the Chop’s Lip Sync Battle for Chops Teen Club in Santa Rosa; the Sonoma International Film Festival; and the Women in Conversation appearance of Oscar-winning actress Laura Dern.

Amid the crisis, the hollowing out of public life has been personal, too, as people resort to fist bumps, elbow taps or a head nod to greet others rather than a handshake or hug.

Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan, who was free Thursday amid class cancellations that extended to Santa Rosa Junior College and Santa Rosa’s middle and high schools, envisions the pandemic as the next nail in the coffin of communal sentiment.

“As you look at what has happened over the last 40 to 50 years, there have been a number of societal developments, technological developments, that have fractured community,” McCuan said. “Events like this have a tendency to isolate individuals — with moments of community.”

But many gathering places remain open and on regular schedules, allowing residents a sense of normalcy.

Mother of two Morgan Van Steen said she brought her children to Epicenter, the sports and entertainment complex in west Santa Rosa, despite the warnings against public mingling and the dangers of spreading the coronavirus.

“Kids in general go to germ-infested places,” she reasoned. And amid the global scare, she said, she’s trying to allow her children, ages 4 and 6, “to live as normally as possible.”

Blocks away, Jenny Gwynne and her two children nearly had the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County to themselves.

“I thought I’d better get in while it’s still an option,” Gwynne said. Her gut feeling that the nonprofit, 6-year-old interactive wonderland near Coddingtown Mall and the Schulz Museum might close because of the coronavirus outbreak was right on.

The museum’s founder and CEO, Collette Michaud, said the operation would be shuttered at closing time Thursday.

“It doesn’t make sense to stay open when parents are too frightened to come,” Michaud said, adding, “We just can’t take a chance that anyone would be infected.

“It’s a very sad and scary day.”

At Howarth Park on Wednesday, many parents had concerns about the virus, but also felt it was a bit overblown. Santa Rosa resident Melissa Sandoval said she was taking the necessary precautions with her 3-year-old daughter, including frequent hand-washing, but wasn’t going “Armageddon shopping” or taking any extreme measures. She works at Costco, and has seen how quickly toilet paper has been running out at the store — some customers have even fought over the supplies.

For Hopkins, the county supervisor and mother of three young children, the juxtaposition of the drastic measures imposed to halt the pandemic and the hum of daily business made for a “jarring contradiction.”

“In some ways, it feels like we’re on the edge of a precipice, and we’re not quite sure what we’re looking into,” Hopkins said. “And I think that’s very unnerving for some people.”

Press Democrat Staff Writers Chantelle Lee, Dan Taylor, Will Schmitt and Yousef Baig contributed to this report.

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