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Restrictions on construction, real estate may be loosened as Sonoma County revamps stay-at-home order

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As Sonoma County enters its sixth week of restrictions on public activity to slow the spread of the coronavirus, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase faces a critical decision: How much will she relax the stay-home order that she has already signaled will be renewed before it expires Friday?

Various proposals were circulating last week through county offices, where Mase was widely expected to approve revisions that would restore some public access to local parks and allow a wider range of construction projects and real estate transactions to resume.

But the majority of restrictions will remain in place. The directive to stay home, apart from essential business or errands, and to wear masks in public settings will be extended to continue preventing the coronavirus from spreading widely within the community, Mase said.

She did not say how long these orders must stay in place but noted the state directive is indefinite and the county aims to align local rules with those set by California public health officials and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“We’re under an executive order from our governor,” Mase said. “Regardless of what happens, the governor needs to be the one to lift shelter-in-place.”

Local leaders have been urging Mase to ease restrictions where she can. Fielding a ––– barrage of concerns from residents, some county supervisors want Mase to allow some people to return to their jobs and businesses to resume operations in order to lessen some of the financial hardship falling on thousands.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said he believes local businesses are highly motivated to institute new protective physical distancing measures in order to operate again, and the county should prioritize financial recovery over recreation in risk-benefit analyses.

“I’d err on the side of giving people the opportunity to earn a paycheck before getting the opportunity to get fresh air in a park, and that’s not saying that parks aren’t important,” Rabbitt said.

California’s sweeping isolation order supersedes any county public health rule, meaning local jurisdictions can add restrictions but cannot loosen them compared to the state’s order.

While the county is expected to allow access to local parks, it cannot open up Trione-Annadel, Armstrong Redwoods, Jack London or the Sonoma Coast among the 11 state parks closed to the public.

Sonoma County’s public health order puts greater limits than the state on some business sectors, such as only allowing construction for affordable housing projects or wildfire rebuilds. But Mase said that most businesses are closed due to the governor’s order “so there’s nothing we can do for over 95% of business facilities.”

Newsom announced the first iteration of the state’s stay-home rule on March 19, one day after Sonoma County’s first public health stay-home order went into effect and three days after six Bay Area counties became the first to shut down public life.

The directive has sharply limited commerce, closed schools and isolated millions from friends and family.

Epidemiologists have credited these measures for dramatically decreasing the spread of the novel coronavirus in California and so far preventing the type of devastating surge that has overwhelmed hospitals in places like New York City.

California and the virus

Since the first cases were detected in February, 1,562 Californians have died from complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, including two Sonoma County residents. More than 5,100 people have died from the respiratory disease in New York City alone.

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

But the financial toll has been swift and brutal in California, where more than a half-million residents filed unemployment claims just last week, more than any other state. All told, 1 in 6 Californians have lost jobs, according to state figures.

County supervisors are hearing complaints from all corners of the community, including local residents concerned about losing their jobs to business owners questioning why they cannot safely operate while others can.

Some restrictions have been difficult to defend.

“I’ve struggled to explain why it’s OK for someone to work on a multimillion- dollar expansion that’s a (fire) rebuild while someone working on a granny unit is not allowed to go forward,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “We need all kinds of housing.”

Other North Coast counties with lower numbers of people testing positive for COVID-19 have begun relaxing their rules.

Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties all have eased limits on some aspects of recreation, such as golfing, hiking and jogging. Construction and pet groomers can resume in Lake County. Drive-in religious services can take place in Mendocino County.

Hopkins and Rabbitt both mentioned mobile pet grooming and flower delivery services as examples of the kinds of businesses that require little interaction between people and shouldn’t be hampered from operating.

Rabbitt pointed out that flower delivery supports farmers, florists and drivers and said he wants the county to focus on allowing people to support themselves during a time of intense uncertainty.

“If we’re going to be in this mode until there’s a vaccine, it’s going to be months and months — we need to know how to survive,” Rabbitt said.

The decisions are out of their hands at a time when public health officers hold ultimate authority, powers that allow them to take drastic measures such as seizing property.

That dynamic causes some tension but ultimately provides “checks and balances” on the competing interests of public health concerns and financial stability, Rabbit said.

“Ultimately it is on her shoulders. If there’s a decision to be made, it will be made by her,” Rabbitt said of Mase. “And it’s not always the decision the board would like to hear.”

As of Saturday evening, 218 people in Sonoma County had tested positive for COVID-19, about 4% of the 5,287 people tested for the disease since the first case was detected March 2, according to local data.

Unanswered questions

Mase said that public health investigations into recent increases in the numbers, including a 22-person jump Thursday, showed little evidence the virus is circulating widely in the community. Instead, people had contracted the disease from contact with those already known to be infectious.

Two central questions remain unanswered: When will the pandemic peak in Sonoma County? And how bad will it be?

The county expects to receive soon new results from computer modeling that attempt to answer those questions.

A previous model done for Sonoma County by Imperial College London predicted a surge of infections would hit the county between May 29 and June 2, sending about 1,500 people to hospitals at its peak. However, that model, among others, didn’t account for how drastically California’s stay-home directives would limit the spread of COVID-19, Mase said. These models aren’t designed to inform the public about what might occur, but rather are intended to provide the county and hospitals with some data to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

“When they’re ready to give us very accurate models, I want them,” Mase said. “I don’t want them before that because it’s hard to make sense of data that’s not fully analyzed and vetted.”

While Mase is expected to relax some elements of her stay-home order in the coming days, she is nowhere close to lifting it entirely.

The county, and the state, must have the ability to implement a series of public health measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus and swiftly addressing outbreaks before life in California can resume any degree of normalcy.

Newsom’s “six indicators” include widespread testing, programs to monitor and track COVID-19 cases, protect high-risk and vulnerable residents from infection, expand hospital capacity, develop therapeutics, implement physical distancing measures at schools, restaurants and other businesses — measures that will take months to implement.

The state and counties must also have plans in place to restore restrictions if cases surge.

Mase has said she has little leeway to relax restrictions on business operations further but intends to do so where she can and where she can be sure businesses can operate safely.

When asked if she felt pressure from business or political interests, Mase shrugged off the notion.

“We’re looking at it in a very evidence-based way,” Mase said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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