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Sonoma County seeks state approval to reopen restaurants, breweries, tasting rooms for outdoor use

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Sonoma County’s top health official on Monday submitted a reopening plan to the state that would allow customers to return to Sonoma County restaurant, brewery and winery patios nearly two months after they were closed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Also on the Sonoma County’s list of activities awaiting state approval: summer camps for kids, drive-through ceremonies for high school seniors and drive-up religious services for places of worship.

Dining indoors at restaurants will have to wait. So will trips to the mall.

“We’re seeking the things we think are appropriate for Sonoma County at this time — lower risk activities,” Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said Monday afternoon.

The plan, which Sonoma County supervisors endorsed during a special meeting Monday, coincided with new state reopening benchmarks announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom at a noon briefing from Mustards Grill on Highway 29 in Napa.

The framework gives more of the state a shot to relax restrictions while lending counties more leeway after weeks of pushback from regional leaders seeking to carve their own way out of COVID-19 shutdowns.

“Bottom line is: People can go at their own pace, and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions,” Newsom said.

Local wine and beer industry leaders struck a celebratory tone Monday, citing two months of lackluster business that has spurred layoffs throughout the county’s hospitality sector. The move to reopen patios to dining and drinking is seen as a life preserver for local businesses as the summer months approach.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Mike Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, the county’s leading trade group for wineries. Most of the roughly 300 tasting rooms are ready to reopen immediately after industry leaders worked to draft guidance for how to safely do so, he said.

“It’s something we’ve been working on for quite a while now,” he said.

Hopmonk, which has four beer taverns in the North Bay that offer outdoor dining and music, is also positioned to take advantage of the loosened restrictions, said owner Dean Biersch.

“We intend to survive the downturn,” said Biersch, adding that the outdoor experience is critical to his business model. “I could go on and on about how hard it’s been. The first step needs to start happening as soon as possible.”

County supervisors voiced their support for Mase’s plan and sought to move beyond recent news reports that exposed the tension and shifting stances of local political and business leaders who have chafed at times under the evolving health orders.

“Often the news media pits us against the public health function of the public health officer,” said Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. “That is not the case. Let me make it very clear: We’re working hand-in-hand with the public health officer.”

Gorin was one of several supervisors in recent weeks who publicly questioned Mase’s approach, including her March 31 extension of the shelter-in-place order, which came down sooner and stricter than supervisors expected.

Even Monday, Gorin was urging a slow pace to reopening, saying more discussion is needed. The county has received hundreds of emails urging against a wider, faster reopening, she noted.

“I intend to take a very conservative approach to opening up,” she said later in an interview, adding that the ultimate decision belongs to Mase.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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

Local labor leaders said a broader reopening was premature, citing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Latino residents, who fill the jobs in many sectors deemed essential and others that would be allowed to repopen.

“It would be unconscionable to consider any further reopening without addressing the impact,” said Christy Lubin, secretary of the Graton Day Labor Center’s Board of Directors.

Many sought assurances of paid sick leave and other worker protections before the county moves ahead.

But supervisors praised what they called a measured approach that puts forth criteria for rolling back an reopening should the county’s coronavirus caseload grow too quickly.

“This is actually a very thoughtful, phased approach for opening a fairly small sector of our economy,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

In Dry Creek Valley, one of the county’s famed grape growing regions, vintner Clay Mauritson said his family business has been readying indoor space for reopening. But the tentative plan for outdoor wine tasting was still welcome news at Mauritson Wines, where 20% of guests typically take advantage of outdoor space.

“We will adapt very quickly to accommodate that,” Mauritson said. “We all want to get our doors open in some way, shape or form.”

DaVero Farms and Winery owner Ridgely Evers said his Westide Road winery went through safety protocols with employees last Friday to ensure everyone was comfortable. He’s confident DaVero can safely reopen, but he stressed the need for hundreds of other wineries and breweries to take the same steps.

“Right now, the Sonoma County brand has not been tarnished at all,” Evers said. “That’s a hugely valuable thing, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we behave in such a way that we don’t do something that ends up tarnishing the brand.”

Sonoma County was set to send its plan to the state as soon as Monday evening, Mase said, and will await the state’s decision. Sonoma County is well within the new state benchmarks for coronavirus caseload and COVID-19 deaths as outlined by Newsom.

Counties must have no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents or no higher than an 8% positive rate among people testing for the coronavirus. They also must have no higher than a 5% increase in hospitalizations over a 7-day period or fewer than 20 hospitalizations total over 14 days. The latter will ensure small counties don’t get penalized for just one or two extra hospitalizations.

Twenty-three counties qualified for a wider reopening under the original criteria. Under the new framework, 53 of the state’s 58 counties would be eligible, Newsom said.

“I think that’s what a lot of us were looking for — more nuanced criteria,” Hopkins said.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

Editor's Note: This story has been revised. An earlier version reported an incorrect figure for the number of wine tasting rooms in Sonoma County.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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