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Sonoma County tweaking plans in hopes of reopening restaurants, wineries other businesses

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Sonoma County is revising its latest reopening plan to allow businesses including restaurants and wineries to open for outdoor seating, another step toward getting more people back to work and refueling the local economy hit by coronavirus pandemic closures.

Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she believes the county is still on track to receive approval from state health officials to move forward with these new rules before the end of the week when she hopes to issue a new health order. She plans to submit the county’s final application Wednesday after incorporating state feedback and adding letters of support from some local hospitals and the Board of Supervisors.

The move comes on the heels of a series of loosened rules that have reopened Sonoma County parks and some businesses, steps broadly welcomed in the community, and as neighboring Napa County on Tuesday received state approval to reopen restaurant dining rooms. Yet allowing more public activity may have already triggered an uptick in illness caused by the coroanvirus in the community, Mase said.

“We’re having more cases being diagnosed due to community transmission — in other words we don’t know where they got COVID-19,” said Mase, adding that the increase is “ what we expected with relaxing shelter-in-place (rules) and having more people in the community.”

Over the past week, the county has reported 78 new local cases of COVID-19, including 20 new cases in the past 24 hours.

All told, there are 411  local cases of the coronavirus since the first case was announced March 2. Of those, 203 are active cases and 204 people have recovered as of Tuesday night. Four people have died.

The county’s shelter-in-place public health orders, effective in Sonoma County March 18 followed by statewide orders one day later, are intended to protect populations most vulnerable to the disease and prevent a surge of patients from overwhelming hospital resources.

The isolation orders sharply curbed the spread of the virus, especially in places like Sonoma County, but dealt such a devastating blow to the economy that calls for relaxing those rules have mounted even while the threat remains strong from the new illness that has no well-established treatment or vaccine.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday announced a less strict set of criteria that would allow counties to restart some economic activity.

State officials have already begun allowing some counties to further relax local rules.

In Napa County, which has reported 92 local cases of COVID-19, officials Tuesday evening announced they have met the state’s readiness criteria to allow more businesses to reopen with modifications. Those now allowed to operate include dine-in restaurants, child care centers, office businesses when telework is not possible, residential cleaning and maintenance services, outdoor museums, retail stores and schools.

Sonoma County, with nearly 4½ times more cases of the virus compared to Napa County as of Tuesday night, is so far on a slower reopening track.

Mase has said her new order, if approved by the state, will allow some lower-risk activities to resume, such as patronizing restaurants, breweries or wineries with outdoor seating; drive-thru religious services or other ceremonies and modified summer camps for children.

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

The additional public activity will add another test of the county’s ability to mitigate the spread of this new and potentially deadly virus through widespread testing and follow-up investigations for every person diagnosed with COVID-19 to determine where they got the disease.

It will also be a test of the public’s ability to adhere to safety measures, such as wearing masks and avoiding close proximity to others.

So far, 63% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Sonoma County are contracting the coronavirus from a “close contact,” such as a family member or coworker, according to county data. And 20% of cases are caused by community transmission, which means the county cannot determine how a person was exposed to the coronavirus. Another 12% contract the disease while traveling and 5% remain under investigation.

If the percentage of cases contracted from an unknown source in the community were to rise above 30%, that could indicate the county should dial back allowances and reintroduce restrictions, Mase said.

Some recent case clusters have been found within households where family members have gotten each other sick, she said.

A disproportionate 64% of local coronavirus cases have been diagnosed among Latino residents, who only represent about 27% of Sonoma County’s population, according to county data.

A key component of the county’s proposal going before the state is its developing a plan to address that disparity through focused testing, contact investigations and community outreach.

Public health workers also will be monitoring the rate of hospitalization and the availability of intensive care unit beds, ventilators and protective equipment needed in hospitals and elder care facilities.

“Vulnerable populations are who we’re really trying to protect with all of this,” Mase said.

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

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