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Outdoor dining at restaurants, bars returns to Sonoma County

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

From the outdoor patio at Russian River Vineyards, the coronavirus pandemic seemed nothing but a surreal fever dream. Honey bees flitted from purple to yellow blooms. A guitarist plucked a melody. Small groups of people held quiet conversations at picnic tables spread out around the patio.

Servers wore gloves and masks to deliver wine glasses and a carafe of pinot noir, but they introduced the wine then walked away, leaving guests to feel as if the dystopian milieu of the global pandemic wasn’t still a threat.

The door to normalcy cracked open just a bit more Saturday, the first day since mid-March that restaurants as well as wineries and breweries that serve food were allowed to welcome customers for in- person dining, albeit only at outdoor settings.

The relaxed order, issued by Sonoma County’s health department late Friday, caused a flurry of preparations by businesses scrambling to open for the Memorial Day weekend, normally a gateway to the tourism and hospitality industry’s busiest season.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said co-founder and winemaker Gio Balistreri.

By 9 a.m. they had 40 reservations for that day. His partner, Chris Oneill, had spent the last six weeks reconfiguring their patio and gardens to ensure picnic tables were at least 6 feet apart.

Brett Browman of San Francisco appreciated their effort.

“It’s a symbol of hope,” he said, enjoying sandwiches and wine with friends on the patio at Russian River Vineyards’ 6 acres of grapes near Forestville.

Browman, who had been staying at his second home in Guerneville, said it did not feel like it was a trivial luxury to gather around a table with good friends after a two-month economic shutdown.

Saturday transformed Healdsburg Plaza, which had been all but deserted over the last two months, into a festive, summery town square.

Children licking ice cream cones dipped their toes into the fountain. Cyclists reclined in the shade. Families lounged on blankets, masks pulled down from their faces and hung at their necks.

Customers ate sausages and sipped beers on the patio at The Wurst, which Healdsburg local Charles Bell opened nine years ago. Business had about doubled Saturday compared to the curbside to-go orders they’d been filling since the health department’s shutdown order precluded dining, Bell said.

But it was still about 40% of what he’d expect during what is normally the Memorial Day crush.

Bell sighed, exhausted, yet said he was optimistic that his business, and his town, would pull through the pandemic-caused downturn.

“It’s been a good day,” Bell said. “But we have to bring tourists back.”

Saturday’s brisk business came as Sonoma County continues to report more cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The county reported another 15 cases on Saturday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 482. Of that number, 271 are active cases, 207 people have recovered and four have died. The number of active cases has climbed in recent weeks as the county has ramped up its ability to test people for the virus.

At Brewsters Beer Garden along the Petaluma River, owner Mike Goebel said he served about 150  patrons for lunch with a summertime temperature of 80 degrees.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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

“This is right up our alley,” Goebel said, noting that his place features 350  outdoor seats and does two-thirds of its business outside. “We lucked out with the weather.”

Also happy were about 30 of his employees who returned to their jobs after layoffs imposed by the public health shutdown in mid-March, he said.

Restaurants, bars, pubs, breweries, wineries, tasting rooms and craft distilleries were permitted to serve sit-down meals outdoors under the revised order, effective Saturday morning and continuing the county’s effort to reopen an economy stunned by a record level of job losses in April.

Hotels, restaurants, bars and breweries were hit hard, losing 14,400 jobs in April as the county’s unemployment rate soared to 15.2%, likely the highest level in nearly 80 years. In March, the county was at what economists consider full employment with a 3.7% jobless rate.

The revised order sets conditions for patio dining, with no more than 10 people from the same household seated at the same table. They need not be seated 6 feet apart, but all tables must have 6 feet between them.

All members of a party must be seated at the same time.

Drive-thru, delivery and carry-out food service is encouraged, and alcohol may only be served as part of a meal, with retail alcohol sales to go allowed after dining. Entertainment is prohibited.

Kendall-Jackson and La Crema wineries in Sonoma County are reopening Sunday, with food and wine experiences by reservation only.

Meanwhile, the normally booming holiday weekend opened with ideal weather but a commercial lull along the Russian River in Guerneville.

People were strolling around town, but with most shops and Johnson’s Beach closed, there was less for them to do, said Steve Jackson, owner of King’s Sport & Tackle, a fixture on Main Street.

“It’s just kind of a bust,” he said. “Nothing at all like a normal Memorial Day weekend.”

The traditional kickoff to summer is usually one of the most profitable for Guerneville businesses.

Some people came into his shop for gear to go fishing for American shad, which are now running in the river.

Jackson had hope that with hotter weather Sunday and Monday more people would come out to the river. The National Weather Service forecast a high of 90 on Sunday in Santa Rosa, climbing to 96 on Monday, the start of a four-day excessive heat watch throughout the Bay Area, excluding the Sonoma Coast.

Dan Poirier, owner of Johnson’s Beach, said he can’t open until the county allows it.

Karin Moss, executive director of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, said some people are coming to the river expecting to party on the beach. She’s dismayed that people call to ask what conditions will be like this summer and she can’t tell them because the rules keep changing.

Go on the internet and look it up yourself, she tells them.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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