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Another group of Sonoma County retailers expected to get clearance for partial reopening

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By the end of the week, another wave of Sonoma County retail that’s been dormant since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, will slowly come back to life.

Local and state officials said Monday a group of retailers can expect to partially resume operations by selling goods customers can order and pick up outside stores.

Bookstores, music stores, toy stores, retailers of sporting goods are among the businesses expected to get clearance to reopen for curbside pickup as early as Friday. They will join other establishments already doing carryout sales, including restaurants, breweries and wineries. Shopping malls, however, are not going to be included in this reopening stage.

“As early as the end of this week, you will have the capacity as a retailer, with the modifications and the guidelines we set forth on Thursday, to begin to reopen for pickup,” Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday during his daily press briefing.

Just hours later, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the county would follow the governor’s lead and expand the types of retailers allowed to do curbside business. Effective Monday, Mase already had relaxed stay-home restrictions that had been in place since March 18 to reopen a handful of small companies operating in the floral, plant nursery, pool cleaning, automobile sales and construction sectors, among others. The forthcoming retail reopening will be broader and include many mom-and-pop merchants.

Retail operators, of course, were elated by the news, but said allowing them soon to reopen their stores for customers is the only thing that can keep them alive over the long haul.

“It can’t come soon enough. We’re dying. I call it starvation in place,” said Michael “Hoyt” Wilhelm, co-owner of The Last Record Store on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. “We are a very tactile business. People got to come in and look at the stuff and see it. … It’s really something that you can’t do effectively over the internet.”

Online sales represent just 2% of the overall revenue for the popular store for music fans. Wilhelm said in-person shopping needs to come as quickly as possible to keep the vinyl record shop afloat after almost 50 days in the dark.

Asked how much longer his shop could survive without a full reopening, Wilhelm said: “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Other than retailers deemed essential by county health officials — such as grocers, supermarkets and home-improvement stores — most in the retail sector have been in the same boat since COVID-19 crushed the local economy: furlough workers, shut down most or all operations and as long as there’s 500 or fewer people on the payroll, try desperately to get a slice of the hundreds of billions of dollars Uncle Sam offered nationwide to prop up small businesses.

Sonoma Outfitters, a family owned sporting goods store for 40 years, did take advantage of the federal lifeline, securing a loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, and now will be able to resume limited selling with five employees returning to work this week.

“The minute they say we can open or do curbside or anything, we will be ready,” said Debra Knick, co-owner of the store in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village shopping center. “We have been totally shutdown.”

Knick’s vendors such as Patagonia and Columbia Sportswear Co. have been flexible working with the store on wholesale payments for merchandise. Although relieved to be able to partially restart, she said Sonoma Outfitters has many local customers who prefer to come into the store rather than buy their outdoor clothing from an online retailer.

“A lot of people who want to go in (store), especially with footwear,” Knick said. “We sell a lot of hiking boots and those types of things. People are really anxious to get out there, especially with this nice weather now.”

Longtime bookseller Copperfield’s Books of Sebastopol, which has nine locations in the North Bay, has had 95% of its sales wiped out since COVID-19 gripped the county and state in March, founder Paul Jaffe said.

The retailer is improving its website to be ready to handle “a very significant” uptick of digital sales, Jaffe said, noting those orders still will not make up for the revenue plunge that led him to furlough 115 employees.

“I doubt curbside delivery is going to be difference-maker for us,” he said. “We’re the showroom. As a bookstore, we’re a place where people want to come in and browse and look at things.”

Jaffe is hopeful the trust Copperfield’s has built with customers over 40 years will sustain it through the pandemic and beyond. Since book sales and its burgeoning events business fell flat, Copperfield’s also sought and secured a loan of an undisclosed amount through the SBA’s colossal financial aid package.

He’s hopeful within a month he again can welcome a limited number of customers inside the bookstores, which would provide a much-needed revenue infusion.

“We would love to be able to have that,” Jaffe said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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