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As Sonoma County nears further reopening, public health officials urge caution

The Press Democrat - 3/30/2021

Mar. 29—With Sonoma County on track to further reopen businesses and public activities as soon as next week, local public health officials and elected leaders Monday urged residents to continue their vigilance to avoid another coronavirus spike occurring in other parts of the country.

After struggling seven months to advance from the bottom of the state's four-part reopening plan, recent success curtailing spread of COVID-19 puts the county on the brink of moving ahead to the orange tier from the red tier after only landing there at the beginning of last week.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase acknowledged the county's reopening pace is accelerating, but she cautioned that "we want to (reopen) safely and carefully, and avoid the surge that other states and regions have experienced or are experiencing."

During a press briefing, Mase said the county's key benchmarks measuring viral transmission that the state uses weekly to assess reopening qualifications are at their lowest levels since last August, when the state launched its four-tier road map for California's 58 counties to gradually reopen.

If all three of those benchmarks remain the same or drop when the state reviews them on Tuesday, Sonoma County will qualify to move from the red to the orange tier, characterized by a moderate level of COVID-19 spread, on April 13.

On Monday, Sonoma County's adjusted new daily coronavirus infection rate stood at 3.7 cases per 100,000 residents. Its overall virus test positivity rate, the share of COVID-19 tests that are positive, was 1.6%. The share of positive tests in disadvantaged communities was 2.3%.

But the county could advance even sooner to the orange tier once California gets 4 million vaccinations into the arms of residents of the state's poorest communities. When that happens, the state will make it easier to gain entry to that tier and Sonoma County would qualify for it as long as virus transmission doesn't pick up this week. Two weeks ago, when the state inoculated the first 2 million of its 8 million most disadvantaged residents, the county benefited and officially further reopened and expanded businesses on March 21.

Moving to the orange tier would allow businesses, such as stores, restaurants and gyms, to further increase indoor customer capacity. Notably, bars that don't serve food finally would be able to reopen outside after a long hiatus.

Wineries, breweries and distilleries, where no meals are served, could reopen indoors at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less. Movie theaters, limited to 25% capacity under the red tier, could expand to 50% capacity under orange tier guidelines.

Also, churches and other places of worship and cultural ceremonies would be able to expand capacity inside to 50% or 200 people, whichever is less.

"As we move through the reopening tiers, we need to continue to remain vigilant," county Supervisor Susan Gorin said, during Monday's briefing on pandemic response. "Moving to the orange tier doesn't mean that it's time to go back to life as usual and gather in large groups, like they're doing in Miami Beach."

Wes Daniels, of the family-owned Daniels Chapel of the Roses, a Santa Rosa funeral home, said advancing to the orange tier would allow him to bring more families indoors, even as he continues holding outdoor funerals.

"That just means families have more options and we're able to serve them at a greater capacity," Daniels said.

Cara Recine, owner of Arthur Murray Dance studios in Santa Rosa and Napa, also welcomed the possibility of expanding operations inside. The state's orange reopening designation allows dance studios, fitness centers and gyms, to expand capacity from 10% to 25% capacity.

Despite exuberance over the anticipated broader community reopening, local officials Monday were well aware of the alarming comments from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and President Joe Biden, as he called on all governors and mayors to continue mask mandates for residents and pause reopenings in their respective states.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky strongly warned about a possible fourth surge of the coronavirus, saying she felt a recurring sense of "impending doom."

The nation has "so much reason for hope," she said, her voice trembling with emotion. "But right now I'm scared."

"I am asking you to just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can, so that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends," she said at a White House briefing.

According to a New York Times database, the seven-day average of new U.S. virus cases as of Sunday was about 63,000, a level comparable to late October, and up from 54,000 a day two weeks earlier. Similar upticks in the past over the summer and winter led to major surges in the spread of the virus, Dr. Walensky said. Still, new cases and deaths have declined from the early January peak, though the seven-day average of new deaths remains near 1,000 a day.

Mase echoed the need for continued vigilance, but expressed hope the ongoing vaccine campaign here will keep the pandemic disease in check.

For example, she said, the share of recent COVID-19 tests locally among those those age 75 and older has been driven to 0% by vaccinating 85% of residents in that age group.

Lynda Hopkins, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said there has not been a single new coronavirus case reported at a local residential care home for the elderly the past three weeks. And the number of local residents who have died from complications of the virus has held at 308, with no new fatalities reported since March 13.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.


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