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How are Petaluma artists, businesses adapting to an ever-changing world?

This weekend, Sebastian Saint James has his first tasting room “appearance” in months.

“I’ll be playing the gig on a Zoom call,” he says. “They’ll have something like 20 people tasting wines in their own homes, and every once in a while, they’ll say, ‘Now, here’s Sebastian to play you a song,’ and I’ll do my thing, playing live from my home studio, in one of the Zoom-squares on the call. It’s kind of interesting, and totally new, but it’s a paying gig, and the way things are, the whole world is trying new things all the time. That’s just how it is now. We’re all inventing new ways of doing things.”

Alert the understatement police! Saint James is absolutely correct, of course.

Necessity being the mother of invention, the current coronavirus emergency is proving to be, ahem, one very large mother. Across the country and the world, people are finding new ways to live and to stay healthy, identifying fresh approaches to earning money or sustaining a business, and creating innovative solutions to problems they never, ever thought they’d be facing.

For businesses - both those deemed essential and those deemed inessential but still needing to pay the rent - the innovations range from finding new ways to deliver services - including many, like Petaluma Home & Garden and Cottage Gardens of Petaluma, who are now actually delivering goods to front doors - to improvising ways to keep their employees and customers comfortably safe. Thistle Meats, Anna’s Seafood and even Lala’s Jam Bar are also offering deliveries (some require a minimum purchase), and everything from birthday and Mother’s Day presents to anniversary flowers, purchased remotely from locally owned businesses like Toy B’Ville, Farmhouse Artisan Market and Vanda Floral Designs, can be safely delivered without anyone ever entering a store.

Or a tasting room.

Or a chiropractic office.

Though Acorn Chiropractic Club, in Petaluma, hasn’t come up with a way to treat members without actually, you know, touching them, they have adapted by inventing a touch-free way of signing in when one arrives for a session. Using replaceable and cleanable styluses, a new arrival lets the staff know they are there by entering their info on a pad. If they would like to use a clean, cloth mask for the session, they may take an individually wrapped, sterilized mask, and leave it behind when they are done.

But, back to entering an actual store.

While grocery stores erect Plexiglas barriers around cashiers, install one-way signs on certain aisles and colorful “stand here” social distancing markers on the floor, some are getting especially creative, and even a bit playful. The Trader Joe’s outlet has taken to using a “Noodle Ninja,” a masked employee with a bright, 6-foot-long, foam pool noodle in hand, to amiably demonstrate how far apart all customers should keep themselves while shopping. Petaluma Pie Company, having closed its indoor and outdoor seating areas, is now selling pies from a tented table in front of the shop, with its own clear-plastic virus barrier hanging between the patrons and the pie-makers. Various coffee chains are transforming into cashless, mobile-only businesses, moving their counters to the door to carefully pass caffeinated drinks and croissants to customers who order (and pay) ahead using a smartphone app. At Wicked Slush, on American Alley, customers are offered an additional degree of protection while ordering and signing for their bankcard purchases. The cashier places a piece of clean, disposable, see-through wax paper over the iPad, allowing the slush-hungry grab-and-go patron to confidently choose options and sign their name without fear of contamination.

Speaking of grab-and-go options, with all restaurants, bars, ice cream parlors and coffee shops closed to sit-down customers, Petaluma has overnight become an all-take-out town. Along with obvious evolutions such as near-universal delivery of food, and the game-changing allowance of take-out alcoholic beverages (including mixed cocktails), many businesses, including some non-food-related operations like banks and the local post office, are making things easier for customers without walking through a door. Petaluma’s Exchange Bank, for example, has made a big return to its own drive-through banking infrastructure, once again employing pneumatic tubes to conduct financial transactions.

All of these changes, of course, are taking place in a world where many are suddenly furloughed, unemployed or seeing a reduction in hours and pay.

Among those affected the most drastically are self-employed artists, writers and musicians, who generally are not eligible for unemployment and only occasionally qualify for the emergency stimulus checks others are receiving.

Petaluma native Stella Heath, having worked for years to build a musical career with such highly-visible acts as her Billie Holiday Project, has seen several months of confirmed gigs vanish faster than a COVID droplet travels six-to-eight feet through the air.

“I have managed to stay musically busy since the quarantine, though,” she says.

According to Heath, she started live streaming within the first week of quarantine.

“I actually found it quite fun. You can collaborate with people anywhere in the world. People seem to be very appreciative of the ‘live’ music in these times of isolation.”

Generally, Heath streams with just one other musician at a time, and after reaching out to various players she was already familiar with, she’s set up a regular schedule of live virtual events.

“Currently, I stream every Sunday at 5:30 p.m. with guitarist Ian Scherer, every other Wednesday at 2 p.m. with bassist Skyler Stover, and every so often with pianist Niel Angelo Fontano,” she says. “I am always keeping an ear out for venues that are hosting live streaming events, and either I contact them or they contact me.”

On Monday, May 18, she’ll be performing as part of San Jose Jazz’s new “Live From Home” series, streaming on the San Jose Jazz Facebook page. The opportunity came about, Heath explains, since she had already been in the process of booking her Billie Holiday Project at the organization’s Summerfest when the shutdowns began to occur, and it was an easy transition, she explains, to go from that to one of the nonprofit’s “Live From Home” events.

Such activities don’t pay the bills, however, so in addition to teaching voice and piano one day a week via Zoom – and yes, she’s open to new students – Heath has established a page on the Patreon website (Patreon.com/stellaheath), in which her fans and supporters can make pledges of $5 a month and up. Challenges aside, Heath says that the quarantine has nevertheless brought a number of positive things in its wake.

“While I miss live performance very much, I have found rewarding things in this time of quarantine,” she says. “I love how it’s shrunk the world, in a sense, and made connecting with musicians across the country and the world much more accessible.”

For Saint James, coronavirus has also brought challenges he’s been rising to the challenge of.

“It’s annoying not to be able to go out and play shows, and having to clean your groceries off when you get home from the store,” he allows. “And it’s annoying not to be able to see my family and friends in person. But I’ve always been a bit of a hobbit, so for me, not a lot has changed except that I don’t play a lot of live shows.”

To fill the time, he has been reembracing his love of producing music and videos for other musicians.

“Corona has forced me off the hamster-wheel I’ve been happily on for years, and has forced me to do stuff I’ve thought about for a long time but never ended up doing,” he says. “I’ve always loved doing video production, but I’ve never been very into the YouTube or live-streaming side of things. So I’m learning a lot about home lighting and audio-visual stuff, specifically for these new platforms.”

And occasionally, he still finds ways to perform a live show. Either for a Zoom wine tasting, or something like this Friday’s live show as part of Hopmonk Tavern’s new “In the Meantime” series, hosted on the Hopmonk Facebook page beginning at 4:30, on May 8.

“It’s going to be cool,” says Saint James. “I’m doing songs from my studio, and Hopmonk will be asking for donations, and I get a split of that. So it helps me, and it helps them, and I’m happy to be at the beginning of this series, which could turn out to be a really positive thing for a lot of musicians who suddenly need to reinvent how we all play music – together and apart and whatever other ways we come up with.”

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