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Sonoma County residents making their own rules for Fourth of July

With summer socializing here, people are figuring out what feels safe, and what doesn’t.|

The Fourth of July might be the most massive gathering day of the year. It’s a holiday constructed around big backyard barbecues, public fireworks displays and, in some towns, parades and civic picnics.

Or at least it was, and perhaps will be again in 2021. This year?

“We’ll probably do something small,” said Marlene Demery, who has an engineering consulting firm and lives in Fountaingrove with her husband, Phil, a former director of the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works. “You can kind of see the fireworks from our home. Are they doing fireworks?”

Alas, the Red, White and Boom event will not be taking placing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this year. Like every city in the county other than Cloverdale, Santa Rosa will not be shooting fireworks in 2020.

This year, the very act of coming together to enjoy patriotism and family, comfort food and cold drinks, is in direct opposition to almost everything public officials are saying we should do to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In effect, Independence Day 2020 will be a litmus test of the way people in Sonoma County are interpreting the current guidelines around socializing. And for the record, yes, there are official standards.

“State of California is pretty clear about the Fourth of July,” Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said last week.

She explained: “Outdoor picnics and barbecues of only household members who reside together — per our order, even — of up to 12 people may happen. But these should occur close to home. So it is of concern if there’s gonna be any large gatherings.”

But those standards, no matter how succinctly Mase may present them, haven’t reached the eyes and ears of everyone in the county. Most of the people contacted for this story admitted they didn’t know the regulations. It’s also apparent that some locals don’t feel bound to honor them, and that others have elected to be more cautious than required.

Throughout this pandemic, it seems, everyone has been writing and rewriting their own rules. The beginning of summer, the season of mingling, will require another round of decision-making — starting with the Fourth of July.

Dara Peloquin, who lives in Forestville with her husband and 7-year-old daughter, said they would typically host as many as 40 people for the holiday. Nothing like that will be happening this year.

“A lot of my family is from Canada,” Peloquin said. “They have a saying up there now: ‘double your bubble.’ We have doubled our bubble with my in-laws. They’re about the only people we’ll have around us, with masks.”

Other Independence Day celebrations will be similarly muted.

That’s a particularly poignant development for Jennifer Butler. She and her fiancé had their first date at the fireworks show at Analy High School. Last year, he proposed there. This year they were to be married July 3, with fireworks to follow. Just like in a rom-com. Now the wedding is postponed indefinitely. Butler searched for an alternate venue, perhaps for July 4, but none was willing to host 80 guests.

“I’m in my fifties, and this is my first wedding,” she said. “I’m like, really? Come on.”

The Fourth of July is invested with great meaning for Rosa Uhes, too. It’s the date her hometown of Parija, in Bolivia, was founded by the Spanish. There, the holiday falls in the dead of winter. Here, where Uhes was working as a wine consultant until the pandemic dried up her business, it’s a percussive extravaganza. Normally.

Uhes said she doesn’t have a lot of friends in America, but would certainly find someone to celebrate July 4 with under normal circumstances. This year she has a bottle of French crémant that she will share with Pretty, her poodle mix.

“And probably start with mimosas, they are so American,” Uhes said. “I never drink before like 6 p.m. But I learned mimosas here.”

For Cal Eriksen, the Fourth of July calculation goes beyond his family and close friends. As the president of Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Highway 12 and Calistoga Road, he is usually busy helping to organize the congregation’s July 4 outdoor service, which occurs regardless of where the holiday falls in the week. This year, with county stay-at-home rules applying, the service required too much reorganization.

Bethlehem Lutheran has not reopened yet. The church had made preparations and marked June 28 on the calendar. Then the infection rate spiked in Sonoma County. Church leaders moved the opening to July 5.

“But we’re watching, and we will call that off in a heartbeat if necessary,” Eriksen said.

Fourth of July plans probably reflect the overall social-distance strategies of people living in Sonoma County: a small percentage openly defying Mase’s recommendations because they believe the risk of coronavirus has been overstated (or simply don’t care about the consequences of their actions), a small percentage in complete quarantine (some of them with underlying health concerns) and the vast majority negotiating the gray area in the middle.

The Demerys, for example, have been hosting a few friends at a time since April. They have a pool and a pizza oven in their back yard (they rebuilt after losing their house in the Tubbs fire), and enough space to guarantee everyone remains 6 feet apart. One of their bathrooms is given over entirely to guests.

Eric Pfeiffer and John Gilliland, who have homes in Kenwood and San Francisco but have been sheltering in Sonoma County, are mixing with a small “pod” of people that includes their 22-year-old twins, Drew and Claire, and the kids’ mothers, who live in Berkeley. They host dinners for a wider group, but no more than six at a time, all maintaining distance.

“You know gay men, we love to hug and kiss, but we’re not hugging or kissing,” Pfeiffer said.

Peloquin began her personal reopening with playdates at the park for her daughter, Kaylee. “I think about May, I hit my breaking point,” she said. “The reason we’re doing some of these masked playdates for my daughter is for me.”

She and her husband, Russ, have only recently started to host cocktail hour on their lawn for two small sets of neighbors. Eriksen and his wife, Marie, both of them in their 70s, are in a similar mindset; it’s takeout on the patio for them. Butler and her fiancé are doing game nights with a few neighbors on Fridays. All of them are observing the 6-foot rule.

The excitement factor is modest these days, the caution level high. But for families cooped up at home for weeks at a time, it brings some comfort to share a meal and face-to-face conversation with another household.

“As long as your friends agree, and they don’t refuse to wear a mask for political reasons or because they think COVID is some kind of hoax,” Pfeiffer said. “And if they did, they wouldn’t be coming over.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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