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Officials: Shelter-in-place ordered to combat coronavirus spread in Sonoma County

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Sonoma County’s public health officer is ordering residents to stay at home and limit all but essential business and government operations for three weeks, a mandatory directive that goes into effect at midnight and is aimed squarely at the growing threat of coronavirus to the community.

Interim Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase issued the order at 5:12 p.m. Tuesday, an anticipated yet dramatic step that aligns the county with the rest of the Bay Area — which has California’s greatest concentration of coronavirus cases. The shelter-in-place order will remain in effect until April 7.

“In light of the recent cases of local transmission of COVID-19 in the County, we are taking proactive action to curtail the spread of the virus,” Mase said.

Sonoma County has documented four cases of community spread of the virus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. Three of those people work in health care, including one person who is an employee at the Rohnert Park Health Center, a nonprofit clinic. Mase said in a statement of community transmission of the disease within the community led her to take this step.

“If we don’t put in any preventative measures, we would have this peak of cases,” Mase said, saying every sick person is going to infect three others. “The worry with this is that our healthcare system capacity would be surpassed.”

The move follows a similar, unprecedented step by six other Bay Area counties Monday to implement shelter-in-place orders, locking down business and travel in all but emergency or so-called “essential” cases, a term that has not yet been defined locally.

County spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said the eight-page order provides overall guidance on what the county views as an essential businesses and are otherwise “asking businesses to use their best judgment.”

The order includes exceptions tailored to the county’s top industries and agricultural sector, allowing some businesses like dairies, wineries and breweries to stay operational.

The measures are the strongest mandatory limits on travel and businesses enacted in the United States to combat the coronavirus.

The county has released little to no other information about those four cases of coronavirus contracted in the community, withholding basic, general details under a the banner of patient privacy. It has not specified where the second health care worker who tested positive works.

County officials do not yet have accurate modeling data to forecast the virus’ spread locally, but Director of Health Services Barbie Robinson said they’re working to hire a consultant to do that work.

A county order to shelter in place will shut down nonessential businesses, giving local teeth to state guidance that has advised gathering places including bars, winery tasting rooms, movie theaters and gyms to close.

A violation is a misdemeanor crime although the county is directing law enforcement officers to use compassion when determining whether to pursue a criminal charge, Larocque said.

Late Monday night, the state added restaurants to that list, while allowing take-out and delivery service.

Robert Pittman, Sonoma County’s assistant county counsel, said the County Counsel’s Office would be given authority to interpret the order, and would urge consistent, “compassionate enforcement” of the policy, meaning “there is some leniency in terms of enforcement.”

Behind the scenes, the county’s wine industry pushed to get wineries and vineyards included in exemptions to the order, citing the connection to agriculture. County supervisors carried that message forward at Tuesday’s meeting, urging Mase to craft an order reflective of Sonoma County’s unique circumstances and economy.

Although not a food staple, wine is an economic engine of Sonoma County, employing thousands of people directly and indirectly.

“Between all of our companies, we employ over 700 people in the county,” said Pat Roney, chief executive officer of Vintage Wine Estates, which owns wineries from Bodega Bay to the Sonoma Valley. “If we can’t make the wine and we can’t ship the wine, we’re basically out of business.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she was concerned about the mental health of the community, and stressed the importance of communicating clearly to residents which services would be considered essential and allowed to operate.

“I am deeply concerned about the mental health of our community, especially given the fact that we still have a tremendous amount of residue from the trauma we’ve experienced with these fires and floods,” Zane said.

Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, said Sonoma County, and other Bay Area counties who have ordered residents to shelter in place, are doing the right thing at the right time.

“This was a very timely and very accurately aimed measure,” Rutherford said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “There’s obviously community transmission, and we need to put our foot down and stop it as soon as we can.”

Rutherford said it’s not too late to change the trajectory of the coronavirus spread, saying he and other researchers have been “modeling like crazy.”

“We think we’re a week or so behind Washington state, which gives us a real opportunity to stop it,” he said. “This could prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.”

Rutherford also praised the Bay Area counties for foresight in closing down social activities ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, an annual, booze-fueled party that brings people together in close quarters and in large numbers.

“I don’t know if that entered into anybody’s conciousness or not, but if it did, it was brilliant,” he said. “It took a lot of mixing off the table.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins also praised what she called the county’s proactive approach. Other counties, she said, took much longer to reach a shelter-in-place order after their first case of community spread.

“Santa Clara County took two weeks to get to this point; we are doing it in four days,” Hopkins said. “I feel we are on the leading edge.”

Mase said she planned to provide more information at a 7 p.m. Tuesday virtual town hall.

Programming will air on KRCB FM radio stations 91.1 and 90.9 and on television stations KRCB Channel 22 as well as KPJK Channel 60. The program will also stream live on NorCalPublicMedia.org, KRCB’s Facebook page and Northern California Public Media YouTube

“I think we can speak to what people should do and shouldn’t do, and give them some guidance,” she said.

The order is the most drastic step yet for Sonoma County, which has seen its coronavirus caseload more than double since Saturday, with seven total cases, including one Diamond Princess cruise ship passenger who was transferred from Travis Air Force Base, quarantined locally at a hospital and has since been transferred out of the county.

That leaves six other cases at present, including two local passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship that is now moored in San Francisco Bay, and four cases of local residents who contracted the virus from within the community.

Mase said the outbreak was “almost exponential,” adding that she expects more cases.

“I think moving forward more quickly is probably best at this point,” Mase said. “We had four cases in three days, and I fully expect more this week.

This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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