Sonoma County issues ban on large gatherings amid omicron surge

Amid an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases fueled by the rapid spread of the omicron mutation, Sonoma County health officials Monday issued a 30-day ban on large indoor and outdoor public gatherings.

Health officials also issued a community-wide appeal to Sonoma County residents to avoid leaving their homes except for work, school or other necessary trips, such as the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The appeal, also for 30 days, is not a strict local health mandate.

Since the pandemic, the county has usually issued public health orders in coordination with other Bay Area counties, but this time it has acted unilaterally in the face of an alarming rise in cases.

(Map: Find a COVID-19 test near you in Sonoma County)

The new health order — which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday — will ban indoor large public gatherings of more than 50 people, as well as outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people. The move comes in response to high rates of COVID-19 cases in Sonoma and county officials who are threatening to flood local hospitals, officials said.

School district officials said the order will limit spectator attendance at some school activities, such as sports events and art performances, but does not apply to regular classroom activities or holiday activities, officials said.

Several local entertainment venues, some already running through a backlog of rescheduled events from last year, were racing Monday afternoons to adapt to the latest restrictions.

The new health order was revealed late Monday, along with a videotaped appeal on YouTube from Dr. Sundari Masi, the county health official. Massey asked locals exhausted by the pandemic to continue the path.

“Although we are done with COVID, COVID is not over with us,” Massey said. “Due to the Omicron variant, our case rate has never been higher and our hospitalizations are starting to rise.”

Massey said in a phone interview Monday night that she understands people’s frustration with health orders and has chosen not to issue a strict shelter-in-place rule like the one put in place early in the pandemic in 2020.

“I hope the public will hear us and just try to stay home, try not to congregate, wear masks, get vaccinated – that’s really the key,” she said, adding that the strict shelter-in-place order would be “very restrictive, especially because we have some positive signs.” which indicates that Omicron is not harmful.”

Massey said that widespread community transmission is leading to more COVID-19 patients in hospital — some being treated for COVID-19 while others go to hospital for something else and test positive for the virus upon admission.

But even if Omicron causes less serious illness than COVID-19, health officials said something must be done to address the tsunami of cases detected in Sonoma County. Massey said limiting gatherings is a good place to start.

Last week, local health officials reported that large and small gatherings are the cause of more than 50% of confirmed COVID-19 cases where the source of transmission has been identified.

Aside from limiting large gatherings in general, the order also specifies that gatherings of individuals at greater risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 should be no more than 12 people, excluding family gatherings.

Under the new system, a gathering is defined as any public or private event that brings people together in one room or space at the same time. This includes hall, gymnasium, stadium, arena, large meeting room, wedding venue, meeting room or any other indoor or outdoor space.

Officials said such gatherings may have assigned or unallocated seats, and can be either general admission or gated, ticketed and permitted events.

The order excludes workplace settings, court activities, places of worship, cafeterias, or any place open to the public as part of regular operations, including shopping malls, stores, restaurants and museums.

It does not apply, however, to performing arts venues.

A sold-out show by Cedric the Entertainer was rescheduled for the weekend at Graton Casino and Resort for March, and staff at the 1,600-seat Luther Burbank Center were working to notify patrons and cancel or reschedule 10 large-scale events that were from scheduled for the next month.

A similar scene was occurring elsewhere across the county on Monday.

“Many of us ask ourselves, ‘Is it the right thing to do to keep gathering? We’re rolling with the punches,” said Michelle Capel, of The Lost Church music venue in downtown Santa Rosa. We’ve been through it once. We will do it again. We want our audience to stay safe and our artists to feel comfortable performing.”

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