Just as North Bay’s events industry was starting to pick up its footing, one county hit the brakes again.
To date, Sonoma County has banned indoor gatherings of more than 50 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people for 30 days following rising COVID-19 cases across the county, driven by the fast-spreading omicron variant.
“It’s kind of frustrating to see this go down and be the only county to do so so far,” said Brian Ferrell, chief commercial officer of So Eventful, a Healdsburg-based events company in business since 2008 that organizes social and corporate events. “Also, since we moved away from the tier system, where at least there was some type of metric and target, now it just seems to be at the discretion of the county health adviser.”
While the immediate impact on So Eventful is minimal, with no events scheduled for the next 30 days expected to be canceled, the mandate could quickly result in the loss of new business, Ferrell said.
“We get leads almost daily,” he said. “And with so many of our customers who are not from the area, they may also have cold feet. And unfortunately, when they come to us with questions, we don’t have clear answers. Again , with no metrics in place, it’s just “Well, we’re just doing it for 30 days.”
Ferrell also noted a number of exceptions to the rule, “which makes it even more confusing and frustrating.”
Under the mandate, the definition of “large gathering” exempts places of worship, courthouses “or any place open to public traffic as part of its regular operations such as shopping malls, stores, restaurants / catering establishments and museums”.
The order from Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase says that over the past two weeks, the county’s rate of coronavirus cases has increased nearly 400% and is expected to continue to rise throughout throughout the month. Half of the cases with a known source of infection are due to gatherings, with the majority being large gatherings, defined as more than 12 people.
Test positivity is also the highest it has been throughout the pandemic, at 16.5%, compared to the previous peak of 9.7% during the pandemic, according to Mase.
For Sandi Lucchesi, sole owner since 2008 of A Sense of Wine in Healdsburg, the 30-day rule is another punch from the nearly 2-year-old pandemic. Lucchesi is an international wine consultant and certified sommelier who provides interactive, educational and personalized wine programs for industry and corporate clients.
“Each time is like starting from scratch,” Lucchesi said, “and it just takes a lot longer to try to (rebuild) trust and make sure people are following protocols and feeling safe and comfortable.”
While its booked events over the next 30 days are intended for fewer than 50 people, Lucchesi’s pre-pandemic activities typically included between 50 and 200 attendees. She had also been a consultant for Norwegian Cruise Lines, running training and developing other wine programs on board their ships – a business that quickly collapsed two years ago.
In September, at the height of the delta wave of COVID-19, Lucchesi said she had to cancel 17 events.
But she is optimistic.
“The cool thing is when we had that little break between delta and omicron, people were so excited to be back in person,” Lucchesi said. “The vibe and energy of the events was just electrifying. People were in such good spirits and so happy to be out and see each other.
Meanwhile, Sonoma County’s biggest venues took swift action after the warrant was announced.
Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center canceled two performances during its season that fall under the 30-day order. The New Century Chamber Orchestra was scheduled for Jan. 21 and Alphabet Rockers was scheduled to perform Feb. 5, according to Andy Shepherd, senior director of marketing and communications.
“We hope to be able to get them back soon,” Shepherd said.
Ticket holders can get a refund, donate the ticket amount or apply it to a gift card, he said.
The SSU facility can accommodate 1,400 people indoors and 4,500 outdoors, Shepherd said. It was in early August that performances resumed, both indoors and outdoors given that it was summer, he noted.
The pandemic has proven to be an “evolving situation,” as Shepherd put it.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get used to having to cancel performances,” he said. “It’s always unfortunate.”
For the 1,600-seat Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, the 30-day order impacts 10 large-scale events scheduled through Feb. 11, according to Rick Nowlin, president and CEO.
“We will immediately begin work to postpone and reschedule, or cancel when there is no other alternative,” Nowlin told The Press Democrat in a statement.