The themes of the Sonoma County COVID-19 briefing on March 3 were staying in business in the time of COVID and when the county will get to the red tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
Sheba Person-Whitley of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board discussed various resources for local businesses and Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase discussed how nail-bitingly close the county is to moving into the red tier.
“We are so close to moving out of the purple tier. Everything is looking good,” Mase said during the briefing.
According to Mase, as of March 2 the county’s case rate is 9.5 per 100,000 per day. The case positivity rate is 3.5%, an orange tier metric, and the testing positivity in the lowest quartile of the healthy places index is 5.5%, a red tier metric.
“If we can get that down just another .3% to 5.2% by next week, then we will be eligible for the red tier criteria and if we stay in that tier criteria for two weeks we could reopen more of our economy,” Mase said.
Mase added that it’s important to continue to get tested — the U.K. COVID-19 variant was recently found in one Sonoma County COVID-19 positive test specimen — and practice smart hygiene measures such as hand washing, social distancing and mask wearing.
Moving into the red tier would be a big step for the local business community and the county, which has been stuck in the purple tier for the entire time the metric system has been in place, which has greatly affected the local economy.
“We want to be a resource and we are available to help and respond,” Person-Whitley said.
Whitley displayed her screen showing the contact information (707-565-7170, or EDB@sonoma-county.org) for the economic development board’s business assistance team, Lauren Cartwright, Marcos J. Suarez and Christine Palmer, and provided a list of other resources and steps the board is taking to help businesses.
The board recently launched their SoCo Launch page with information on industry resources, best management plans, workplace exposure, employee resources, testing guidance and information on the phases of reopening. The Economic Development Board has also launched a Sonoma County Economic Recovery Plan.
The plan offers 13 strategies for business, workforce and community recovery. Strategies for business recovery include making funding, equipment and facilities easily accessible to businesses; providing innovative regulations and urgency ordinances to help keep businesses operational; support hardest-hit business sectors while increasing economic diversification throughout the county; and ensuring businesses are prepared for future disasters.
Workforce recovery strategies include providing solutions to enable the county’s childcare industry to thrive; providing workforce re-skilling and training opportunities; retaining and attracting Sonoma County’s workforce; and ensuring that social safety net services are available to help the most vulnerable residents meet their basic needs.
Community recovery strategies include serving the access and functional needs of local community members, including individuals with disabilities, older adults, children, individuals from diverse cultures and people with limited English proficiency; addressing housing and transportation needs; expanding broadband infrastructure and services to increase internet access; leveraging the power of the community, including artists, cultural workers and their organizations to develop and implement innovative solutions for recovery; and addressing climate and energy impacts.
Of these strategies, Person-Whitley said they’ve already provided $2.5 million in small business stabilization grant funding to 542 grantees and have conducted regular meetings with permit agencies in the county to develop business-friendly processes.
They’ve also provided financial assistance for needed sick leave for individuals who cannot afford to take time off work and a program is being developed and implemented to support child care providers and families.
Additionally, $1.5 million has been dedicated for rental assistance in Sonoma County and the development of a countywide broadband action plan is in the works.
“We’ve started to move the needle,” Person-Whitley said of executing the economic recovery plan.
State and federal resources for economic recovery have also been allocated.
State relief package business highlights include $2.1 billion for the California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program and $50 million dedicated for nonprofit cultural institutions, two years of fee relief for heavily impacted licenses and the addition of $400 million in new federal funds to provide stipends of $525 per child enrolled for all state-subsidized child care and preschool providers.
The federal paycheck protection program is also still available, but the deadline to apply is March 31, if funding is still available at the time.
Despite these various relief efforts, Peter Rumble of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce said the chamber has lost 100 businesses who either had to close or end their chamber membership, “because there’s just no more money in the bank.”
“Even as resources roll out, we need to realize how dire this is for our (business) community,” Rumble said.
Alma Magallon of the Sonoma County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said she’s been hearing concerns about vaccines and difficulty getting appointments for restaurant and grocery store workers.
On the vaccine front, the county has administered 150,261 doses — 67,213 individuals have been vaccinated with the first dose and 41,524 are fully vaccinated with two doses.
Seventy-five percent of those 75 and older have at least one dose.
And despite the state’s third-party vaccine administrator Blue Shield takeover starting next week, Dr. Urmila Shende, the county’s vaccine chief officer, said Blue Shield has indicated that they’d like to keep the current vaccine clinic process that the county started.
Additionally, the county is expected to get its first shipment of Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week according to Shende.
“We’re continuing to make great progress … We’ve nearly doubled our (vaccine administering) pace since last month,” said Sonoma County Board Supervisor Chair Lynda Hopkins.