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December 8, 2023

Public life goes dark

One month ago, all of Sonoma County’s “public life” was put off limits. No schools, locked parks, barricaded beaches, no dining out or casual shopping trips. Gathering places where conversations and friendships get shared are taboo. Libraries, coffee shops, brewpubs, art galleries and any space smaller than six feet square, are now officially declared uninhabitable.
Businesses declared “essential” by the county’s public health director are allowed to be open, but nothing resembles “business as usual.” Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other businesses must all adhere to “social distancing” and other health and safety measures. Local banks reduced branch operating hours and shifted staff to process thousands of Small Business Administration Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans. After opening the PPP application period on April 4, the first fully processed loans only began to be finalized this week, just as all of the $356 billion in Congress-approved funds was running out. A second round of PPP funding is now hoped for as local banks including Summit State Bank, Exchange Bank and Redwood Credit Union all report long waiting lists of unfunded business applications.
As of this week, more than 20,000 local workers had filed for unemployment checks, frustrated by a clogged phone system at the Employment Development Department. The county’s unemployment rate jumped two points to 5.3% in just 10 days. Moneygeek, a personal finance and technology company, this week predicted the Greater Santa Rosa peak COVID-19 related unemployment rate will reach 25%, leaving 62,500 people without jobs.
Some of the harshest economic impacts are being felt by local governments, which are taking on extra duties during the COVID-19 pandemic while seeing sales tax and other revenues plummet.
“There are no (economic) projections yet of things getting better,” said James Gore, fourth district county supervisor. “Our general fund for next year will really take a hit. Everything that’s not made mandatory by statute will have to be looked at.”
Following the 2008 Great Recession, the county government had finally restored adequate cash reserves to begin to fund such initiatives as road improvements and homeless services, said Gore who was first elected in 2013. “Now we are looking at no additional funds,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s left on the table for all our partners.”
Last week, county auditor-assessor Eric Roeser told the supervisors the county faced a $12 to $22 million uncovered impact from the first 90 days of the COVID-19 impaired economy. Roeser also reported that 94% of all property taxes due this month had been paid. These funds are shared equally with local schools, special districts and the county’s general fund. Unknown yet is how much sales tax and hotel bed tax will be lost as lodging and most businesses remain closed.
“All those purchases on Amazon don’t do us any good,” said Gore, because the internet giant does not pay local sales taxes.
Not everything that happens on the internet is a takeaway. Thousands of local school children are completing daily lessons and civic clubs, neighborhood groups and others are funding new ways to socialize from remote distances.
Indeed, much of this “public life” has become virtual. The Sebastopol Center for the Arts has been locked up since March 18, but they are hosting an online non-juried exhibition for all-comers to share a “favorite thing” or piece of art. An opening reception will take place via Zoom from 1 to 4 p.m. this Saturday, April 25. There will be no Healdsburg Jazz Festival this year, but the nonprofit organization is presenting a free online program this Sunday to salute jazz master Duke Ellington. Cloverdale-based Alexander Valley Film Society has switched to an online platform and is presenting a series of short films and other cinema-related experiences. Sonoma County Farm Trails is marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week with online tutorials for “Building a Pandemic Victory Garden.”
All winery tasting rooms are closed but the Sonoma County Vintners and Winegrowers groups co-hosted a virtual panel discussion on Earth Day, April 22, featuring Silver Oak, Gary Farrell Winery and Bevill Vineyard Management. Many wineries are reporting steady visits to their websites and processing online orders.
“For our part, we are working right now to support the local restaurants and wine partners with a ‘Take-Out, Eat In’ promotion,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.  “We are also supporting sommeliers from around the country and having them create videos and content for us.”
All of the county’s hotels and inns are staffed by minimum crews, housing small numbers of healthcare and other “essential” workers who are choosing to separate from their families and homes for safety reasons.
All of the local chambers of commerce offices are closed to the public and have converted to online resources for COVID-19 business-related information where members can obtain the latest advice on applying for federal relief loans and other programs.
The Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce has been sending out email blasts with information about new small business loans or grants, and hosted a virtual check-in meeting with businesses over Zoom on April 15.
Other chambers in the county are taking similar measures.
The Healdsburg Chamber has been hosting a weekly joint update with the city of Healdsburg and also hosted Zoom talks on social media marketing and coping with being “sheltered-in-place.” The Cloverdale, Windsor and Sebastopol chambers all have comprehensive lists of what local businesses are open and what special services they feature.


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