Sonoma County public health officials sounded a new alarm Tuesday over the expanding coronavirus outbreak and issued a singular message to residents: Unless absolutely necessary, stay at home.
That’s the central point of the shelter-in-place order issued Tuesday by Sonoma County Interim Public Health Officer Sundari Mase.
The mandate is designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus by restricting person-to-person interactions except where necessary to engage in essential activities or provide critical public, business and government services.
The order took effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and remains in effect through April 7. It’s similar to those enacted Monday in six other Bay Area counties.
It bans nonessential travel and nonessential gatherings of any size, and requires businesses and governments to cease non-essential operations at physical locations.
“It’s not meant to punish people,” county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque said. “It’s meant to keep them safe.”
So go buy groceries when you need to stock your cupboards. Fill your vehicle’s gas tank. Head out for a hike or to pick up some dog food, or take a loved one to the dentist, if it’s needed.
What is meant by “essential” activities?
This the stuff of daily life that keeps people fed, housed and getting through the day safely.
For public services, its the police, firefighters and emergency dispatchers, plus the work of those who run the wastewater treatment plant, waste collectors, people in the telecommunications industry; even those working construction on public works projects or affordable housing.
On a personal level, it’s the grocery shopping, caretaking and core errands. People can leave home to shop for food, cleaning supplies and personal care products. They can do their laundry or ship packages at the post office or through some other shipping service, or pick up supplies they need to work from home.
What businesses are considered essential?
Provision of health care tops the list, including physical and mental health care providers, dentists, biotechnology companies and even veterinary clinics. It also includes cannabis dispensaries providing products for medicinal use, though they can only be offered for delivery or curbside pickup.
Banks and financial institutions, hardware stores, plumbers, electricians, exterminators and others who maintain the safety, sanitation and operations of households are also on the list.
Food producers — those in farming, fishing, food processing and dairies — and in Sonoma County — wineries and breweries are included.
Businesses that provide food, shelter and social services, including senior, adult- and childcare with certain provisions, as well as those serving low-income, homeless and disadvantaged people are called out, as are newspapers, television, radio and other media services. The order also includes gas stations and auto-supply, auto repair, and related facilities.
Legal and accounting services that support essential activities and taxis and transit services can continue to operate.
What about restaurants?
As it stands now, restaurants and other food providers can only sell food for takeout, drive-thru or delivery. Even schools that provide meals to children eligible for free and reduced lunches must ensure that students who receive take-away meals consume them off-site. Food banks are allowed to operate, as well.
Business owners can do what they need to do to support employees working from home, ensure security and the maintenance of equipment and inventory, handle payroll and worker benefits and otherwise do the minimum necessary to preserve the general function of their assets, while maintaining social distancing and precautions like washing hands.
Where do schools stand?
Virtually all of Sonoma County’s schools are on spring break but will be transitioning to home learning. Anyone needed to report to campus to support remote instruction can do so, as educational institutions are exempted from the shutdown.
Caring for a pet?
They’re part of the family, so if they need pet care or supplies, it’s essential. It’s also OK to go out to care for someone else’s pet, if that’s an agreement you made. Veterinary care is covered under the order’s health care provisions.
Trying to stay fit?
Outdoor activity is explicitly identified in the order as an “essential” undertaking — as long as you can walk, hike, run or cycle at a distance of 6 feet from anyone else. You’re OK to travel to the coast or the country to embark on you adventure, as well. However, indoor gyms and other exercise facilities will remain closed to avoid virus transmission.
Can I be arrested?
Defying the order is a misdemeanor violation of the California Health and Safety Code, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both, as it is considered “an imminent threat to public health.”
But while the order calls on the Sonoma County Sheriff and all local police chiefs to ensure compliance with it, enforcement is likely to be “compassionate,” given the order’s precedent-setting nature, Mase said.
“We’ve never experienced this before, so we need to see where this goes,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.