‘We’re getting crushed’: the economic toll of Sonoma County’s recent ban on large gatherings

He specifically mentioned a well-known Sonoma County hotel and spa that lost $1.1 million in bookings. (The general manager of this property did not respond to voicemails left by the Press Democrat.)

Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau, answered a call from a reporter from the city of Sonoma. “I’m standing on First Street looking at four or five parklets that have been created during this pandemic.”

His point is that hospitality is “very flexible and really good at operations, people and processes.” He would have preferred Mase to impose “density requirements” on business owners rather than imposing the “blunt instrument” of that order.

Vecchio, Zahner and others acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19. But if the county health department had “just taken the time to chat and talk to them,” Zahner said, “I think the outcome would have been a lot better.”

He noted that “a lot of people just went to Napa.”

Broke, boom, broke

“We probably wouldn’t be in business now without Napa Valley,” said Gary Buffo, founder and owner of Pure Luxury Transportation, whose buses, vans and SUVs ferry customers on wine tours of the North Bay.

When COVID-19 first struck, Buffo’s Petaluma-based fleet dwindled from 200 vehicles to about 80. That bust was followed by the reopening boom — “People are finally going out, cars are getting booked, buses are getting booked” — which lasted until January’s directive .

“All of a sudden these bookings are cancellations,” said Buffo, who says he lost $100,000 in business from the ban on meetings.

He’s grateful that business is doing well in an east county. “Napa is absolutely booming,” Buffo said, praising what he called more flexible, sensible, and business-friendly COVID-19 protocols.

In Sonoma County, on the other hand, “we get crushed.”

Amber Balshaw and her husband Jim own Preferred Sonoma Caterers in Petaluma. Cancellations resulting from the county’s public gathering ban will end up costing her over $100,000, she estimates.

But they’re pretty much fully booked starting in April, she points out.

Amber is unrelentingly optimistic, yet still angers that the health department acted unilaterally to impose the bans — “We were the only county that did that,” she said — forcing her to break bad news.

“For these brides, we remain the villains,” she said.

It goes against her grain, but there was one event she didn’t want to let happen. A number of local fire departments have joined forces to throw a belated Christmas party. “It got cancelled, and that was good,” said Balshaw, who said she “didn’t want to put 300 firefighters together with omicron. I don’t want to be responsible for taking out all the firefighters.”

A lot of pain to walk around

While the hospitality industry has been hardest hit, there has been much economic woe to be dealt with. Bowlers had returned in droves to DoubleDecker Lanes at Rohnert Park and business was up 30% from what it was before the coronavirus cast its shadow.

That increase disappeared in January and was wiped out by the Health Ordinance — although owner Jim Decker calculated his business was allowed to remain open. Five large parties at the lanes were also canceled, wiping out profits from “Bowling and the Bar,” noted manager Dennis Ganduglia.

While its sister hotel in Novato is free to schedule indoor events, the Hopmonks in Sebastopol has canceled several shows, as has the Mystic Theater in Petaluma. The 1,681-seat Luther Burbank Center for the Arts has postponed nine events and canceled one.

Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, lost significant advertising revenue when venues such as the Luther Burbank Center, Sonoma State’s Green Music Center and others canceled advertisements for shows and ticket sales.

This, coupled with local retailers removing ads due to reduced customer traffic, has cost the company over $500,000 since Mase was awarded the contract, said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments.

Back at Sally Tomatoes, Giudice was worried about a hangover from the ban on gatherings – which so far hasn’t been extended beyond February 11. Reservations for Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day were down sharply from previous years.

He had to lay off a kitchen worker and is hoping the virus will subside and business will pick up again.

Is it?

Giudice doesn’t know. “I’m not a scientist,” he said. “I’m a business owner just trying to survive.”

Reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at [email protected] or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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