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Sonoma County Awakens To Eased COVID-19 Business Restrictions

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) -- At the stroke of midnight Sonoma businesses began to awaken from months of a forced shutdown because of the coronavirus outbreak, but the reopening process has not been without debate between some county supervisors and the public health officer.

The point of contention has been over what businesses should reopen and how soon they should be allowed to do it.

"We always put public health at the top but I believe we can open up a bit more broadly and still be safe," said Board Of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin.

Low risk businesses such car washes and pet groomers will now be allowed to get back to work. Supervisors pushed for this as they listened to concerns from local businesses, but now they have also received feedback from the community.

"Our emails just lit up today about the board's interest in opening up too soon," Gorin told KPIX 5.

Sonoma County is taking a cautious approach to reopening -- increasing testing and making sure hospitals are able to care for COVID-19 patients.

"My response is I understand. We're going to really watch the cases as they continue to decline a bit," Gorin said.

Right at the stroke of 8 a.m. Friday morning, the nonstop parade of cars began streaming through Sonoma Car Wash on Highway 12.

Carmen Velasquez was one of the first in line, and was so happy and appreciative to be there, she gave the worker a big tip.

"I think everyone's going to appreciate everything that much more, because you don't know what you have until you don't have it," said Velasquez.

When asked if she felt like life was slowly getting back to normal, Velasquez replied, "I feel like slowly it is. I feel like we're starting to see that light after the tunnel. I think we can all just keep praying together and hoping. And I think it's coming."

My Pal Pet Grooming in Sonoma has been closed for the past two months, but half a dozen dogs were dropped in the 15 minutes KPIX 5 was there.

Customers like Joanna Smith handed their dogs off at the door and were not permitted inside.

"Yeah, I hope we do open up, slowly but safely," said Smith.

The County hopes it will soon be able to open up some of the driving forces of its economy, tourism and hospitality. Right now, the county is looking at a $22 million deficit due to the pandemic.

The shutdown forced businesses such as Russian River Brewing to furlough a large percentage of their staffers.

"It's been a challenge. We've survived wildfires and floods but there's no playbook for a global pandemic," Natalie Cilurzo, owner of Russian River Brewing, said.

The pandemic hit just weeks after Russian River held its most successful Pliny the Younger release in its history, generating more than $5 million for the local economy.

Since then, the craft brewing company has had to shift its business model by doing more wholesale distribution and taking orders online.

Supervisors are looking to provide some relief to these businesses by closing streets to make way for outdoor dining, an idea Cilurzo is open to if it can be done safely.

"I'm conflicted because safety is first and foremost," Cilurzo said. "We want ourselves and our employees and customers to be safe."

The county has asked Gov. Gavin Newsom for a waiver to accelerate the reopening process since Sonoma doesn't meet all the state mandated benchmarks.

Gorin admits Newsom may not approve it but she calls it a healthy discussion to have with the state and the community.

Kiet Do contributed to this report.

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