Marin orders holiday season shutdown

12/09/2020

With hospitals approaching capacity, Marin has once again issued a stay-at-home order, effective this Tuesday and lasting until at least Jan. 4. Unlike the order in March, retail stores may stay open with reduced capacity, and beaches, parks and trails remain open for all, but the four-week ban on dining and lodging is another major blow to West Marin’s restaurants and short-term rentals.

The county’s intensive care units were 89 percent full on Wednesday, with 26 patients in 29 beds. Just six of the patients had Covid-19, while the rest suffered from other ailments. Covid-19 case rates have quadrupled over the past month, so more patients are expected in the coming weeks, stressing the hospital system’s limited resources.

“We want to recognize that as we see surges in Covid-19 cases, that is on top of systems that are already functioning near capacity,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer.

Although Marin’s thin margin of I.C.U. beds is worrisome, the region is not at a breaking point. Hospitals can open more beds by declining elective surgeries and redirecting staff. Still, local hospitals are denying requests from neighboring counties to treat patients.

“There’s two elements: the staff and the stuff. The stuff is the rooms, the beds, the equipment, the ventilators. And it turns out the staffing is more frequently the limiting factor,” Dr. Willis said.

Fortunately, a vaccine is on the horizon—1,950 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine are set to arrive in Marin next week. Staff at skilled nursing facilities will receive the first doses, as 85 of 104 Covid-19 deaths in Marin have been suffered at such facilities, with outbreaks triggered by staff traveling between sites.

Hospital staff, health care workers and first responders are next in line. The county expects to receive 1,950 doses every week through January, with wider availability anticipated in March, after more pharmaceutical companies begin distribution. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses three weeks apart; doses will be stored in ultra-cold biomedical freezers at Dominican University, BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. 

“With this dark announcement of surges in cases, we are also beginning to see the light with the arrival of a vaccine,” Dr. Willis said.

Over the past three months, each California county has been assigned to a tier based on its case rates and positivity rates; more transmission meant tighter restrictions. But Governor Gavin Newsom changed that framework last week because 99 percent of the state fell into the most restrictive tier, and hospitals were filling up. He divided the state into five regions; regions with less than 15 percent of intensive care unit beds available must issue a stay-at-home order. The San Joaquin Valley, the greater Sacramento area and Southern California have been ordered to close, and, in anticipation of a coming order, five Bay Area counties followed voluntarily, including Marin.

Another shutdown means more layoffs, business closures and financial hardship.

In West Marin, several businesses have closed permanently as a result of pandemic restrictions, and an estimated 15 percent of residents are accessing food pantries. 

“It will be brutal,” said Max Brown, the owner of Rancho Nicasio. His restaurant had been staying afloat with dining on the lawn, but he said the new order prompted him to lay off another 10 employees, in addition to 15 who lost their job in the spring. Now, the once-bustling venue is operating with just four employees handling takeout.

Restaurants have been put through the wringer over the course of the pandemic, now in its tenth month. Initially, owners laid off most of their employees and operated with skeleton crews for takeout. As summer went on, restaurants invested in infrastructure to make outdoor dining comfortable, like heaters and curtains, and business slowly picked up as visitors continued to travel to the coast. Although outdoor dining generated far less revenue than normal, it was enough to keep the doors open for many businesses. Now, that lifeline has been severed, and some restaurants, like the Saltwater Oyster Depot may close for the winter.

After Marin issued its first stay-at-home order in March, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act two weeks later. The $2.2 trillion economic stimulus was critical in preventing the bottom from falling out of the economy. Unemployment insurance, typically about two-thirds of a person’s income, was boosted by $600 a week, and the Paycheck Protection Program awarded $669 billion for businesses to keep paying their bills and employees, including over $1 million to Marin. In addition to the stimulus, the state offered tax credits and small business grants, and nonprofits helped with rental assistance, food pantries and temporary housing.

This time around, financial relief is less certain. The Paycheck Protection Program has expired and boosted unemployment insurance will run out in two weeks. Talks between Republicans and Democrats in Congress about another stimulus package are ongoing.

Besides restaurants, short-term rentals are the other major sector compelled to close on Tuesday. Guests can only stay for essential visits, which are rare. The closure comes at an inopportune time: Winters are slow, but the holidays provide a small oasis during the offseason. 

Andrew Howard, who owns the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore with his wife, had to cancel all of their stays over Christmas. “We are in our 70s, we are angling toward retirement, and this isn’t helping,” he said.

Aaron Ely, the co-owner of Point Reyes Vacation Rentals, called the shutdown a "massive bummer" for the industry. He is particularly concerned about the cleaners, who earn little to begin with. “Vacation rentals, love them or hate them, are just as big of a part of our local economy as the ranches or restaurants. That’s easy to forget, because it’s not on Main Street,” he said.

Mr. Ely will reduce the hours of his three full-time employees, and the 20 homeowners who rent their properties through his business will lose a source of income. At least he is not as shell-shocked this time around. “I’m learning to cope with the soul-crushing stress of having a business that’s slowly going under while the government holds its foot on the back of our head,” he said.

Both Mr. Ely and Mr. Howard are critical of the new shutdown. They disagree with lumping together a stand-alone rental in West Marin and a hotel in San Rafael, and they wish the county was taking a more granular approach. 

“A lot of the properties out here are quite safe. They don’t have interior hallways, they don’t have interior lobbies, and there’s a lot of open space out here. But it is what it is,” Mr. Howard said.

Mr. Ely added, “I want someone from the county to walk me through how thousands and thousands of people can day trip here and go to the Palace Market, the gas station and IP Market and then go back home—that’s fine, but somehow if they peel off and stay at a house in Inverness, that changes the risk factor?” 

Under the new order, gyms and campgrounds also must close, and retail stores must reduce their capacity to 20 percent. Gatherings with members of other households are prohibited.

Schools that are already open can stay open, while elementary schools that are closed must obtain a waiver in order to bring students back. Students above sixth grade who haven’t returned to the classroom must stay home. 

Two districts in West Marin, Shoreline and Lagunitas, have yet to reopen for classroom instruction. Both districts have set a goal to return in January for the spring semester.