Reopening stepped back as fall surge materializes

11/18/2020

Covid-19 is spreading more than ever, prompting stricter restrictions on indoor operations that will hamper local restaurants through the winter. And although vaccine trials have shown promise, any doses are months away from reaching Marin.

This week, the county scaled back its reopening by closing indoor restaurants and reducing the capacity of retail establishments. The move was announced by county officials on Friday, and Governor Gavin Newsom made it an order on Monday for 94 percent of the state’s population, calling it an emergency brake on reopening.

West Marin has seen a 23 percent increase in Covid-19 cases this month, rising from 65 to 80 cumulative cases. Ten people are currently infected, and for the first time, a town other than Point Reyes Station breached the 10-case threshold for reporting: Woodacre has 10 total cases.

In the first week of November, the number of cases in California increased by more than 50 percent, a higher rate of increase than the 39 percent week-long jump seen in the summer. How quickly cases rise indicates how high the peak of cases will be, indicating more trouble on the horizon.

Cases are rising at an unprecedented level nationally, too, with new records set every week. And, unlike the first wave this summer, when cases were rising in select hotspots only, widespread transmission is now occurring across the United States. More than 1,100 deaths are being reported each day on average.

“This is concerning because surges are happening just as the weather is getting cooler, and before the real holiday season even starts,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer. “We can anticipate more travel, more gatherings, more flu. If we don’t get in front of this now, I’m concerned about our hospital capacity to manage cases come December.”

The nature of transmission has shifted in Marin, which has not experienced the velocity of surges seen in neighboring counties but is still seeing an uptick. During the first surge, mostly Latinos contracted the virus, as they make up a significant portion of the essential workforce. Transmission occurred in settings like nursing homes and grocery stores, where workers spent time out of economic necessity. 

Now, the county’s 15 contact tracers are discovering that transmission is occurring more among Marin’s white residents, who have spread Covid-19 at optional events, like baby showers or gatherings to watch a football game. 

“It’s discouraging [that] that’s what is driving [transmission] but also encouraging because we think those are behaviors people have more control over,” Dr. Willis told the Board of Supervisors at his weekly briefing on Tuesday.

Marin is limiting indoor dining because it is an optional yet high-risk setting. Diners mix across households and remove face coverings while eating. The potential for a super spreader event is evident, and workers in the food industry face some of the highest positivity rates of any occupation.

Most of West Marin’s restaurants have opted to keep guests outside, but dining on the patio is becoming less attractive. The weather is wet and cold, the sun sets before 5 p.m., and travel is down. Despite investments in tents, curtains and heaters, guests are no longer coming to sit outside.

At the Saltwater Oyster Depot in Inverness, owner Luc Chamberland said he and his nine employees were starting to feel somewhat normal again with six weeks of indoor dining under their belts, but the new restrictions are a major setback. Anticipating further restrictions, he is now questioning if it’s worthwhile to stay open through the winter.

At the William Tell House in Tomales, owner Ted Wilson decided not to move indoors so he could invest in a pleasant outdoor dining experience. He purchased a large tent, which will host an ugly Christmas sweater party and a crab feed meant to boost traffic this winter. Business hinges on travel, however, and prospects are not looking good, he said.

Sheryl Cahill, who owns two of the three restaurants in Point Reyes Station, is feeling confused and exhausted by the ever-changing rules and regulations. Business is down an average of 60 percent at the Side Street Kitchen and the Station House Café this year.

“That we have made it this far is a feat in and of itself,” she said.

At the Station House Café, Ms. Cahill whittled down a roster of 50 workers to two managers and three employees. After daylight saving time ended, she eyed a return to indoors, which involves attention to sanitation, separation of tables, and requirements for personal protective equipment. She said staff members were not eager to work under these conditions, which defy the norms of hospitality, so some moved on and the ones who stayed are strained. Last week, they opened indoors for the first time in seven months but were ordered closed after five days.

Without government stimulus, the outlook for winter survival is grim. Already, several businesses have closed on the coast, including Osteria Stellina, once a prominent restaurant in Point Reyes Station. Owner Christian Caiazzo was doing well with street dining and takeout, but said he saw the writing on the wall. Predicting a difficult winter, he closed in August, leaving 30 workers without a job.

Low-wage workers are hit hardest. Economists are worried about a “K-shaped” recovery, with high-wage work coming back more quickly, and low-income and middle-income workers facing structural shifts to their industries that will limit the capacity for hiring as the economy recovers. 

Marin’s employment rates reflect this fear: Low-wage jobs dropped by 33 percent this year, while high-wage jobs dropped by just 6 percent, as of September, the most recent available data show.

“The question becomes, how can you take individuals who have lost their jobs in the low-wage, low-skill occupations and find a way to provide them with the training they need to move up the ladder into better paying jobs?” said Mike Blakely, the chief executive officer of the Marin Economic Forum.

For now, the economic crisis has been somewhat mitigated by an eviction ban in Marin and financial support from governments and nonprofits. Organizations like West Marin Community Services have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct financial assistance, and weekly food banks are serving an estimated 15 percent of residents. But if the service industry is reshaped and employment rates are slow to recover, these efforts will be difficult to sustain. 

Fortunately, a vaccine is on the horizon. Two companies, Pfizer and Moderna, announced that their vaccine trials showed more than 90-percent efficacy, and the federal government is ready to distribute doses. All levels of government and health care providers are discussing logistics. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, so public health departments are contacting dry-ice companies to help with storage. The Moderna vaccine can be stored in existing refrigerators used to store other types of vaccines. 

Dr. Willis said initial doses will be given to high-risk essential workers. The general population won’t have access to a vaccine until March at the earliest, he said.

The holidays are expected to lead to more cases, so public health officials are encouraging safe practices. Visits should take place outdoors, and they should be short and small, with no more than three households spending time together. People travelling outside the Bay Area are recommended to quarantine for two weeks if they have engaged in high-risk activities, and any travelers should consider being tested before and after the gatherings by contacting their medical provider.