As California returns to reopening, some in Wine Country wonder if it’s too soon in pandemic

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that he’s ended the regional stay-at-home order and returned the majority of the state, including the six North Bay counties, back to the purple tier is welcome news to affected businesses. But business leaders are concerned the shutdowns aren’t over.

“Today we can lay claim to starting to see some real light at the end of the tunnel as it relates to case numbers,” Newsom said in a noon press conference, citing lower infections rates and hospitalizations, and more ICU beds becoming available.

Over the weekend, the San Francisco Bay Area ICU capacity, which includes the North Bay, surged to 23% and is projected to reach 25% capacity in another four weeks, Newsom said.

The purple tier allows for numerous re-openings, including restaurants and wineries, which can resume outdoor operations. Local officials, however, could choose to continue stricter rules. The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

Some North Coast wineries plan a quick reopening for outdoor tasting. Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines announced 11 of its sites in Sonoma and Napa counties would reopen Tuesday: Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, La Crema at Saralee’s Vineyard, Copain, Hartford Family Winery, Stonestreet Estate Vineyards, Matanzas Creek Winery, Arrowood Vineyards, The Spire Collection locations in Alexander Valley and Calistoga, Cardinale, and Freemark Abbey.

“We’ve been communicating directly with our club members and have seen a steady interest in bookings in general,” said Jackson spokeswoman Marlow Bruce about outreach to consumers after hearing Newsom’s change in the order Monday. “People seem excited to come wine tasting. As it would happen though, we’re up against Mother Nature.”

Reopening of other Jackson wineries locally is complicated by expected record rainfall forecast for Wednesday, as some aren’t set up to accommodate guests in bad weather, Bruce said. Most of the new bookings so far are ramping up for the weekend, when the rain is supposed to let up a bit.

“We’ve had a few dozen people booked already and we anticipate that energy to continue in the coming days,” she said. “We’re seeing guests book two to four weeks out as well, which is encouraging.”

Other local vintners say it will take some days to reopen. Castello di Amorosa, the stone castle winery near Calistoga, is working to get call back 20 employees needed to serve 60 outdoor seats for tasting. But it could take until Friday or Saturday before tasting could reopen tables with 40 seats under the tent in the courtyard or 20 seats under the heavy timbered canopy over the Il Passito patio, according to General Manager Jim Sullivan.

“January in Napa Valley is usually slow for wineries,” Sullivan said.

Napa Valley’s Silverado Vineyards plans to reopen for by-appointment tasting Friday. It will take that long to get visitors signed up for the 90-minute slots up via the Tock online reservation service and schedule supplier deliveries, said Nora Feeley, vice president of marketing and direct to consumer.

“The bummer thing is it is supposed to rain all weekend,” she said. Tasting appointments can be rescheduled or refunded.

The vintner is adding a fourth “last call” slot for tasting opened wines that day, because three daily tastings plus 30 minutes of sanitizing in between wasn’t making financial sense, she said.

The early December stay-home order also was costly. Among its creative ventures to pique visitor interest was the launch of a “decadence tasting,” featuring caviar and duck rillettes paired with wines for $95. Gearing up for the year-end holidays, the winery ordered thousands of dollars of those delicacies from a local chef, just days before California ordered all such outdoor services to be closed. All that had to be given away.

Trefethen Winery in Napa Valley plans to let some of the expected rain storms pass through before opening on Monday.

“A week ago, it was sunny and warm,” said Jon Ruel, president. “We tell guests to dress for staying warm outdoors.”

After previous experiences with opening and closing tasting during the pandemic, the vintner decided to leave up its outdoor tents for visitors, a large one for tasting flights of wine and another next to the villa for sampling culinary pairings. A handful of tasting room staff were furloughed with the stay-home order, but he’s expecting to be back up to full staffing of 18 full- and part-time workers plus on-call workers by early February.

“By now we’re good at it,” Ruel said. “We are now approaching 11 months since our first shutdown. During that period we refined our approach of offering gracious yet safe hospitality.”

He said that while sales per guest haven’t gone up, they are lingering longer on the property.

“We’ve seen particularly in the past couple of months the mental wear and tear the pandemic has had on them,” Ruel said. “Wine Country can help with that.”

Russian River Brewery co-owner Natalie Cilurzo has spent $70,000 on upgrading her two Sonoma County locations to accommodate outdoor dining and expressed skepticism over having to open and close so many times.

"This seems awfully sudden. What's confusing to us is the metrics changing," she said. "We're tired of the yo-yo effect."

With a series of storms looming large this week over the North Bay, Cilurzo said she'll wait until mid-February to reopen the outdoor dining service.

Hotels are allowed to reopen “with modifications”— protocols that haven’t yet been clarified, said Sara Brooks, general manager of Napa River Inn.

“The big question right now is, right before we shut down, we were only allowed to accept travelers who were from in state or who had quarantined for 14 days in state,” she said. “So we don't know if that will be a restriction.”

She’s also waiting to assess demand, and if people are going to want to travel before vaccines are widely distributed.

“It's funny how this process has been. You get an announcement one day and you're shutting down, and then you get an announcement one day that you're able to open back up,” Brooks said. “So it’s a little bit tough for us to plan.”

Patrick Miller, general manager of Andaz Napa, said he is “elated” to be reopening, but also shares Brooks’ concerns.

“It’s always tough when the communication (from the state) is so abrupt, but we'll take it,” said Miller, of the 141-room boutique hotel in downtown Napa operated by Hyatt. “I think we're just happy to be moving in the right direction.”

Miller said he is looking forward to welcoming visitors back to Napa. And there’s something else.

“I think equally exciting is we’re going to be able to start bringing back team members that we haven't been able to see for a few weeks or a month or more,” he said. “Today has been kind of a madhouse of phone calls and schedules and trying to figure out what food we need to get ordered.”

Dr. Karen Relucio, Napa County’s public health officer, released a statement today addressing the change back to the Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

“While lifting of the regional stay-home order is a step in the right direction, we can’t let it lead to complacency,” Relucio said in the statement. “I look forward to the day we can look back on how we came together to eradicate this pandemic but until then, it is still present in our community so it’s imperative all of us continue to take precautions to limit its spread.”

In Marin County, Iron Springs Pub co-owner Anne Dubinsky Altman expressed relief that she can get back to business.

"We're happy the governor pivoted,” said Dubinsky Altman, who plans to reopen her San Rafael establishment on Thursday. “Now we'll have more avenues to see our customers. There was no science behind the outdoor dining ban anyway."

In Tiburon, Servino Ristorante is set to reopen for outdoor dining on Friday, after supplier services such as linen are restarted and sanitization of tables and chairs is completed for the 36 seats on the first-floor patio and 24 in the patio above. The 12,000-square-foot foot restaurant seats 160 inside.

“If you were to compare pre-COVID to current staffing, we’re probably about three-quarters of full staff, and that quarter of the people have either moved out of the area or are at an age or vulnerability where they decided to stay home,” said co-owner Natale Servino.

Only 20% of the menu had to be shelved because it didn’t translate well for takeout, and the restaurant has moved toward offering adult beverages and premixed cocktails at retail price instead of menu pricing. In addition to the regular menu items, the restaurant has appealed to remote workers with “Sunday supper” packs and half-baked menu items guests can finish at home.

Feedback from customers suggests the after the pandemic the features likely to remain are beverages to go at retail pricing — if state regulatory allowances continue on — and the meal kits for a significant proportion of Marin residents who expect to continue working from home to a certain degree, Servino said.

At Trek Winery in Novato, the family vintner, brewery and pub businesses won’t be going back to food service outdoors anytime soon in the pandemic because of earlier losses from each shutdown, according to co-owner Andy Podshadley. Now its just open for beverage pickup 3–6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

“The first time, we lost $1,500 in food we had to throw away, then the second time it was $750 in food, and this time it was $250 in food,” he said. “We’re afraid to have that happen again.”

That’s on top of $200 a week that was spent for propane to fuel the 15 patio heaters. After getting city permission, the beverage businesses opened a beer garden in an adjoining alley to prep for warmer days to come.

Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis is reminding people to stay vigilant.

“Everyone has been making sacrifices to bring this surge under control, and it’s paying off,” Willis said. “As we move back into the purple tier, it’s critical to remember the virus is still very active in our community. We could easily backslide if we let our guard down.”

Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, urged people to remain vigilant regarding COVID precautions, despite the loosened restrictions, The Press Democrat reported.

“Sonoma County residents heard the urgent message to stay home as much as possible and accepted that challenge to slow the surge and save lives,” Mase said. “Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains. But COVID-19 is still here and still deadly, so we must remain vigilant and take all necessary mitigation measures until the vaccine is distributed widely.”

While reopening brings relief to the state’s economy, some wonder why it happened now when California’s coronavirus infection rates remain high.

Republicans said Newsom was relaxing the rules in response to political pressure and the threat of a recall. Republican organizers have until mid-March to gather 1.5 million signatures to force a recall vote against Newsom, who is halfway through his first term.

“This governor’s decisions have never been based on science. Him re-opening our state is not an attempt to help working Californians, but rather an attempt to counter the Recall Movement. It’s sad and pathetic," California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson tweeted.

The Press Democrat and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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