May Editorial- Battling Two Pandemics

Written By: Tawny Tesconi, Executive Director
Published: May 1, 2020

My editorial for this month is difficult to write because it is on such a sensitive topic. Typically, I am not bothered if my comments spark controversy or cause a valued member to fire back a letter disagreeing with my opinions. After all, the intent of an editorial, as opposed to a news story, is to express the views of the writer while suggesting a contrary or less popular viewpoint of a topic. In many ways, editorials, commentaries, op-eds and nowadays social rants and raves embrace our 1ST amendment right to freedom of speech.

So, why is this month’s editorial topic causing me such strife? It is because there is nothing more valuable or sacred in this world than human lives. Further, I have great respect for the federal, state, and local decision-makers that are having to make dire decisions and establish “Orders” that will most likely be the most difficult and memorable pronouncements they will make in their careers.

I mean no disregard or disrespect, but in my opinion, there is not enough being done to address the other pandemic that we have been hit with and that is the collapse of our economy, particularly the gutting of our country’s small businesses.

We are at war with two enemies. The first, COVID-19, is coming straight for us – approaching our frontline. The other combatant, possibly considered less aggressive and more easily overcome, is launching a flank attack. We are looking forward, taking the virus head-on, while the second aggressor is progressing from the other three sides. I surmise we will overcome the front attack within a few years with vaccines and antibodies, but if we continue to hold the frontline with little regard for our flanks, our other nemesis – the economic downturn, will last five times longer than the virus, and may, directly and indirectly, take as many, or more lives, than the disease.

Are you confused as to who gets to call the shots for our community? I am. A few weeks ago, we saw the volley between President Trump and the state governors. That sort of got resolved with the POTUS (and legal advisers) recognizing that the individual governors should determine what is best for their state. When we turn to state politics, Governor Newsom has released several orders and guidelines. Guidelines that suggest to me that local governments, our county leaders, have some autonomy on decision making provided they consider the best practices put forth by the state.

Turning our focus to our local government, Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County Health Officer, started her position with our county on March 10. Although her career has taken her around the country, she resides in the east bay and I have seen no mention of her relocating to Sonoma County. Dr. Mase regularly reports to the Board of Supervisors, but the County Supervisors have little authority over the Orders that she and County Counsel design and release into law. I regularly watch the weekly Board of Supervisors meetings and all the Supervisors at one time or another have nudged Dr. Mase to consider some small level of consideration to allow shuttered businesses to reopen, provided safety protocols are followed. As of this writing (a week or so before you are reading it), there does not seem to be any budging.

Luckily, when Farm Bureau saw the first order coming our way, we reached out to our County Supervisors to suggest verbiage in the Order to allow for all phases of agriculture production and processing to be deemed an “essential business”. All told, our farmers have been able to continue farming using safety protocols. But, in Sonoma County, we are a close-knit community and we care about all our neighbors, fellow businesses, and partnering industries. It’s not just the restaurant down the street that is suffering or the winery that has had to close their tasting room. These folks are members, our friends, our relatives, and what they are having to endure is frightening.

There is a lack of common sense related to some of the regulations set forth in our County’s order. For example, what is the difference between a construction crew working on affordable housing (deemed an essential business) versus that same crew working on market-rate housing (not deemed an essential business)? In our County, aren’t all levels of housing essential? But maybe this irony is lost to a decision-maker who has not endured thousands of houses being lost to wildfires over a couple of years.

Several of my colleagues working with mental health nonprofits have expressed their deep concern for the safety of our children during this shelter in place era. Sharing closing quarters, wage earners fret around not being able to provide essentials for their families and the uncertainty of when work will start again is causing a spike in child and domestic abuse. We all jokingly post on Facebook about our SIP sips and virtual cocktails, but alcoholism is on the rise as well. Even the suicide rate is expected to peak over the next couple of years. Couldn’t some balance be reached?

The process is fractured, and we need to fix it. It is time for our County Supervisors, County Administrator, County Counsel, and Dr. Mase to give the enemy that is attacking from the sides and rear as much focus as the enemy front and center. Dr. Mase needs to establish protocols for different work scenarios, whether it be by business segment or number of employees and allow our small businesses to work collaboratively to safely start reopening Sonoma County. I have faith in the ingenuity and creativity of our small business owners. I also know that our local entrepreneurs value employee and customer safety as much as they value their ability to run a successful business, and they will find the right balance.

Big picture. Why don’t our elected officials have some level of decision-making authority in this process? Maybe the County’s Health Officer should be an elected position? Something to ponder while we all shelter in place and practice social distancing.

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