Sonoma County Farm Bureau Partners with Business Stakeholder Group to Address COVID-19 Challenges

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: December 2, 2020

The negative impacts of COVID-19 have and continue to put a strain on Sonoma County’s business community. Recently, local business leaders are taking action to support one another during the continuing shutdown by forming a diverse stakeholder group to represent the business community’s interests, concerns, and innovations. Now, in the 8th month of the Pandemic, local leaders reflect on how they have weathered the numerous challenges brought on by the Pandemic and subsequent shutdowns and hunker down for the winter as a third COVID-19 wave looms.

Will Seppi is the CEO of Costeaux French Bakery. Before March 17, the Sonoma County staple employed 125 employees and was operating seven days a week, distributing daily to the greater north bay area.

“The business was continuing to grow, we were hiring on additional people, and creating new jobs and opportunities,” Seppi said. “Then, on March 17, our world, like so many others, came to a grinding halt.”

Seppi said that he was forced to furlough or lay off 80 employees over the course of three days.

“When foodservice entities were shut down, that really decimated our business overnight,” Seppi said. “With all of the confusion going on in the early weeks of the shutdown, we complied with restrictions and closed our retail operations down.”

Then, he took on the arduous task of sorting through what was happening and how the COVID-19 Pandemic would impact his business.

“A tremendous amount of resources were deployed from the company to understand the COVID-19 best practices, guidance coming out from the World Health Organization, Center for Disease Control, the State of California, local county officials, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture,” Seppi said. “Things were changing daily.”

To keep up with the influx of new and often-conflicting daily information, Seppi said he turned to the business community for support and collaboration.

“We had weekly phone calls with other food manufactures in the North Bay to try to work collaboratively to solve problems and discuss best practices,” Seppi said. “We pooled resources and leveraged purchasing power from some of the much larger manufacturers who were willing and able to help out some of the smaller ones.”

Now, Seppi and Costeaux French Bakery are a part of the newly formed group of leaders from 30 Sonoma County businesses and business membership groups, initially convened by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The group’s mission is to present the dire financial situation that Sonoma County’s businesses are facing, determine possible pilot scenarios for opening additional businesses, and identify key actions businesses can take to assist County of Sonoma officials in increasing communication about the importance of following safety protocols and getting tested for COVID-19.

This group, called Sonoma County Business Re-Opening & Recovery Work Group, represents six chambers of commerce, four industry associations, and businesses in the sectors of restaurants, wineries, and bars; breweries; hotels; movie theaters and family entertainment centers; outdoor recreation; gyms and fitness centers; and personal care services.

Seppi said he was motivated to join this effort because he still feels that there is no clarity from a health and medical front about how this Pandemic should be handled and that such information continues to be subject to further refinement. He hopes, going forward, that the collective voice of the business community can be incorporated into county-wide decision making.

“I hope the business group can be advocates for our community and press for a discussion that is inclusive of a range of factors considered for rules and restrictions related to COVID-19 that are not limited to case rates and case counts,” Seppi said. “While important, there are several other things that we need to be cognizant of and include.”

Group members participate in a business roundtable meeting every two weeks and serve in an advisory role to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

The Sonoma County Business Re-Opening & Recovery Work Group is actively working to help the County of Sonoma achieve its COVID-19 case reduction goals by encouraging all employees to get tested, providing incentives for employees to get tested, providing financial support during quarantine for employees who test positive, partner with the County on a marketing campaign encouraging people to get tested and to inform the community about ways that individuals can support local businesses.

The group plans to work together to find solutions that help save businesses and support residents in Sonoma County. While the group recognizes the community’s health as paramount, members also see the widespread impacts of the COVID-19 related business closures firsthand. Seppi said that the shutdowns have been challenging to get through and that small businesses have borne the brunt of shutdown restrictions.

“We are operating our business at about 30-40 percent capacity depending on the day of the week,” Seppi said. “Meanwhile, corporations and big box stores have been open and been serving their customers this whole time. I can walk through Target and touch everything but not go to a small retailer to shop. It doesn’t make sense. If we are talking about the health of our community, such policies aren’t healthy.”

Some Sonoma County businesses are facing financial ruin. Sonoma State University economist Dr. Robert Eyler predicts that in 2020, up to 48,451 Sonoma County jobs will be lost, with up to an additional 40,924 jobs lost in 2021. By 2023, he estimates that Sonoma County could lose up to $6.157 billion in income and $1.685 billion in state and local tax revenues. He also estimates that by 2023, up to one in six of the County’s businesses could close.

Natalie Cilurzo knew from the beginning that owning and operating Russian River Brewing Company wither her husband Vinnie would be an adventure. Fast forward to 2020 and the 8th month of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Cilurzo said the adventure continues to be full of surprises.

On the heels of their 17th annual Pliney the Younger release, which the Economic Development Department determined contributed over 5 million dollars to the local economy, Cilurzo was suddenly faced with a terrifying reality.

On March 18, 50 percent of Russian River Brewing Company’s revenue was gone.

“We thought that we were going to lose everything. It was awful,” Cilurzo said. “It took about 48 hours for Vinnie and me to process what was happening. Then, we decided that if we were going down, we weren’t going down without a fight.”

Together they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

“It was all hands on deck,” Cilurzo said. “We were back to startup mode and had to reinvent the wheel and reimagine everything all over again just like everyone else in Sonoma County had to do.”

She attributes Sonoma County’s ability to innovate and succeed through adversity to lessons learned from the past.

“Our wildfires, in particular, have brought us together,” Cilurzo said. “I think we are a resilient community— even more than so many others because of all of the disasters we’ve weathered. Throw a pandemic at us, and we will do our best to get through it.”

She said she wanted to participate in the Sonoma County Business Re-Opening & Recovery Work Group to work with Sonoma County Supervisors and other elected officials to tackle the challenges the business community faces.

“The business community is coming together for a collaborative effort,” Cilurzo said. “At least we have each other to rely on and to bounce ideas around with and to learn from each other’s successes.”

The first thing Bruce Riezenman, co-owner and executive chef of Park Avenue Catering did when the shelter in place started was to connect with local nonprofits and look for ways to support the community.

“We worked with the Ceres project and with Catholic Charities and produced about 2000 meals a week,” Riezenman said. “We had events originally booked for spring and summer that all got postponed, so I had to pivot our day to day operations to keep our team employed.”

Business leaders each found creative ways to support their employees during tough times.

When the shelter in place first hit, Riezenman sewed masks at home for his entire team, and Cilurzo paid employees on supplemental payrolls when unemployment wasn’t kicking in. She said some of their employees hadn’t received one dime of unemployment for over three months.

“We paid everyone’s health care 100 percent the entire time they were furloughed,” Cilurzo said. “We did our best to take care of the team. Everyone has banned together to try to get through it.”

She said that employee layoffs have been the hardest part.

“It was heartbreaking for me to suddenly have to lay off so many people, including long-term employees,” Cilurzo said. “Before COVID-19 hit, we had 204 employees. Now, we are down to 35 full-time employees.”

Cilurzo said that almost all of the cuts were from hospitality and that the stress level and anxiety her remaining staff members experience has been one of their biggest challenges to manage.

“It has been intense trying to help people through such scary and uncertain times.”

One way Riezenman said the business community could help their employees and the broader community is to increase COVID-19 testing in Sonoma County.

“The more people we test, the better off we are,” Riezenman said. “There are a lot of people out there who haven’t been tested who don’t have COVID. Increasing our testing would make a big difference for our County’s numbers, which may help some businesses to reopen.”

Seppi agrees that more Sonoma County residents need to be COVID-19 tested and thinks that mobile testing sites could help make it more convenient.

“Business leaders could park testing trucks in the parking lots of their businesses,” Seppi said. “However, right now, people are concerned with paying rent or with how to get food on their table. Especially if they feel healthy, I doubt they have the time or energy to be worried about getting COVID-19 tested. So, we need to make getting tested much easier.”

Cilurzo also pointed to the high cost of living in Sonoma County as a major contributing factor to the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s so expensive to live here in Sonoma County, and often, multiple generations are living in each household, and many of our employees live with roommates or with family,” Cilurzo said. “I wonder if our expensive housing is one reason why our numbers are so high.”

Seppi echoed a similar sentiment.

“Our local housing issues represent an epic failure of government, in my opinion,” Seppi said. “We have made building so difficult, expensive, and regulated that we haven’t been able to build housing to house our population.”

Therefore, he thinks that COVID-19 is highlighting more than just the impact of the disease, but also other shortcomings of our community.

Riezenman said that many of Park Avenue Catering’s seasonal employees supplement their income to afford to live in Sonoma County.

“We have a lot of part-time, seasonal, and on-call workers that we were not able to bring back on this season,” Riezenman said. “In the middle of a busy summer, we have 250 people who work for us, and a lot of what we provide is additional income for people who need to try to survive in Sonoma county, which is a very expensive place to live. Teachers, college students, single parents, and people who are working a restaurant job work for us regularly. Typically, we provide a really important source of secondary income for people.”

Cilurzo expressed concern over the community spread of COVID-19 and recognized that few point to business as significant contributors to the virus’s spread.

“The only thing officials can regulate is the businesses, not the people. So, in my opinion, the government is using too much power and using a PR move to mitigate spread by locking down businesses,” Cilurzo said. “Now, eight months into this, we have the tools, information, and data to be able to run our businesses safely and at reduced capacity. We can do this.”

Her frustrations extend beyond the local level.

“Breweries, restaurants, cideries, and distilleries have a meal requirement and are not allowed to serve alcohol without food,” Cilurzo said. “Think of all those who only have tasting rooms, just like wineries, up and down the state who have to partner with food trucks, caterers, or work with a restaurant just to serve their product. Think about how costly and frustrating that is. Then the wineries, for whatever reason, don’t have that requirement even though both make alcohol and serve it to customers.”

She said she has made several unreturned phone calls to government officials about why there is a disparity between the beer industry and the wine industry.

In the meantime, Cilurzo said she has been working hard to prepare for the winter.

“We have been doing outdoor dining, and now we, along with every other restaurant in the world, are dealing with winter and trying to winterize the outdoor space with the cold and the rain.”

She said there has been a shortage of heaters, tents, patio furniture, and barriers. Businesses must also get fire permits for our outdoor heaters, hire a professional tent company, and acquire a permit for tent installations over 400 sq. ft.

“Then, you can’t have a heater within 5 ft. of the tent,” Cilurzo said. “Guests want heat and shelter. However, it turns out. They can’t have both.”

Riezenman plans to continue innovating his business to keep his core team employed through the winter.

“We will prepare meals for micro-events, under 12 people with outdoor dining, do some virtual events, and for the first time, we are doing holiday dinner pick up or deliver and holiday gift boxes,” Riezenman said. “We are filling the need where we can, but our volume is not up to the level that we normally do.”

Going forward, Seppi is cautiously optimistic. He plans to continue operating Costeaux French Bakery within the reality of the situation we find ourselves in; however, he is prepared to make additional business adjustments to navigate through the winter months ahead.

“We are hopeful that additional changes could come which relate to how businesses can operate in our community,” Seppi said. “However, the virus is taking people’s lives, and I don’t want to marginalize that and what impact it has.”

He hopes that through the work of the Sonoma County Business Re-Opening & Recovery Work Group, there can be a much broader component of business, community, mental health, and family considered as a measure of the overall health of our economy and community.

“Unfortunately, the business community hasn’t had a very active or vocal seat at the table during this COVID-19 decision making,” Seppi said. “Hopefully, through this collaborative effort, our voices can be heard.”


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