Thursday, January 13, 2022

Update: Sonoma County spokesperson confirms that San Francisco Chronicle wine competition appears to be in violation of health order

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, ongoing in Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County, is indeed in violation of Sonoma County's health order this week banning large gatherings.

But nothing is going to happen about it unless a Sonoma County resident complains. And even then ... nothing is going to happen.

This is an update of my blog post yesterday. Sonoma County Communications Manager Paul Gullixson finally called me Thursday afternoon. To say that Gullixson immediately confirmed that the competition, run by Winejudging.com, is breaking the law would be an overstatement. Gullixson said several times, "We don't know the specifics of how this is being held." He only knew what I told him and read him out loud from Winejudging.com's website.

But Gullixson did know the details of the health order, which he stated to me several times. The key is this:

"Large gatherings, as defined below, are prohibited.  To the extent a large gathering has been planned to occur during the period of this Order, it shall be postponed or canceled."

Gullixson said that neither Winejudging nor the Chronicle (which is just a naming sponsor) contacted the county about an exemption. 

"They have not reached out to us in an attempt to see if they need an accommodation or guidance, or how to hold this," Gullixson said. "It sounds like it would fall under special events, which would be like weddings. Then it would be (limited to) no more than 50 people." 

Gullixson said he wasn't sure if the competition would try to claim the exemption for restaurants, but if it is an event and not a restaurant, then there is no exemption.

I read a long section of Winejudging's statement to Gullixson: "This endeavor is a structured and highly controlled private assessment of agricultural products. The public is not allowed at the facility (i.e; not a restaurant) and the judges, staff and volunteers, are held to strict COVID mitigation protocols including symptom checks upon arrival before entering the building, temperature checks, the use of PPE, and frequent hand sanitizing."

But Gullixson said the order is about the number of attendees, not mitigation protocols. There is no mention on the WineJudging site of the number of people at the event, but as I reported yesterday, there are photos of 51 judges, and wine competitions have more volunteers than judges, often two or three times more. 51 judges PLUS 51 times X volunteers > 50.

"If they did move this outside or put it in a canopy, that would be a different situation," Gullixson said.

The judges and volunteers at the event shouldn't worry because at this point, there's not enough time for the county to act.

"We do have an ordinance in this case. The health order calls for the potential for penalties," Gullixson said. "Our compliance team would investigate. We would ask them to address whatever non-compliance is occurring. If there's repeated non-compliance, there would be a fine invoked. We are not eager to go out and police this at every occasion. That is not what we want to do. We have responded on a complaint basis."

Gullixson said he's happy that most Sonoma County residents and businesses have complied with previous health orders.

"Most often when there is a violation of a health order, when we have visited the venue and addressed it with the owner, in most cases they have adjusted to fall in line with the health order and that has been the end of it," he said.

Friday Jan. 14 is the scheduled end of the competition, so whether or not it's a superspreader event, the issue ends then.

A number of people have asked why I'm covering this. Good question! In fact, I should be writing a feature story -- nice people making nice wine -- that is due early next week that I will get paid for. Blogging is pro bono work and it's taking me away from my real job.

Here's why I'm doing it. 1. I know it's happening. 2. I know it's wrong. 3. Nobody else is covering it.

One of the reasons I got into journalism was to speak truth to power. It bothers me to see organizations break the law with impunity. I think the role of the media is to say something about it.

I have prodded the San Francisco Chronicle a number of times over the last day to ask why they aren't covering their sponsored event flouting a law. Believe me, I'd rather read about it in The Chronicle than have to write it up myself. They would do a better job!

I don't understand why The Chronicle runs stories like this about health order violations, but not about this one. A health-order violation helped lead to a gubernatorial recall election. Our priorities must be different: I'm not bothered by individuals, even politicians, going maskless at a private party; the potential for spreading Covid-19 is limited to the attendees, and the number at Newsom's party was small. If you want to risk getting Covid-19 at a small gathering, that's your choice.

But a large organization -- one sponsored by The Chronicle itself! -- openly flouting the law with a large event during a Covid-19 surge that led to a specific health order gets my journalistic-responsibility sense tingling.

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, wine competitions are less safe than other large gatherings. People don't wear masks and they spit all day. It's a recipe for a superspreader event.

Yet I can raise no objection to the competition happening Monday and Tuesday, before the health order was in place. I wouldn't want to be there myself while the pandemic is ongoing, but my objection is not that the competition is happening.

My objection is that it is openly breaking the law.

That's what reporters are supposed to report on. Where are you, San Francisco Chronicle?


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