Oakland Venues Stork Club, Spirithaus Shutter Due to Pandemic

Oakland rock club and dive bar the Stork Club, a venue that’s been open in different forms for over 100 years, is temporarily closing due to the pandemic. Tom Chittock, manager and son of owner Juanita “Micki” Chittock, tells KQED that his family decided that it no longer made sense to pay $7,000 a month in rent and $3,000 in insurance with no reopening date in sight.

“I was trying and trying and trying and trying, the landlord isn’t talking to me,” says Chittock. “We would like to talk to him to see if we could get some rent forgiveness, and he hasn’t responded to any emails. I even walked over and hand delivered a letter.”

Chittock says that prior to the pandemic, the club had some financial struggles, but was mostly staying afloat with nightly punk shows. “We were hanging in there, we were having a little bit of trouble, but we were making it,” he says.

But now, concerts are off in California until the state reaches phase four of its reopening plan—which would require the wide availability of a vaccine or therapeutics. With that timeline uncertain, the Chittock family decided to cut its losses and move out of its colorful, mural-strewn downtown Oakland space, located at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 24th Street. Chittock says that Stork Club will one day reopen in another location, perhaps as a nonprofit, and that it’s fundraising for relocation with a GoFundMe campaign.

The Stork Club’s closure is the latest example of the pandemic’s alteration of Oakland’s cultural landscape. Spirithaus Gallery, a venue that centered black artists with Afrofuturist sensibilities, announced last week a move out of its West Oakland warehouse on Adeline Street. An Instagram post from the venue owners suggested plans to reopen in another form as well.

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“As you know, things are moving in ‘real time’ and the creativity of sustainability and survival is more relevant now than ever before in our modern era,” the post reads. “This, among many other factors, has influenced our decision to rethink, unplug and pivot to a more efficient means of creativity. We are looking forward to sharing what that looks like as it comes to fruition.”

—Nastia Voynovskaya (@nananastia)

Faster, Streamlined Access to Unemployment Benefits Is 2 Weeks Away, Newsom Says

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday reassured Californians that a faster, streamlined process to file for unemployment is on the way, acknowledging that the state's Employment Development Department's (EDD) out-of-date technology and infrastructure have contributed to a massive backlog of claims.

The EDD released a report on Saturday announcing it would dedicate the next two weeks to an agency-wide reset to make it easier for eligible Californians to apply for and receive unemployment benefits. The department will “pause” accepting new claims until Oct. 5.

Newsom said that significant delays in the processing of claims are not a problem unique to California, and outdated technology is in no small part responsible for the trouble. “As a nation, we have a huge IT problem,” he said.

The agency plans to launch a system called ID.me to automatically verify the identity of claimants as a way of making it easier for applicants to file new claims and to help the department mitigate fraud and more efficiently work through a backlog of some 1.6 million cases.

Meanwhile, Newsom said California’s COVID-19 numbers continue to drop. The current seven-day average positivity rate has fallen to 2.8%, even as the state continues to expand testing. The number of tests performed dropped significantly during the heat waves, smoke and fires earlier in September, but have since rebounded, he said.

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Newsom expects to see the number of tests increase as the state works towards building out a testing lab and reaching the goal of delivering test results in 24 to 48 hours. California has also seen a 23% average drop in in hospitalizations over the past 14 days and a 25% drop in ICU admissions.

— Nina Sparling (@nina_spar)

San Francisco May Resume Indoor Restaurant Dining by October

San Franciscans may be able to dine indoors at restaurants as soon as October.

That's a part of the city's new reopening plan announced Friday, but there's a catch.

The timeline relies on San Francisco being assigned an "orange" level by the state of California under its four-tier, color-coded system to assess each county's risk, San Francisco officials say, which could happen as early as the end of September.

The state's tiers start at the highest risk level, purple, then go to red, orange and yellow, with each specifying different types of businesses and activities allowed in a county.

San Francisco is now at a red tier, the second-highest risk level. Should the city (which is also a county) be downgraded to an orange tier, city officials said they would then allow restaurants to have indoor dining at 25% capacity, up to 100 people.

If San Francisco's pandemic-related metrics, like positive cases and hospitalizations, do not remain stable, restaurant-goers will be in for a longer wait.

“Restaurants have been hit hard by COVID-19. Many have adapted with takeout and outdoor dining, but they’ve still been barely hanging on and, sadly, some have closed for good,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “We are laying out the next steps to make sure restaurants are ready to reopen as safely as possible."

Restaurants across San Francisco have been hammered financially by the pandemic. In Chinatown, for instance, a recent survey showed nearly 60% of restaurant jobs there have been eliminated and less than a quarter of Chinatown restaurants say they can maintain their businesses, KQED previously reported.

Restaurants have turned to app-based delivery services to stay afloat, but have often complained publicly that the fees are too high to be sustainable. Likewise, while some restaurants have expanded their outdoor dining options, many have not.

— Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez (@FitztheReporter)

San Mateo County Rolls Out New 'Mask Mobile' to Deliver COVID-19 Supplies

San Mateo County on Thursday unveiled its new "Mask Mobile" (think Batmobile, but in the form of very colorful minivan) to pass out hand sanitizer, gloves and — you guessed it — masks to communities hardest hit by the coronavirus.

A project of the county’s Office of Community Affairs, the van will frequent certain neighborhoods in various cities throughout the county for the foreseeable future, distributing free hygiene supplies.

"This is an incredibly fun, exciting and educational way to promote the mandate that face masks must be worn in public," said county Supervisor David Canepa, who introduced the initiative. "It might look a bit like Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine but we're calling it the 'Mask Mobile.' "

He added, “It’s free, everything is free. This is one of the best investments that the county can make.”

Throughout the pandemic, the overwhelming number of reported COVID-19 cases in San Mateo County have been centered in Latino communities in the peninsula, with the virus particularly afflicting lower-income essential workers living in crowded conditions, according to county data. The Mask Mobile will primarily serve these communities, expanding on the county's ongoing efforts to deliver supplies to small businesses, service workers and community centers there, Canepa said.

“If we are going to beat this virus, we have to depend on people to be responsible,” he said. “But at the same time, the county is dedicated to providing resources to those people to make sure they have it.”

— Marco Siler-Gonzales (@mijo_marco)

Santa Clara County Orders Faster Timelines for COVID-19 Testing

Santa Clara County officials issued a public health order Wednesday requiring health care providers to increase the accessibility and speed of COVID-19 testing. The order, which goes into effect Sept. 25, states:

  • People with COVID-19 symptoms, those who report that they have been exposed, and anyone referred by the county’s Public Health Department must be given testing “at the time the patient presents for care.” For those requesting a test online or over the phone, an appointment must be given by the end of the next day.
  • All essential workers requesting a test, even if asymptomatic, must be provided with one within three days. However, health care providers can require that an essential worker wait 14 days between tests.
  • Test results must be provided within a maximum of three days.
  • Penalties for noncompliance range as high as $5,000 per incident.

“Testing is really foundational to our ability to prevent COVID,” said Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody during a press conference Wednesday.

The order also requires that health care providers better publicize the availability of testing and make the process “easy and straightforward.”

“We are grateful that the county has announced an order that is going to demolish the labyrinth that too many of our residents have found themselves in” when seeking testing, said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco described his experience seeking a COVID-19 test from Kaiser Permanente as “frustrating, discouraging” and “burdensome.” He called for increased testing “so that we can open up our businesses, open up our schools and open up our faith community.”

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Kaiser has made and continues to make "major investments in equipment, resources and people" to expand its testing capacity, said Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser Permanente San Jose, in a statement.

"We are committed to making testing timely and accessible for our members. We are following the direction of the California Department of Public Health and Department of Managed Health Care and are in compliance with state orders on testing in California," Chavez said.

A compliance and enforcement team including attorneys from the County Counsel's Office and the District Attorney's Office will investigate complaints of noncompliance, which can be reported online, said county counsel James Williams.

— Monica Lam (@monicazlam)

Some Bay Area Movie Theaters Are Reopening

Movie theaters are slowly reopening in some corners of the Bay Area, as some counties move into a less restrictive tier of California's COVID-19 business reopening plan.

In Napa County, the Century Napa Valley and XD opened its doors again on Sept. 11 after more than six months in the dark.

“We had some really avid moviegoers who were excited to be off the couch and back in the theater,” said Chanda Brashears, vice president of investor and public relations at Cinemark, which owns the Napa movie house and more than 25 others in the nine county Bay Area.

Further up the Napa Valley, the independently owned Cameo Cinema in St. Helena is preparing to open Friday. The single-screen theater will have, among other safety measures in place, limited seating and one show daily instead of the three it featured before the pandemic.

The Cameo and the 12-screen Century were permitted to open because Napa County — based on metrics measuring the spread of COVID-19 — moved into the red level, the third most restrictive of four color-coded tiers that govern which businesses can reopen and under what restrictions.

Movie theaters in those red-level counties are allowed to open but can only fill their auditoriums to 25% capacity, or 100 people, whichever is fewer.

Other health safety protocols that Cinemark has put into place include automatic distancing: Once tickets are purchased, two seats immediately to the left and right are blocked from sale, and unless the theater has reclining seats, tickets are sold only in every other row.

Additionally, face masks will be required for all moviegoers and employees, and auditoriums are sanitized after each show, among other safety measures.

In Marin County, which state health officials this week moved from purple, the most restrictive tier, to red, Cinemark plans to reopen its San Rafael Northgate 15 on Friday, said it would soon also reopen theaters in Larkspur, Novato and Mill Valley.

The six-screen Fairfax Theatre in Fairfax, owned by Petaluma-based Cinema West will also open Friday.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, though, San Francisco and Santa Clara, the only other regional counties to have moved from purple to red, are maintaining their own tighter restrictions and prohibiting movie theaters from opening.

— Jeremy Hay, Bay City News

Marin Expands Reopenings as It Moves to Less Restrictive Risk Category

State health officials announced Tuesday that Marin County had moved from the most restrictive, or purple, tier to the less-restrictive red category of California's color-coded reopening system, which assesses the level of COVID-19 risk in each county.

The state bases a county's reopening status on the number of new coronavirus cases and on its test positivity rate.

The upgrade will allow retail stores and other businesses now open to  operate with more customers, while indoor movie theaters, museums and gyms can restart with limited capacity. See Marin's reopening schedule here.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, and this gives us more choices as residents,” said Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis, in a statement. “But more freedom also brings more risk. Our challenge is to move forward without increasing transmission. We’re at a critical juncture.”

The state on Tuesday also moved Inyo and Tehama counties from purple to red.

— Peter Arcuni (@peterarcuni)

Gyms and Fitness Centers Sue California Over COVID-19 Closures

A group of California fitness centers have filed a lawsuit alleging Gov. Gavin Newsom's measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 unfairly target the industry and are demanding they be allowed to reopen.

The California Fitness Alliance, which represents nearly 300 businesses, filed the suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, said Scott Street, a lawyer for the group, on Tuesday.

The suit accuses state and Los Angeles County officials of requiring gyms to close without providing evidence that they contribute to virus outbreaks and at a time when staying healthy is critical to California's residents. The prolonged closure is depriving millions of people of the ability to exercise as temperatures soar and smoky air from wildfires blankets much of the state, said Francesca Schuler, a founding partner of the alliance.

“We are not looking for a fight,” said Schuler, who is chief executive of In-Shape Health Clubs. “We are committed to being as safe as possible. We are in the health business. That’s what we care about more than anything.”

The alliance also questioned why fitness centers are facing more restrictive measures than restaurants, when gym equipment can be spaced out and patrons required to wear masks.

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A message seeking comment was sent to the California Department of Public Health.

The suit is one of many filed by California sectors walloped by closures due to the pandemic.

Under state rules, fitness centers can reopen indoors at 10% of capacity when a county's COVID-19 infections drop from “widespread” to “substantial,” as determined by state health officials. In counties with “minimal” infections, gyms can reopen indoors at 50% capacity.

As of Tuesday, 30 of the state’s 58 counties still had “widespread” infection levels, which require schools to only offer distance learning and most businesses to limit indoor operations.

— Associated Press