As coronavirus raged, Sonoma County did little to enforce rules on weddings with as many as 100 people

“This pandemic, just as the wildfire evacuations and recovery, has made clear just how deeply wealth disparities are tied to health disparities here in our county,” said Jennifer Nicole Herman………………“This is the story of a Wine Country wedding industry disregarding the safety and survival of the workers that enable it to thrive.”

SF Chronicle: As coronavirus raged, Sonoma County did little to enforce rules on weddings with as many as 100 people

Disregard for Sonoma County workers is a pattern. Note ag department approved grape picking during horrific air quality warnings and raging coronavirus.

Even as Sonoma County has had the distinction of ranking worst among Bay Area counties for the prevalence of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic, officials there have taken no enforcement action on complaints about at least 15 large wedding gatherings. The county has heard of about two dozen weddings that didn’t meet COVID-19 restrictions, one with as many as 100 attendees; enforcement in some cases fell to other jurisdictions.

No citations or fines were issued to any of the gatherings violating state and county event restrictions, according to the permit department that’s charged with enforcement, saying it wasn’t necessary because they were “one-time events” that would be difficult to enforce after the fact.

Not included among those complaints were at least four other summer weddings hosted and catered by one of Sonoma’s biggest hospitality companies, Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group, where attendance ranged from 22 to 46 guests, according to internal documents, social media posts and interviews with former employees. SBHG denied that the events broke the rules.

When The Chronicle approached the county with documentation of these receptions in November, a spokesperson with the permit department said officials would not be investigating them. On Monday, another spokesperson said they may reconsider, though their enforcement resources are limited.

“If we know of a specific business that’s hosting weddings and catering them in defiance of the health order, we would be interested in investigating,” said Paul Gullixson, communications manager for the county.

To date, the county has had over 16,700 COVID-19 cases and 174 deaths.

Weddings are a crucial part of Sonoma County’s $2 billion tourism industry, and for SBHG owners Ken and Stacy Mattson, who own many area businesses that are popular with tourists and bridal parties. Since June, weddings with more than 12 people have been banned in the county because they can bring dozens of people from outside the area for a weekend of potential exposure to the community. Wedding ceremonies must be held outdoors, and wedding receptions are not allowed anywhere in California.

Sonoma is not alone in its lack of enforcement. San Francisco and Oakland have both been hesitant to issue fines even after churches and event spaces repeatedly hosted large indoor gatherings. A spokesperson for Sonoma County said they have not found local weddings to be superspreader events. But health experts say that when such rules aren’t followed, the employees working the events, and those in other parts of the hospitality industry such as hotel workers, often bear the brunt of risk.

“This pandemic, just as the wildfire evacuations and recovery, has made clear just how deeply wealth disparities are tied to health disparities here in our county,” said Jennifer Nicole Herman, a Guerneville nurse practitioner who is part of a local advocacy group called Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment. “This is the story of a Wine Country wedding industry disregarding the safety and survival of the workers that enable it to thrive.”

Former employees of SBHG told The Chronicle they felt unsafe having to work at weddings that didn’t follow COVID-19 safety rules, yet they didn’t feel like they could complain because jobs in the food service industry are so scarce.

“It was definitely scary. We didn’t have any real end of the tunnel for COVID, we still kinda don’t,” said Danny Girolomo, who worked as the main chef at three of the weddings that SBHG hosted and catered this summer. “It was very, very frustrating knowing the severity of COVID and the long-term effects we don’t know yet.”

SBHG catered and hosted the weddings at two of the 10 businesses it owns in the town of Sonoma: Ramekins, an inn, culinary school and catering company, and Cornerstone Gardens, an event space. Documents for the events show plans for a wedding in July that would host 46 people; in August, two weddings were planned for 35 guests each. Staffers who spoke with The Chronicle confirmed that there were more than 12 people at the events. There were also documents showing plans for another wedding in September for 22 people.

SBHG’s owners did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment about specific allegations. When asked if the company had held wedding ceremonies that were larger than what was allowed by the county, a spokesperson denied that the company violated COVID restrictions.

“Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group have held ceremonies (no receptions) outside, with a two hour max — fully compliant with social distancing measures under current and legal COVID guidelines including that all guests and staff have gotten their temperatures checked (of which SBHG keeps a log). There have been no complaints lodged internally by employees.”

“It’s been the one bright spot throughout COVID to be able to facilitate a few small ceremonies as a consolation for the dozens of distraught couples who were forced to change their plans in light of the virus,” the statement continued.

Yet documents describing the SBHG weddings, including banquet orders given to staff by management and accounts from staffers who spoke to The Chronicle, suggest that they were larger than allowed, that food and drink were served and that guests were given the option of not wearing facemasks, though staff were required to. A video from the Aug. 8 wedding posted on Instagram also shows a mostly unmasked gathering, with guests drinking sparkling wine in a circle around the dancing bridal couple, the five bridesmaids and five groomsmen huddling together with the wedding couple for photos, and the couple kissing in front of the Ramekins sign. In one shot, at least 23 guests are visible.

The wedding couples could not be reached for comment.

Hannah Hedley, a former employee of Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group, said she believed the company didn’t take staff safety seriously.

Photo: Nina Riggio / Special to The Chronicle

Girolomo, former pastry chef Hannah Hedley, and another former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said they voiced concerns to the company about unsafe work conditions during the pandemic. Yet it was difficult to leave because of limited job opportunities elsewhere in food service, they said.

“I always felt like money was more important than safety and rules,” said Hedley, 33, who was pastry chef at Ramekins from June 2018 until her resignation in August 2020. Her daughter has asthma, which made working there more stressful for her, she said. “It always felt to me like the concerns of the staff fell on deaf ears.”

Sonoma County has not received complaints about events held at Cornerstone or Ramekins, said Daniel Virkstis, public information officer for the county. But the complaints about weddings and/or wedding receptions that the county has received from the public via a hotline it set up in August, also involved more than 12 people and as many as 100, he said.

“All gatherings of more than 12 people from more than three households are still considered to present serious implications for public health as it relates to the spread of the virus,” Virkstis said in an email. “We have confirmed through contact tracing that large gatherings are contributing to our case numbers.”

In addition to the 15 complaints about events that took place in unincorporated parts of the county, there were also eight more complaints about events in the cities of Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Windsor, Healdsburg and Sonoma, which are in charge of their own enforcement. The county learned of plans for three weddings or receptions for which it issued warnings.

Virkstis said the county’s permit office has investigated all of the complaints about large weddings but has not issued fines because they were one-time events.

“Our practice has been to contact the event operators to educate them about requirements for weddings in accordance with state guidelines,” he said. “Repeat offenses would result in a citation.”

Other Bay Area counties have been similarly hesitant to issue citations.  San Francisco officials reprimanded the Archdiocese of San Francisco for violating coronavirus health orders three times for having a wedding and services take place inside SS Peter and Paul Church, but did not issue fines. In Oakland, the manager of an event space openly held large public events indoors for months, until an Alameda County judge  issued a restraining order last month.

The only time Sonoma County has issued a fine for illegal large gatherings during the pandemic was for a running race in Healdsburg on Halloween, including a half marathon, that involved about 100 participants. The organizer, Matt Dockstader, who had been warned in advance not to hold the event, was fined $6,140. Dockstader claimed it was not a race but a socially distanced “virtual run.”

Besides that, Virkstis said, “To date, we have not verified other large events that would justify a citation.”

Workers rights advocates say that the county hasn’t done enough to enforce rules — thus prioritizing the hospitality industry over the safety of essential workers during the pandemic,  when demand for weddings in Wine Country remained high.

“I wish I could say that these large events taking place with the county’s knowledge were a surprise to me, but they aren’t,” said Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice. “Workers being forced to be in dangerous workplace situations has been the story of the county since the shutdown began.”

But Gullixson said the public has a crucial role to play in fighting the pandemic by following the rules.

“The reality is there’s not enough COVID enforcement officers or police officers to regulate if everyone’s going to ignore the health order,” he said. “At some point we have a social compact — we’re going to follow the health orders or our health leaders, or we’re going to pay the price. As a state we’re paying the price.”

Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: