Guerneville café defies mask mandate with $1 private memberships

By Brandon McCapes, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, August 18, 2021

country coffee

The owner of Country Coffee in Guerneville thinks the mask mandate puts too great a strain on local businesses. (Photo Camille Escovedo)

A Guerneville coffee shop owner caused an uproar in the community after instituting an annual membership program she contends allows her customers to bypass the reinstitution of the indoor mask mandate designated by an Aug. 2 Sonoma County health order.

Keisha Jean, owner and operator of Country Coffee Organic Espresso & Tea on Third Street in Guerneville, said her opposition to the mask mandate stems from the undue burden she believes it places on shopkeepers like herself, who could be punished for not enforcing the health order.

In response to resurgent COVID-19 infections caused primarily by the more infectious Delta variant, Sonoma County joined six other Bay Area counties in reinstituting the indoor mask requirement Aug. 3. Sonoma County residents are required by the health order to wear masks in all indoor public spaces — including businesses. In restaurants and cafés like Country Coffee this means customers must wear a mask when they enter and any time they are not seated.

Because of the small size of Country Coffee, Jean said the mask mandate didn’t make sense for her business, especially because she keeps all windows and doors open to ventilate and installed UV air filters effective in reducing aerosolized coronavirus. She also said the vast majority of customers choose to utilize her outdoor patio, where they can order from a window, so the number of people who could be indoors without a mask, should they choose not to wear one, is actually quite small.

She contends that she shouldn’t be coerced under threat of fines or imprisonment into forcing her customers to wear masks for what she said were short walks from the door to the counter and then table or from their table to the bathroom.

“It was the threat of fine or imprisonment for letting someone walk through the front door without a mask,” Jean said. “The punishment doesn’t seem warranted given that they can then be inside without a mask on (when sitting down).”

Jean used to live in North Carolina, where she recalled people had to purchase $1 memberships to get around restrictions on alcohol sale and consumption in dry counties, so she decided to try something similar here. She now calls her customers her “member base,” and anyone wanting coffee, tea or pastries must first purchase a $1 lifetime membership and sign their name in a ledger.

Jean doesn’t deny that COVID-19 is real and poses a threat to public health, and she complied entirely with the initial lockdown orders in March 2020, only months after opening her business. Still, she said the order doesn’t make sense for her business, and she felt she had to take a stand.

“Businesses have struggled throughout all of this, and to make an order that is not concise and threatens business owners is not fair,” Jean said. “It doesn’t make much sense any more. I shouldn’t feel threatened or bullied by the county to come to work.”

After announcing the membership on Country Coffee’s Facebook page, Jean said it caused a stir in Guerneville. Although she said that 99.9% of her member base responded favorably, she said she was subject to vitriol online by people she said were looking for someone to blame over Guerneville’s recent COVID-19 outbreak. She said she has also received positive remarks on social media from people around the country who oppose stringent COVID-19 restrictions.

Guerneville currently has 68 confirmed active COVID-19 cases, or 3% of total active cases in Sonoma County. That’s a high percentage given that with a population of just over 5,000, Guerneville makes up approximately only 1% of Sonoma County’s population.

Guerneville began experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak — even among its vaccinated residents — in late July, just prior to the Lazy Bear Week event that brought in about 1,500 participants, many from out of town and county. According to numbers posted on the SoCoEmergency website Aug. 16, Guerneville has the highest number of cases per 100,000 residents in Sonoma County, with Monte Rio a close second. Their cases rates per 100,000 residents are 1148.8 and 1145.9 respectively, with Sebastopol at 321.8 and Forestville at 548.7, for comparison.

In response to complaints made by locals, Jean said the county had been out twice — first on Aug. 11 for an informational visit during which they provided her with a copy of the health order, and again Aug. 13. Both times, she said in a Facebook post, she was found to be in compliance with the health order.

According to Matt Brown, communications specialist at Sonoma County, private memberships do not exempt businesses from the indoor mask mandate per the health order.

“The mask mandate applies to all businesses regardless of if they are open to the general public or restrict access to members only,” Brown said in an Aug. 10 email to SoCoNews. He also said that, as of last week, Code Enforcement was planning visits to Country Coffee to provide Jean with information regarding the health order.

No action has been taken by the county at this time, and Jean has no plans to step down, despite what she called misplaced blame some Guerneville locals are placing on her over the recent outbreak.

“That’s what’s been the hardest,” Jean said. “I’m okay with people feeling differently, I’m okay with people not coming in — I’m okay with everyone’s choice. The way we are mean to people — just outright mean and villainous — is sad. It’s been a sad point.”

Jean currently has no plans to end the membership or enforce indoor masking at her business.


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