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As colder weather approaches, patio heaters are selling fast amid coronavirus pandemic

Matt Coddington, of the Sonoma Valley, recently called six local hardware stores in search of outdoor patio heaters to set up in his backyard. But no luck.

A Home Depot in Woodland near Sacramento still had the gas-powered lamps in stock. So Coddington made the hourlong drive to snag a few of what is the latest item to become nearly impossible to procure amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Luckily, I was able to find some,” Coddington said. “I actually got two, and one for friend.”

With colder weather approaching, local residents and businesses are scrambling to buy the last of a dwindling supply of patio heaters. Restaurants and tasting rooms want them since they’re still prohibited from serving guests inside, where the virus is more likely to spread. Residents are seeking them for socially distanced outdoor gatherings as they head into the holidays. And Sonoma County hardware stores and retailers are struggling to keep up with the surging demand.

“The cooldown in the weather just happened, and everybody said, ’Oh no, we need heaters,’ ” said Stuart Sager, owner of Outdora, an outdoor heating and grill dealer in Sonoma.

Sager estimated Outdora’s sales of patio heaters have soared about 400%. He recently sold out of the heat lamps he carries, so he’s decided to sell the last of his 30 rental heaters at a discount.

Local hardware stores and retail chains, meanwhile, are almost entirely out of outdoor heaters and are unsure when they’ll receive a new shipment. Recent calls to local Costco warehouses and Friedman’s Home Improvement and Home Depot hardware stores located just one available patio heater ― at the Home Depot in Santa Rosa.

Supply appears somewhat better online. Still, recent searches on Walmart’s website and Amazon.com revealed many heater models ― ranging in price from about $200 to almost $2,000 for high-end commercial lamps ― were running low or not available for order.

Dan Allingham, co-owner of Sebastopol Hardware, said he, too, is struggling to keep the outdoor heaters in stock. “People are just wanting them whenever they can get it,” he said. “They see it and they grab it.”

Eleanor Butchart, owner of grill and heater retailer On Fire Santa Rosa, said that in addition to heat lamps, she’s struggling to place orders for items including gas fire tables, patio fire pits and ceiling mounted electric heaters.

Butchart said COVID-related slowdowns in shipping from China ― where most low- and mid-priced heaters are made ― as well as production challenges for U.S. manufacturers during the pandemic, are contributing to the outdoor heater shortage.

“Across the board, with fire pits and other products, there is an interruption in the supply chain,” she said.

Coddington in the Sonoma Valley bought his heat lamps to create a safe outdoor space for his 17-year-old daughter and her friends to hang out this winter during their senior year of high school stuck at home.

“It’s to bring a little bit of normalcy, because they’re struggling,” he said.

For local restaurants, the struggle they’ve endured during the pandemic only stands to intensify in the colder months ahead. They must continue operating entirely outdoors as long as the county remains stuck in the most restrictive tier of the state’s four-stage reopening plan while struggling to tamp down the spread of the virus.

Manuel Azevedo, an owner of eateries LaSalette and Tasca Tasca near the Sonoma Plaza, initially had hoped to reopen inside permanently by this summer. But when it became clear he wouldn’t be back to business as usual any time soon, Azevedo in September started looking online for patio heaters for his expanded outdoor dining areas.

“I found out, as many people are finding out, that I was late to the game,” he said.

Azevedo was eventually able to find two noncommercial heaters for his patio at LaSalette for about $500 a piece. He said he’s working with Sager, the owner of Outdora, which is located next door to Tasca Tasca, to come to a deal to loan him a few additional lamps to set up in a planned parklet outside that restaurant.

Azevedo wasn’t excited to be investing in heaters that he may only use for three or four months. But his biggest expense this winter could be buying a large tent to shield LaSalette diners from the elements. If he decides to go through with the purchase, it would run him about $20,000 at a time when business tends to slow even in normal years, he said.

“If it allows us to stay open and keep our staff with somewhat of a cash flow so they can pay their bills … then it’s a worthwhile decision,” Azevedo said.

Sager, the owner of Outdora, recently placed an order for 50 heaters, which he said could arrive by December or January. As the temperature drops, he expects to continue receiving inquiries from restaurants, wineries and hotels, as well as local residents.

“Everybody’s living outside,” Sager said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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