San Diego County enters governor’s COVID-19 penalty box for three weeks

A group of kids rides on a virtual reality machine
Siblings Gage, Rayne and Reece Roberts, from Kalispell, Mont., take a ride on a virtual reality machine alongside their cousin, Savannah Barron, who they were visiting, at the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park on July 6, 2020 in San Diego, California. The museum reopened to the public last Friday, but will have to cease its indoor activities effective Tuesday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

With per-capita infection rates above threshold for seven straight days, state rules require businesses to move all activities outdoors


With per-capita infection rates above state thresholds for seven straight days, public health officials confirmed Monday, July 6, that a fresh set of sure-to-be-unpopular restrictions will start Tuesday, July 7.

As has occurred in other counties across the state that have ended up on the governor’s monitoring list, some businesses not considered essential must cease indoor activities for the next three weeks, shutting down or moving their operations outside where, statistics show, the coronavirus is less likely to be transmitted.

Starting at midnight, local restaurants, family entertainment locations such as bowling alleys and batting cages, wineries, movie theaters, zoos and museums must cease all indoor activities, according to the governor’s order which was announced last week.

Grocery stores, medical offices and other businesses deemed essential when the first stay-at-home orders appeared in March will be able to continue serving customers, patients and clients indoors. And some enterprises that were initially deemed “nonessential” will be able to continue operating. Salons, whether they do hair, nails or both, will stay open for indoor business as will retail establishments and gyms.

Asked how it is that some businesses that were previously on the nonessential list are being ordered to move all business outdoors or close while others are being allowed to remain open, Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, said that 76 percent of all community outbreaks detected so far have been in restaurants with bars.

She said that, so far, outbreaks have not been traced to personal care businesses, adding that adoption of protections for workers and patrons have been well adopted.

“We are following the evidence and the science,” Wooten said.

Some of the region’s largest entertainment venues were quick to signal Monday, July 6, whether they will be affected by the latest set of state orders.

A mostly-outdoor enterprise, the San Diego Zoo and its Safari Park in Escondido announced that they will remain open with mandatory masking and other measures designed to keep the virus from spreading.

“We continue to monitor the ongoing changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are following the recommendations provided by our state and local health authorities,” the zoo said in a statement.

Legoland in Carlsbad said Monday, July 6, that, beginning Tuesday, July 7, it will close its Sea Life aquarium due to the state order.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made his outside order on Wednesday, July 1, directing the 19 counties on the state’s COVID monitoring list to immediately require closure of indoor operations for the list of indicated businesses. Since then, the list has grown to 23 by Monday, July 6.

There are six ways to end up on the list, and the one that San Diego County triggered involves having more than 100 confirmed COVID cases per 100,000 residents for several days in a row.

Counties end up on the list if they exceeded the 100-per-100,000 threshold for three straight days as measured by a 14-day rolling average. If they remain on the list for three consecutive days, as San Diego County has, then they are required to implement the indoor restrictions.

An attendant watches "Turtle Odyssey" inside a theater
An attendant watches “Turtle Odyssey” inside The Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park on July 6, 2020 in San Diego, California. The museum re-opened to the public last Friday, but will have to cease its indoor activities effective Tuesday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

According to the county, there were nearly 103 cases per 100,000 San Diego County residents on June 30, and that number has continued to increase with each passing day, hitting 136 per 100,000 as of July 6.

Wooten confirmed during a news conference Monday, July 6, that there is no escaping the restrictions once they’re triggered, even if per-capita COVID rates drop back below the 100-per-100,000 threshold.

“We are obligated now for a three-week restrictive measure,” Wooten said.

It is a particularly painful development for local businesses and especially restaurants, which have spent the past month fighting their way back with significantly diminished seating capacities due to public health requirements for at least 6 feet of physical distance between tables.

Jeff Rossman, chef and owner of Terra American Bistro in La Mesa and the president of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, said the health order was expected.

“We are in this situation where we have got to do this, unfortunately,” he said. “They’re trying to work on health and safety, which is what the California Restaurant Association and me personally have been promoting since day one.”

Still, the latest indoor dining restrictions are going to be tough for some establishments that only recently reopened.

“The first time around, it took $15,000, $20,000 in inventory, bringing all your food product back, doing a lot of prep work and having a lot of labor to reopen,” he said. “Then to close again, what are these restaurants going to do now? It’s just devastating.”

Rossman is converting a portion of his parking lot into a patio to offer outdoor dining. But he’ll only be able to seat 18 to 20 people. Pre-COVID-19, he could seat up to 80 patrons.

While the county will review the restrictions in three weeks, Rossman doesn’t expect the return of indoor dining anytime soon. He started a wine club and subscription meal service, as well as expanding curbside family meal packages, to brace for the long haul.

“I have a feeling it is going to be like this for a little bit,” he said. “Just look at what’s going on in other countries and what’s going on in the U.S. I don’t think three weeks is going to do it.”

Aiming to help restaurants in the wake of Monday’s state order forcing them to cease allowing indoor dining, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is issuing an executive order waiving permits for dining on sidewalks and in parking lots.

The move was characterized as a “stopgap” measure in anticipation of the City Council approving later this month an ordinance waiving those permit requirements.

“The City is finalizing a new ordinance for Council approval that will cut fees and streamline permits to make it easier for businesses to operate outdoors,” said Mayor Faulconer. “Given that the state’s new shutdown order has an immediate impact on local businesses, on Tuesday I’ll be signing an emergency Executive Order that will waive regulatory requirements and help restaurants expand their service outdoors, increasing physical distance between employees and customers.”

The executive order will allow many restaurants to increase the amount of space where they can host diners, which may offset the lost dining areas they face as a result of the new state order prohibiting indoor dining.

Restaurants can start allowing dining on sidewalks and in their parking lots without seeking or receiving permits from the city.

The one major caveat remains San Diego County’s tribal casinos. The public health officer confirmed Monday that, because they are legally considered sovereign nations, the outdoor requirements will not affect casinos on local reservations despite the fact that most contain restaurants and serve alcoholic beverages.

Overall, it is clear that while coronavirus activity in the community has clearly picked up in recent weeks, it has not yet caused the kind of broad-based crisis under way in states such as Arizona, Texas and Florida. In those states, which reopened more quickly than California did, reports have surfaced that some hospitals are so impacted by the number of new COVID-19 patients that they are becoming overwhelmed.

While some local medical centers, especially those situated in the southern parts of the county, have recently reported increased hospitalization rates, the latest numbers show that, collectively at least, COVID-19 admissions have not yet spiked in the same way that the total number of new cases have.

Daily COVID-19 hospital census, defined as the total number of patients with the disease in hospital beds on a single day, has bounced around the 450 mark for about a week. While that is roughly 100 more than tended to be the case just two weeks ago, it still represents only a little over 10 percent of total hospital census across the region, according to county tracking data.

On Sunday, July 5, according to county records, 441 were hospitalized with COVID-19 while 3,811 were in hospital beds for other reasons. The situation has not yet come close to hitting the region’s total bed capacity of 6,127.

Public health officials have said regularly over the past week, as the sheer number of positive tests being reported to the county has increased, that hospitalizations and deaths tend to arrive days or weeks after a person tests positive. Often, people who are infected will stay home with worsening symptoms until they suddenly have difficulty breathing and are rushed to an emergency room for urgent help.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Monday, July 6, that the state’s clampdown and the county’s decision to go along with new restrictions are meant to reduce the virus’s spread in the community to keep any possible spike in hospital admissions at bay.

“If you wait until the hospitals are overwhelmed, it is too late,” Fletcher said.

Because there may be a day, perhaps as long as a week or 10 days, between when a person gives a sample for a COVID-19 test and when results are shared with the county health department, the number of positive and negative tests reported to the public every day can be misleading.

The county has, however, been reporting a more reliable metric for months now. The 14-day rolling average of positive tests is thought to be a more accurate representation of overall activity, and that number has recently been climbing. On June 19, the 14-day positive test rate was just under 3 percent, but it climbed to 5.6 percent this weekend before falling back to 5.4 percent in Monday’s report.

The county reported Monday that it was notified of 274 additional positive tests Sunday, bringing the outbreak total to 17,000. No additional COVID-19-related deaths were reported, the total remaining at 387.

--Paul Sisson and Mike Freeman are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune

--- Jonathan Wosen and Lori Weisberg contributed to this report.