Indoor rules are changing in San Diego County. Restaurants, gyms, salons and more affected

Rez Guzman
Rez Guzman, chef at Little Frenchie, and Humberto Medina work in the kitchen.
(Kristian Carreon / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

State unveils new color-coded, four-tier system to measure counties’ progress; effective starting Monday


After more than a month getting by as best they could outdoors, businesses and other organizations received a much broader-than-expected set of reopening guidelines from the state Friday, Aug. 28.

Though the word at the start of the week was that California would move an industry at a time as it gradually relaxed outdoor orders put in place on July 13, what appeared on the state’s website had a much deeper reach.

Accompanied by a new tiered system for grouping counties by the amount of coronavirus spread they are experiencing, the rules affect restaurants, gyms, salons and barbershops, movie theaters, malls and places of worship, allowing many to move back indoors either partially or totally.

Bars, breweries and distilleries that do not serve meals would remain closed unless counties make it to tier 3.

San Diego is one of eight counties in the state, and the only one in Southern California, starting on Tier 2, a level color-coded red to indicate that viral activity in the region remains “substantial.” That’s one step better than Tier 1, currently the category occupied by 38 California counties where SARS-CoV-2 is still considered “widespread,” but two steps worse than orange and yellow levels that respectively signify “moderate” and “minimal” activity levels.

The number of cases per 100,000 residents, and the percentage of tests coming back positive control when San Diego moves up a notch. To do so, the daily local case rate would need to fall from 5.8 to 3.9 and remain at that level or lower for 14 straight days. Its case rate, as calculated with a state-mandated seven-day lag, was 3.8 percent, a number that is already in the moderate tier range. Both numbers, though, have to be in the zone to bump up a tier.

It is also possible, state officials warned, to backslide. Counties that fail to meet the requirements of their current tiers for 14 days get dropped down a level.

While the changes, which take effect Monday, were met with excitement from the public, Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, has the final word. While she does not have the power to lessen the new state requirements, she could make them more restrictive.

Asked during a news conference Friday whether she intends to take such a step, Wooten punted.

“We will be looking at if there is the need to be more restrictive,” Wooten said. “I just can’t tell you what that will be today and right now.”

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher wasted no time in making his wishes known, releasing a statement that said he is uncomfortable with the broad size and scope of the state’s plans.

“What we are doing is very similar to what we did in June with a large segment of indoor operations all opening at the same time,” Fletcher said. “This led to a large increase in cases and required new restrictions.”

Jim Desmond, often Fletcher’s foil on the county board, has a diametric perspective, noting in his own statement that some businesses are allowed to open to full capacity, provided that social distancing mandates are maintained, while others have much smaller allowed capacities.

Desmond likened the situation to “choosing winners and losers.”

Businesses and other organizations that want to move forward under the new guidelines must make sure their safe-reopening statements are modified to reflect new requirements.

County officials said Friday that retail locations will need to hold to a limit of not more than 50 percent of their maximum occupancy rates. Though that requirement does appear in state reopening guidance issued on July 29, many local retailers have not been limiting access in recent weeks as they did when stay-at-home orders were first made in the spring.

Salons and barbershops reopening at full capacity

Barber Ivan Plascencia
Barber Ivan Plascencia gives a haircut to Joseph Calderon on the sidewalk outside Barbers Den on Third Avenue in Chula Vista in July.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Salons, barbershops and other personal services such as nail and massage don’t have a limit to capacity but must still follow the industry rules set forth by the state earlier this summer (masks, distancing, temperature checks, etc.).

Gayle Fulbright of Encinitas, who owns Headlines The Salon, said she rewound Newsom’s announcement and then recorded his answer to a reporter’s question clarifying that salons could open at 100 percent capacity. She couldn’t believe it.

“The word is elated,” Fulbright said when asked how she was feeling about the news. “The more people we can get in, the more my employees can get back to financial health.”

Since the pandemic shutdowns began, Headlines The Salon has only been allowed open for 43 days over the past 5.5 months. She never reopened the salon for outdoor-only operations, as she decided it was both unsafe and financially a wash. Haircuts don’t pay the bills, and color and highlights take too long outside in the heat to be safe.

“All 35 of my workers voted, and they said, ‘no thank you,’” Fulbright said.

Fulbright traveled up to Sacramento earlier this month to protest on the steps of the capitol along with over 400 salon owners. She believes “the noise” made by industry groups and salon professionals helped educate policymakers on the safety protocols inherent in their industry.

Restaurants reopening at 25 percent capacity

Derek Harris, supervisor, and Trace Kopcha, line cook, cook food in the kitchen of Little Frenchie in Coronado.
Derek Harris, supervisor, and Trace Kopcha, line cook, cook food in the kitchen of Little Frenchie in Coronado.

(Kristian Carreon / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Restaurants must limit patrons to 100 people or 25 percent of the building’s capacity, whichever is fewer.

News of a return to indoor dining was heartening to longtime restaurateur David Spatafore, but the 25 percent capacity restriction still means financially tough times ahead, he said, especially with the end of the federal government’s paycheck protection aid.

“We’re certainly not making a profit,” said Spatafore, whose Blue Bridge Hospitality firm spans a dozen eateries, including the Liberty Public Market. “Our Paycheck Protection Program funds ran out four weeks ago, and up until that point, things were manageable. That was the difference between being here today and not being here.”

All but one of his venues have been able to pivot to outdoor dining, with overall capacities cut anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent, said Spatafore, whose restaurants are largely located in Coronado. The option of using sidewalk space for outdoor dining has been helpful and so too will a return to limited dining indoors — but only for so long, Spatafore said.

Little Frenchie owner David Spatafore inside his restaurant on Friday
Little Frenchie owner David Spatafore inside his restaurant on Friday
(Kristian Carreon / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Every little step forward is going to be worth it and it’s coming earlier than we thought, but it’s not going to cure things,” he said. “You’re dealing with 10 percent or less margins with restaurants, so how do you take away 50 or 75 percent of your capacity and make it? And that’s in addition to the fact we have a ton of increased costs, between the gloves, the disposables, paper menus. Our printing costing went up $3,000 in July, and at Stake (a Coronado steakhouse), we go through $75 in gloves a day.

Bill Lutzius, owner of Brooklyn Bar & Grill in City Heights, said he’s eager to restart indoor dining.

“For sure, we’d be doing that. Twenty-five percent is 25 percent,” he said. “It’s something. Right now, we’re just working on the patio, so our sales are way down.”

Lutzius said he needs to do about $1,000 a day in business to be profitable. Recently, he’s been pulling in about $400 a day serving customers on the rooftop patio Wednesday through Sunday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. He said he’d save more if he closed the business entirely. However, he wants to remain a destination so that customers don’t forget about his restaurant bar.“

The idea is keeping the business in the minds of people,” he said. “Half of these places are going to go out of business, so when we eventually (fully) reopen, things will be good.”

The California Restaurant Association, reacting to news that most restaurants in the state will still have to keep their dining rooms closed, predicted Friday that many more eateries will close without additional financial aid.

“Restaurants cannot sustain themselves or their employees when they operate with strict capacity limits, which means the state should long ago have crafted a comprehensive aid package to help these small businesses hibernate,” said Restaurant Association President Jot Condie in a statement. “This is what we had repeatedly urged the Newsom administration to do — make state help available to restaurants so that, once the pandemic is behind us, the families who own these businesses could go back, open the doors and turn the lights on again. Instead, they are closing for good, by the thousands.”

Gyms reopening at 10 percent capacity

Gym owner Rodrigo Iglesias
Gym owner Rodrigo Iglesias wipes down dumbbells at Balanced Fitness on Friday in downtown San Diego.
(Ariana Drehsler / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gyms, another hotly discussed business group that’s been closed longer than most, have stricter rules to follow than restaurants. The facilities must cap their indoor patrons at 10 percent of the building’s capacity. The state addressed why some industries have stricter rules than others in its new guidelines online.

“Activities and businesses that have a lower risk of spreading COVID-19 are allowed to open sooner,” the Q&A section reads. “Higher-risk activities or businesses aren’t allowed until later tiers.”

What makes a business high-risk? Allowing virus-spreading activities indoors, such as “singing, shouting and heavy breathing,” the state says, or allowing gathering without masks for long stretches of time, among several other red flag activities.

Rodrigo Iglesias, owner of Balanced Fitness and Health in downtown San Diego, said his gym has been shut down through most of the pandemic. Positioned in an urban neighborhood with no adjacent parking lots or outdoor space, he was unable to move operations outside.

Iglesias said the 10 percent cap doesn’t deflate him in the slightest. While larger fitness chains might suffer from this cap, small businesses like his are used to lower volumes.

“For us, this is amazing news,” Iglesias said. “We’re a boutique-style gym; we’re average Joes. Ten percent capacity is what we do anyways.”

A full list of allowed and disallowed activities for each county in the state is available at

— Paul Sisson, Brittany Meiling and Lori Weisberg are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune

— San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Joshua Emerson Smith contributed to this report.