After nearly two months of operating under a strict stay-at-home order, San Diego County businesses were cheering the news Monday that they can at least partially reopen following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement he was lifting restrictions across California and returning to the state’s tiered, color-coded system for stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
With his latest action, San Diego is back in the purple tier, meaning that restaurants will be able to resume outdoor dining. Nail and hair salons and tattoo parlors, as well as zoos and aquariums, can reopen with modifications. Stores will be allowed to slightly increase their indoor capacity. In addition, hotels and other forms of lodging that had not been allowed to accept leisure guests will now be able to do so.
Hours after the announcement, San Diego Zoo Global said it would be reopening both the zoo and Safari Park, beginning Saturday. Reservations will be required. SeaWorld, which is currently offering a drive-through Sesame Street Parade of Lights through Feb. 28, said it would be releasing a reopening date “very soon.” Operating under rules for aquariums, it would still not be able to open any of its theme park rides.
While acknowledging “we’re not out of the woods yet,” Newsom said Monday, “We can lay claim to seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
The governor said that his decision to cancel the stay-at-home order comes from mathematical modeling that indicates, based on current trends in infection rates, that hospitalization and intensive care rates will continue to drop.
Projecting forward four weeks, Newsom said further decreases in the number of people becoming infected will inevitably cause drops in hospitalizations and intensive care burden.
“We are anticipating still more declines in hospitalizations and more declines in ICUs, and that’s why we’re lifting the stay-at-home order effective today,” Newsom said.
State modeling, he explained, projects that Southern California’s collective intensive care capacity will reach 33 percent by Feb. 21. When it entered the previous state of stay-at-home stasis, the threshold for shutting everything down was 15 percent.
The state’s move toward a somewhat less-restrictive stance comes with a big caveat: If infection rates again start to show sustained increases, yet another lockdown could be put in place. Several new variants of the novel coronavirus are perhaps the most likely cause of increased transmission.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of health and human services, indicated that 90 U.K. variant cases have now been confirmed in California with an additional 456 cases of a new “B1429″ variant that has recently popped up in the Bay Area. Virologists are still studying the new type though, Ghaly noted, it does appear that it may have increased ability to bind with human cells and thus spread more rapidly.
“The only thing that I can tell you about these numbers is they aren’t a true reflection of what’s out there,” Ghaly said. “My guess is it’s much higher than this.”
The original stay-at-home order was announced Dec. 3 by Newsom amid soaring infection rates that led to a corresponding surge in hospitalization and ICU rates. Restaurants, whipsawed by on-again, off-again business closures dating to the start of the pandemic last March, had been restricted to takeout and delivery, although some had chosen to defy the latest order and remained open to outdoor dining, even as they were issued cease-and-desist letters.
Upon learning of Monday’s news, many restaurant owners were scrambling to meet with their top-level staff to plot out how they would reopen. The popular Puesto restaurant group, which just a little over a week ago announced it was temporarily shutting down all its California locations and would furlough hundreds of workers, was rushing to reopen its La Jolla location by this weekend, with the newer Mission Valley location to follow shortly thereafter, said co-owner Eric Adler.
“We plan to open everything as soon as possible and bring people back on furlough, but first we have to reorder all the food, prepare everything, so at minimum it takes a week,” said Adler. “We’ll do as many as we can together. Hopefully, we never have to re-close, so that’s really good news.
“It is exciting to be open legally, but restaurants do need to be open for more than just outdoor. We lost so much money the past 10 months, which is really crazy because up until last February, our sales were up 20 percent, so it’s just been a nosedive.”
Restaurant owner Chad Cline, like many others in the hospitality business, had questioned the logic behind shutting down outdoor dining in the first place, believing that it was not a contributing factor to the quickening pace of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
“As arbitrary as it was shutting down, it seems arbitrary to reopen now,” said Cline as he was heading over to The Waterfront Bar & Grill, one of his several dining venues, to discuss plans for reopening outdoor service starting Tuesday. “In four weeks we expect the numbers to go down? That has so much spin on it. I’m happy, don’t get me wrong.
“I’ve already had a couple of texts with people who work with us and we will we be ramping up shifts. And then we’ll build a schedule based on that. I do expect Waterfront to be busy this weekend. I was losing $4,000 a week when everything was only takeout. With outdoor dining back, I should break even with a small amount of profit at The Waterfront.”
Upon hearing the news that the stay-at-home order had been lifted, Marc Kulch, owner of Salon on 30th, made preliminary calls to employees. He hopes to gradually start bringing back staff and reopen the hair salon by Friday.
Now a “seasoned professional” at shutting down and reopening — this is his third time since the pandemic began — Kulch’s top concern is how many of his employees will want to return.
“Each time it is harder to bring back the whole team and find replacements,” he said. “We had 24 employees the first time we closed in March. When we reopened in September, it was down to 18, and they all worked fewer hours.”
Also quick to act was Doug Constaniner, co-founder of Societe Brewing in Claremont Mesa. Monday morning, Constaniner was putting outdoor tables in the parking lot of his business. By 11 a.m., he was open for outdoor drinking and dining, with the help of his food preparation contractor, Fit Tacos.
“I don’t know how many months we could have gone with the stay-at-home orders,” he said. “I was just trying to plan for the worst. I was convinced and planned for this going through March.”
Newsom underscored a couple of times in his Monday news conference that while the lifting of the stay-at-home order will ease restrictions, it is by no means a return to pre-pandemic conditions.
“The stay-at-home order is not a light switch going back to the way things were a year-plus ago,” he said. ” We are still in these tiers, tiers we believe have served us well as it relates to modifying activity and behavior.”
In the meantime, there is significant momentum at the state level toward increasing the number of people receiving vaccinations. The governor noted that San Diego and Los Angeles counties are now using the state’s new “My Turn” electronic scheduling system, which is designed to make it easier for the public to sign up for and be notified when they meet criteria for vaccination. Just this week, San Diego is moving forward with making vaccines available to anyone age 65 and older using the system, which can be accessed at myturn.ca.gov.
Exceptionally windy weather Monday forced the closure of the UC San Diego Health vaccination site at Petco Park, which will remain shut down Tuesday as well in order to make repairs, the county said. Monday appointments have been rescheduled for Thursday, and Tuesday slots will be moved to Saturday.
Like Newsom, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher cautioned Monday that there is still a long ways to go before the pandemic eases and counties like San Diego can gradually leave the purple tier — the most restrictive — and move on to the red tier, which in the case of restaurants and gyms, for example, would allow them to resume indoor service but with significant capacity restrictions.
“As San Diegans we can take a measure of pride that we did beat back the most severe aspects of the recent surge we’ve seen and put San Diego in a position to reopen but we want to be mindful that today’s announcement is not a moment where we need to abandon our vigilance or lose our focus, Fletcher said. “We need to stay safe in order to stay open.”
San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has been critical of California business closures, said he was thrilled many businesses could open back up — but was worried about the long-term effects of Sacramento policies.
“Unfortunately, for many businesses this was too little too late,” he said in a statement to the Union-Tribune.
San Diego County’s coronavirus numbers continued to trend downward Monday with 1,437 new cases announced, a significant improvement from the single-day record of 4,550 set on Jan. 7 when the region’s 14-day positive test rate was 14.3 percent.
Listed Monday at 10.2 percent, the rate is significantly better than it was earlier this month. But going forward, substantial progress will be necessary to climb out of the state’s purple tier. Doing so would require a seven-day positivity rate no higher than 8 percent and no more than seven cases per 100,000 residents.
The latest tier numbers, published by the county on Sunday, list the seven-day rate at 12.5 percent with a case rate of 60.6, still 8.6 times higher than the tier threshold. To reach seven cases per 100,000 residents, the region would need to average about 239 cases per day, though bonuses for robust testing provide some opportunity for beneficial adjustments of the raw numbers.
Union-Tribune staff writers Mike Freeman and Phillip Molnar contributed to this report.
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