Appeals court blocks restaurant openings as San Diego sees record-high cases


SAN DIEGO — A California appeals court on Friday blocked a judge’s order allowing San Diego County restaurants to resume indoor and outdoor dining, keeping Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home edict in full effect.

A three-judge panel’s brief order gave no explanation and came almost immediately after the state asked for emergency intervention. Two strip clubs were given until Wednesday to ask the appeals court to reconsider.

The decision came only two days after a judge authorized all restaurants in the county of more than 3 million people to reopen on their own terms. It marked the biggest victory yet for opponents of California’s public health orders but proved short-lived.

The state on Friday asked the appeals to immediately step in, saying the scope of the judge’s order far exceeded what the strip clubs sought when they sued in October and came as the state’s health care system is “on the brink of collapse.”

“In the midst of the worst surge in the COVID-19 pandemic … a single trial court judge has unilaterally thwarted public efforts to avert that looming catastrophe, by issuing an injunction that allows all restaurants in San Diego County to reopen without any restriction, contrary to the orders and judgment of the State’s top health officials,” lawyers for the governor wrote in their filing with the state’s Fourth Appellate District.

Only hours earlier, eggs, waffles and burritos flew out of the kitchen at The Old Townhouse, a 45-year-old institution in San Diego’s Ocean Beach neighborhood that immediately resumed indoor dining when a judge cleared the way for restaurants to reopen.

“That’s a powerful statement,” owner Ted Caplaneris repeated as he plucked lines from his creased printout of Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil’s ruling and read them aloud.

Other eateries in the neighborhood known for its laid-back surfer vibe remain closed, illustrating the difficult choice faced restaurants as they weigh whether to reopen for what they knew could be a short reprieve.

The panel’s decision came as San Diego County public health officials reported a record 3,611 COVID-19 infections and 14 deaths.

The cases surpass the previous record set one week ago — 2,867 last Friday — by 744 new cases. It marks the first time the number of daily infections has surpassed 3,000 as well as the 18th consecutive day with more than 1,000 cases and the 11th day overall with more than 2,000 new cases.

The top four-highest daily cases have all occurred in the past seven days, with Wednesday’s 2,807 cases and Thursday’s 2,604.

San Diego County’s cumulative case total has risen to 120,463 and the death toll has risen to 1,253.

County supervisors met in closed session Friday to appeal the ruling made by San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil Wednesday, which granted a preliminary injunction then that allowed a pair of San Diego strip clubs — Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club and Pacers Showgirls International — to remain open amid COVID-19 restrictions, as well as “San Diego County businesses with restaurant service … subject to protocols that are no greater than is essential to further defendants’ response to control the spread of Covid.”

“The board voted to appeal the order,” said County Supervisor Greg Cox. “But the board directed county counsel to only argue that the order is incorrect as it relates to the continued operation of strip clubs and the allowance of indoor dining.”

“We support outdoor dining with appropriate safety protocols that have been previously established. We remind everyone that the virus is still out there,” Cox said.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher concurred.

“I vehemently disagree with the recent judicial decision allowing strip clubs and all restaurant activities to resume, and I support appealing the entirety of the recent court ruling,” he said. “It is a positive step that our board voted unanimously to join the state in the appeal as it relates to strip clubs and indoor dining.”

A jump of 46 hospitalizations Friday set a record with 1,218 COVID-19-positive patients hospitalized locally. An additional 305 COVID-19 patients are in ICUs — also a record.

The county’s hospitals have 16% of their ICU beds available, unchanged since Tuesday, which is at odds with the state estimate that the Southern California region’s ICU beds are entirely full. Where the discrepancy comes from is unclear.

In the San Joaquin Valley, ICU beds are said to also be full. In Greater Sacramento, the estimate is 14.5% of ICU beds available; in the Bay Area, it’s 12.8%.

Only Northern California remains outside the Gov. Gavin Newsom- directed stay-at-home order with 21% of ICU beds available. That order applies to regions with fewer than 15% ICU beds remaining.

San Diego County has seen a 220% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past 30 days and a 155% increase in ICU patients in the same time frame.

The previous peak in hospitalizations — in mid-July — topped out at about 400 patients.

Supervisor Greg Cox on Wednesday asked for patience from county residents, as more vaccines are on the way.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now approved a vaccine developed by Moderna to join the 28,275 Pfizer vaccines already in the region available for civilian acute healthcare workers.

San Diego County is home to 82,623 healthcare workers toiling in hospital or psychiatric facilities, 39,755 of whom are considered “highest risk” and will first receive vaccines..

The 28,000-plus vaccines will cover about 72% of those slated to be inoculated until more vaccines arrive in California.

Four new community outbreaks were reported Friday, with 32 in the past week. A community setting outbreak is defined as three or more COVID-19 cases in a setting and in people of different households over the past two weeks.

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