‘We finally made it’: San Diego area businesses prepare to reopen under new state guidance

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SAN DIEGO – Hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom released a new system for the state that sorts counties into one of four tiers based on the extent of the area’s COVID-19 outbreak, San Diego County officials announced some local businesses would be able to operate indoors in a limited capacity starting Monday.

On Aug. 31, restaurants, places of worship, movie theaters and museums will be allowed to maintain up to 25% occupancy or 100 people — whichever is less. Gyms may operate with 10% occupancy. Hair salons, barbershops and nail salons may operate indoors with normal capacity. Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, said the county would follow state guidelines that indicate retail businesses are to be restricted to 50% occupancy.

All indoor businesses must still abide by social distancing- and face- covering mandates, as well as having a detailed safe reopening plan on file with the county.

The change has been largely well-received by businesses and organizations throughout the county.

Among them, South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and its pastor, Arthur Hodges III. Hodges, who has been locked into continuous legal disputes on state public health orders during the pandemic, including reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in May, called the move “a step in the right direction.”

“Of course, we’re back to where we were what? Before May?” he said.

Wooten said San Diego County had made it to “tier 2,” the only county in Southern California to earn that designation. The county still has a “substantial” COVID-19 presence, but unlike Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles and Imperial counties it is not considered “widespread.”

The two metrics the state was monitoring in that tier list include an old one — the percentage of positive tests — and a new one — the number of daily new cases per 100,000 people. San Diego County is at 3.8% and 5.8 per 100,000 respectively. To make it to the next tier, the county must show rates of between 2% and 4.9% positive tests and between 1 and 3.9 new daily cases per 100,000 population.

Because the county currently exceeds one of those numbers, it cannot start its path to the next tier.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he felt the county was moving too quickly to reopen and should take a more measured response.

“My concerns are with the size, scope and speed of what is being reopened on Monday,” he said. “While there are some lower risk entities that could safely reopen at this point, 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. This led to a large increase in cases and required new restrictions.

“But even though I prefer a different path, the decision has been made and I will continue to work tirelessly to help us find a way to slow the spread, support our schools, and continue to help our community through this difficult time,” Fletcher said.

But even with the go-ahead to resume modified indoor services, the attendance limit means Hodges and his parishioners will continue to meet outdoors for services as well.

“We can’t accommodate everyone at a 100-person limit and it’s just not workable,” he said. “We will probably keep our outdoor because that’s unlimited.”

Less than a mile from the church is Mickey Lou’s Barbershop on 3rd Avenue, another business with the green light to reopen indoors.

“We were super excited,” shop owner Michael Acosta said. “We finally made it. We finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel.”

According to Wooten, there is a 21-day mandatory wait time before any county can move between tiers, and a county must meet the metrics for the next tier for two straight weeks. Also, a county may only move one tier at a time.

These moves all appear to be in the interest of moving counties down the tier list toward full reopening. There does not appear to be any provision for a large, quickly spreading outbreak moving a county more rapidly back up the list.

The timeline for schools being able to open for in-person instruction on Sept. 1 is not affected by this new system of tiers, Wooten said. The state will monitor the data weekly, with results announced Tuesdays.

The county also reported 285 new COVID-19 cases and three deaths Friday, raising the region’s totals to 37,784 cases and 676 deaths.

All three deaths were women, and their ages ranged from the late 60s to early 90s.

Of the 8,821 tests reported, 3% returned positive, lowering the 14-day rolling average of positive tests to 3.6%, well below the state’s 8% guideline. The seven-day average number of tests performed in the county is 7,268.

Of the total positive cases in the county, 3,065 — or 8.1% — have required hospitalization since the pandemic began, and 746 — or 2% — were admitted to an intensive care unit.

County health officials reported one new community outbreaks on Thursday, bringing the number of outbreaks in the past week to 14. The outbreak was in a food procession facility.

The number of community outbreaks remains well above the county’s goal of fewer than seven in a seven-day span. A community setting outbreak is defined as three or more COVID-19 cases in a setting and in people of different households in the past 14 days.

County officials announced Wednesday that they would expand free testing for school staff throughout the region.

According to Fletcher, testing for school staff — teachers, paraprofessionals and others — will be made available for free at all of the county’s 20 testing sites. Additionally, Fletcher said more will open by the end of September to increase testing accessibility.

The county still does not advise that asymptomatic children get tested, but Fletcher said parents can seek guidance through primary care physicians or seek testing through Rady Children’s Hospital, Tri-Care or Kaiser Permanente — depending on what health insurance, if any, a family has.

San Diego State University announced Friday that three more students tested positive for COVID-19, after reporting two positive tests among students for two consecutive days.

University officials said the two new cases were unrelated to the previous cases and all seven students had only been to the campus for testing at Student Health Services.

Eighteen SDSU students have contracted COVID-19 since March.

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