Bars to close Wednesday as county responds to local COVID-19 surge

Bartender Penny Clack, works at Carriage House bar in Kearny Mesa.
Bartender Penny Clack, who works at two different San Diego County bars, doesn’t know when her next paycheck will come as Carriage House bar in Kearny Mesa, like all other bars in the county will close shortly in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
(John Gastaldo / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Officials conferring with beach cities, urging residents to restrict activities to household only


Just 17 days after they were allowed to reopen on June 12, San Diego County bars, breweries and wineries learned Monday that they will not be allowed to operate, at least not in the traditional sense, starting Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. While restaurants will still be allowed to serve drinks with meals, no one will be allowed to stand around with drinks in their hands after the stroke of midnight Tuesday.

Announced Monday afternoon by county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the decision follows a mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom, released over the weekend, that asks bars to close in some California counties due to increasing rates of novel coronavirus transmission.

San Diego, though, is not on that list. But Fletcher, backed up by Dr. Wilma Wooten, the region’s public health officer, said it does not make sense to wait, given that local COVID-19 trend lines, though currently less severe than they are in other places, have been headed in the wrong direction for about a week now. Bars, he said, tend to encourage the kind of socializing that makes it easier to spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“While San Diego County was not included in actions taken by the state, we believe it is appropriate, and we believe it is wise, for us to take this action now, given the increases we’ve seen in cases, in percentage of positive cases, in outbreaks and the increases in hospitalizations,” Fletcher said. “We don’t want to wait to be forced to take an action when we know it is the wise and responsible thing for us to do now.”

On Monday, the county announced 498 new COVID cases, a single-day record and one more than was announced Sunday. Only one of the past seven single-day totals has been under 300 cases, and, more worrisome, the number of hospitalized COVID cases continues to climb, reaching 458 Sunday, significantly higher than the 346 hospitalizations tallied a week ago. The number of local COVID-associated deaths held steady at 361.

The announcement took some local establishments by surprise.

“We finally reopened,” said Rachel Dymond, co-owner of the Carriage House in Kearny Mesa. “I cannot believe this is happening again. It’s just unreal to me. Why bars? There are thousands of protesters and they’re blaming bars.”

Air Conditioned Lounge owner Gary John Collins, though, said he was not surprised.

“When the governor did it yesterday for L.A. County, I thought, ‘we’re next.’” Collins said. “A lot of people are ignoring the guidelines and here we are.”

“I guess what’s happened is we’ve taken one step back,” added Skip Coomber, co-founder of Coomber Craft Wines in Oceanside. “It’s awkward and it’s frustrating, but I understand and respect what they’re doing.”

But, just because the county has ordered all bars to shut down does not necessarily mean that no one will be walking through their doors come Wednesday.

Establishments with licenses to serve food can do so, and alcohol can also be on the menu, though, added Mike Workman in an email Monday evening, both food and drink must be purchased together as part of the “same transaction.” It’s clear that, while the county is specifically forbidding anyone from standing around and having a drink, establishments may still serve customers while seated.

Sherry Lyon drinks a beer at Carriage House in Kearny Mesa with her hand santizer within easy reach.
Sherry Lyon drinks a beer at Carriage House in Kearny Mesa with her hand santizer within easy reach.
(John Gastaldo / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coomber said his winery has a license to serve food from four nearby restaurants, so he will still be allowed to keep his doors open. But he’ll have to educate his staff and his customers about the need to eat and drink.

Dymond, the Carriage House co-owner, said the county’s announcement forces a reassessment.

“Thank God, all our regulars came back and we have plenty of room for social distancing, so we’re running at 50 percent,” said Dymond, whose bar can currently accommodate about 40 under the COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s just nice to have everyone back again. At least they’re letting us be open if we do the food thing. It’s a decision we’ll have to make tomorrow morning.”

Meanwhile, Collins, the Air Conditioned Lounge owner, said he believes his bar on 30th Street near Adams Avenue is in the clear because he just started selling food as part of a collaboration with a food truck vendor, Tacos La Mezcla. His bar is offering ceviche, shrimp cocktail and chips and salsa.

But it’s not, he added, like things have been booming since bars were allowed to reopen. A large outdoor space, he said, has not been packed.

“We are very slow,” he said. “People come on the patio, it’s very spacious and we haven’t had any capacity issues and not all the spaces available have been taken.”

Those who decide to stay open and essentially turn themselves into restaurants in the process, county officials said Monday, should make sure they enforce the rules on their properties. Work with local law enforcement, and the health department’s own employees, Wooten said, is underway to increase enforcement of COVID-19 orders as the Fourth of July weekend approaches.

“Enforcing the regulations that are already in place will help to bring our numbers down,” Wooten said.

The county once-again hit a “trigger” threshold with the number of community COVID outbreaks again reaching seven in the past seven days. The latest two, officials said, occurred at local restaurants on Sunday with two more detected Saturday at restaurants that also have bars.

The county, though, was unable to provide information Monday afternoon on exactly how many of San Diego County’s 13,832 total confirmed cases to date recently visited bars, wineries or breweries. Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of epidemiology for the county, said that his office is working to make such information more easily available to the public.

With more severe outbreaks raging in several surrounding California counties, and massive burdens felt in many parts of Arizona, many are wondering just how much of the current surge in cases can be attributed to visitors. McDonald said that, for the entire local COVID-19 outbreak, only 16 people from Arizona have tested positive in San Diego, though seven of those came back positive in the past week. A total of 330, he added, have tested positive after arriving from Imperial County. Sixty-one of those cases, he said, have occurred in the past week.

It was clear Monday that the Fourth of July was a major concern for local leaders. Asked whether the county might consider shutting down beaches this weekend, Fletcher was noncommittal, saying the county was in the process of reaching out to local beach cities to “get a sense from them if there is some action they would like us to take.”

But officials have said that they do expect to take additional actions to curtail currently allowed activities before the Fourth arrives. Supervisor Greg Cox said that given the growth in cases at the moment, this should be a more subdued holiday than usual. He especially pleaded with the public to avoid traditional barbecue gatherings this weekend. These types of events, he reiterated, have already generated many COVID outbreaks.

“No barbecue is worth that,” he said.