San Diego restaurants, gyms could reopen for indoor operations as soon as Wednesday

David Spatafore inside Little Frenchie.
David Spatafore, inside his Little Frenchie restaurant in Coronado last August, as he awaited word on whether dining venues would be allowed to serve customers indoors at a 25 percent max capacity.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County is poised to enter the less restrictive red tier next week as COVID-19 case rates in the county continue to decline


After laying off employees multiple times and dipping into his personal savings to keep his 10 drinking and dining venues afloat, restaurateur David Spatafore feels optimistic for the first time in a year as San Diego County awaits the green light next week for more broadly reopening the local economy.

With the COVID-19 case rate continuing to diminish, San Diego is poised to enter the less-restrictive red tier next week, which, for restaurants and gyms, means moving back inside — albeit at much-reduced capacities — for the first time in more than four months. Movie theaters, too, would be allowed to operate indoors, as would museums and aquariums. And retail outlets will be able to increase capacity to 50 percent.

The county is currently in what is known as the purple tier — the most restrictive of the color-coded categories — which does not allow indoor operations for a number of business sectors, although hair and nail salons and retail outlets are allowed to do business inside.

“I haven’t had an optimistic outlook for a year and now the coin has been flipped,” said Spatafore, whose Blue Bridge Hospitality company includes Liberty Public Market and multiple venues in Coronado. “I feel a total optimistic outlook for where we’re headed. And to see these long lines of people waiting to be vaccinated, I think, man, we’re not going to go backward.

“We’ve cashed in everything we could during the last year. We used our personal savings. This is my life. This is everything. We spent 22 years building this, and I have to save as much as I can.”

The outlook for wider business openings became brighter Friday afternoon when the state adjusted the red-tier threshold from seven to 10 cases per 100,000 residents, announcing that more than 2 million vaccine doses had been allocated to the quarter of locations statewide said to have the worst access to adequate health care and other social resources.

Thirteen different counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino, will move up to the red tier on Sunday because their two previous scores were under 10. San Diego was among those expected to make the transition on Wednesday, provided it earns a second score under 10 in Tuesday’s weekly tier report.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher said he’s quite confident San Diego will enter the red tier next week.

“It’s been a very difficult year, and it’s been very hard on gyms and restaurants in particular, so I am so excited about the direction we’re heading in,” Fletcher said. “San Diegans by and large have done an incredible job, and as we come out of this I think that same spirit will hold true. I feel like there’s a sense of relief that we’re finally turning the corner.”

The latest numbers released Friday by the county health department — 362 new COVID cases — reflected the recent downward trend, accompanied by a significantly lower burden on hospitals across the region. Underlining the point that the current situation is better but not yet fixed, a dozen additional deaths were listed Friday.

While COVID-19 restrictions will still be fairly rigid — no more than 25 percent capacity indoors for restaurants and 10 percent for gyms and yoga studios — the red-tier status will mean more sales volume for beleaguered business owners and more comfort for consumers who are tiring of shivering outside as they down their beers and grab a quick lunch or dinner. (Bars that do not serve food will still have to remain closed in the red tier.)

“Any additional business helps, being indoors helps,” said Ben Clevenger, who owns two East County restaurants. “And the public is tired of eating outdoors in the cold.”

Red-tier status won’t mean a huge difference for fitness venues, but every little bit helps, says Scott Lutwak, who owns luxury fitness brand FIT Athletic.

“It’s a false victory,” he said. “It’s a good start. Anything times zero is zero, so I’ll take 10 percent over zero, but it’s not like (10 percent) saves the day.”

FIT Athletic operates five San Diego-area clubs; most have been closed for the better part of a year because of limited access to outdoor space. Lutwak put north of $35 million into FIT Mission Beach before the gym-slash-private-beach-club opened in the summer of 2019.

A year ago, he was forced to terminate 350 people. Today, Lutwak runs things with a skeleton crew of five staffers — but he’s ready to ramp back up at a moment’s notice. New safety protocols and a reservation system were put into place last year. Debt was refinanced. Government-backed loans were secured. Leases are being renegotiated.

“The last eight months,” Lutwak said, “have been just absolute misery trying to keep the landlords at bay and keeping the team together.”

Still, Lutwak believes that, with a little creativity, he can break even on 10 percent capacity.

Anything close to normalcy, though, remains out of reach for movie theater operators. They no longer have a unique product to offer to would-be patrons, thanks to studios releasing films direct to consumers through streaming platforms.

That’s why, even though partial indoor operations can presumably resume next week, The Lot luxury cinema is choosing to keep all four of its locations closed for another month or two, said co-founder Adolfo Fastlicht.

The company, he said, is still in the process of rehiring workers. More importantly, The Lot is awaiting a blockbuster release.

“Having been closed for a year, I’m not sure you necessarily want to rush back to the cinema to watch just any film.”

And then there’s the 10 percent limit to consider.

“Something is better than nothing ... but by no means, when we are allowed to operate with 25 or even 50 percent capacity, is that sufficient enough to bring our operation into the black,” Fastlicht said.

As heartened as restaurant owners are with the imminent resumption of indoor operations, some believe it is way overdue, and they blame the state’s leadership for that.

“Our staff is ready to get back inside. We thought we’d be there by now but we’re not,” said Clevenger, who also is president of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. “We’re going to be one of the last places in the country to open up indoors, and it’s extremely disappointing. You just get into that mode where you accept and it will suck no matter what.”

Clevenger said he will likely be ordering more food to gear up for increased business next week but said his staffing will remain the same because his interior space, after social distancing, won’t require more workers in the short term. He estimates that over the last couple of months, his businesses have either broken even or lost money.

Enforcement under the purple tier, he believes, has been spotty, and his own association has advised its members to “do whatever you need to do to keep your business open.”

The county continues to issue cease and desist orders, with more than four dozen handed out in the last couple of months advising mostly restaurants and some gyms that they are in violation of state and county public health orders related to COVID-19. Fletcher said enforcement will continue but stressed that the vast majority of businesses have complied.

“We are going to work with the restaurant association and businesses to help educate them on what is allowable in the red tier and enforcement will follow a similar posture like the last year,” he said. “If there are egregious violations they will be followed up on. The overwhelming majority of those with violations came into compliance with education, and that will remain our approach.”

Come Saturday, local breweries, wineries and distilleries will be seeing a change in their outdoor operations, thanks to a ruling this week by the state Department of Public Health that they no longer are required to serve food outside for patrons interested in quaffing a beer or two or sampling a flight of cabernet or pinot noir.

Customers, though, will still have to make reservations and will be subject to a 90-minute time limit.

“It’s a big win for the consumer,” said Doug Constantiner, co-founder of San Diego’s Societe Brewing Co. “If you just want to come for a beer, you can do that now. We’ve always wanted people to have food so it forced our hand to have a permanent partnership (with a food vendor) but it would be nice to not have to force people into ordering three tacos in order to get a beer. I definitely think the food requirement cost us business.”

Staff writer Paul Sisson contributed to this report.