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San Diego County moves into less-restrictive red tier

Executive chef Jason Knibb at Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar.
Executive chef Jason Knibb at Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar prepares for Wednesday’s reopening of indoor dining. With San Diego County moving into the red tier, it will be the first time since early November that restaurants will be able to serve customers indoors — at 25 percent capacity.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Red-Tier, Baby! YES!!!’ Instagram post captures restaurant industry’s reaction to moving indoors

One year from the day she ordered local restaurants to close and prohibited public and private gatherings, Dr. Wilma Wooten announced Tuesday that San Diego County has attained a case rate low enough to rejoin the red tier of the state’s reopening blueprint Wednesday.

In a biweekly COVID-19 update to the Board of Supervisors, the county’s public health officer foreshadowed the contents of the state’s weekly tier report, listing the score at 6.8 cases per 100,000 residents. Taken together with last week’s rate of 8.8, and because the state retroactively increased the red tier threshold from 7 to 10, the county will move from purple to red.

“Tomorrow, Wednesday, the county can officially move to the red tier,” Wooten said.

Nine other counties that moved from purple to red Tuesday: Lake, Monterey, Riverside, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Sutter, Tehema, Tulare and Ventura. That leaves just 11 of California’s 58 counties in the most-restrictive purple tier.

The move creates a kind of COVID-19 symmetry in San Diego County with restaurants able to reopen with 25 percent indoor dining on St. Patrick’s Day, the very same day they were ordered to close in 2020.

Exiting the purple tier brought an immediate reaction from San Diego County’s beleaguered restaurant industry.

“Red-Tier, Baby! YES!!!” rejoiced the Instagram post Tuesday from the Nine-Ten restaurant in La Jolla. “Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day and ½ Price Wine Day!”

What's allowed in the red tier

The upscale restaurant, like other eateries across the county, hasn’t been able to welcome diners inside since early November when rising case rates sent the county into the purple tier, which bars indoor operations for restaurants as well as gyms and movie theaters.

Jason Knibb, longtime executive chef at the restaurant, which is located in the Grande Colonial Hotel, said he expects the restaurant could accommodate an additional 64 diners each night with indoor capacity limited to 25 percent.

“This is a big deal for everyone, just to be able to have some sense of normalcy,” Knibb said. “Reopening (inside) is that first step toward feeling comfortable in your space and inviting people back into your home, so to speak. We’ve been fortunate to capture some of the hotel’s back patio space but the restaurant dining room is really the hub and where the energy is. We are interested to see how comfortable people are with indoor dining — are they excited to get back in there or are they still leery?”

Knibb is confident enough about the short-term prospects that he advertised Monday on Instagram and Facebook that the restaurant is currently hiring line cooks at $17.50 an hour and dishwashers at an hourly rate of $16.

Several districts plan to reopen next month, a couple will wait until May, July

While most restaurants and bars that serve food have been complying with the ban on indoor eating and drinking, some that have flouted the rules. The county is still issuing cease and desist orders, though some restaurateurs have groused that many of those in defiance have not been ordered to stop doing so. Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said last week that enforcement will continue.

So much has transpired between the March bookends. Records indicate that the county had announced just 59 positive cases, 11 hospitalizations and zero deaths by the nation’s greenest holiday last year. As of yesterday’s daily report, those totals had grown to 265,649 cases, 13,343 hospitalizations and 3,452 deaths.

As March Madness fizzled in 2020, the debate was around the effectiveness of mask wearing and transmission of the virus among those without symptoms. Today, the questions surround variants, mutated versions of the novel coronavirus that are outcompeting the types that have circulated most widely in the community.

The state’s blueprint for reopening is younger than the pandemic itself, having arrived on Aug. 31 after a significant summer surge in cases.

San Diego County fell to the purple tier on Nov. 10, bringing a fresh round of pain to local businesses who were restricted to operating outdoors just as winter weather started to arrive.

The red tier allows restaurants to begin using 25 percent of their indoor seating capacity while maintaining significant separation between tables and still requiring patrons to wear masks. Gyms are allowed to operate at 10 percent total indoor capacity. Outdoor live entertainment venues, including Petco Park, and amusement parks such as Legoland California and Disneyland, may open at 20 percent and 15 percent occupancy starting April 1.

The San Diego Black Nurses Association has vaccinated more than 1,100 in southeastern San Diego to address disparities.

Greater levels of reopening are allowed in the two least-restrictive tiers of the state’s reopening system. At the moment, counties must have case rates no higher than 3.9 per 100,000 to move to the orange tier, which allows 50 percent indoor occupancy for restaurants, 25 percent for gyms and no capacity limits on shopping.

State officials said last week that they will make the orange tier requirements easier to meet once at least 4 million vaccine doses have been allocated to areas with inequitable health care resources.

Local case totals have continued to decrease, with 257 new cases listed in Tuesday’s COVID-19 tracking report from the county health department. Overall, there were 290 COVID-19 patients in hospitals Monday, including 97 in intensive care beds.

The question remains whether new coronavirus variants, most notably B.1.1.7, the type identified in the United Kingdom, will cause a new spike in cases. Scripps Research immunologist Kristian Andersen, whose lab is working with the county to identify the types of the virus circulating in the community through genetic analysis, said in an email Tuesday that 117 is now between 30 percent and 50 percent of all circulating variants locally.

Andersen has predicted that the U.K. variant is likely to become the dominant type in late March or early April, which could be a concern because it is significantly more transmissible than other variants that have been dominant to date.


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