Less-restrictive orange tier arrives, but with worries of a backslide
With a score that just qualifies, San Diego is once again at risk of a fall even as system’s days are numbered
San Diego County made it to the orange tier Wednesday, but just barely.
Week-to-week, the region saw its number of cases per 100,000 residents — the critical measure that governs movement through the state’s reopening blueprint — increase from 4.9 to 5.8, just 0.1 cases under the limit for the second-least-restrictive level that now allows restaurants, movie theaters and other enterprises to double the amount of indoor space they can use.
While the state made it clear Tuesday that rising vaccination rates have led to a goal of scrapping the entire system by mid-June, the tiers will remain in effect for at least nine more weeks, and it remains possible for counties to fall back down the ladder, confirmed the California Department of Public Health in an email Wednesday,.
All it takes is two consecutive weeks with case rates that do not qualify a region for its current tier. In San Diego County, then, that would be two scores of 6 or more cases per 100,000 residents.
This, many will remember, is a familiar dance, one that unfolded in San Diego in the weeks after the blueprint was first introduced on Aug. 31. For two months, the region flirted with falling to the purple tier, edging ever closer to the precipice of 7 cases per 100,000 residents, finally posting its second consecutive out-of-bounds score on Nov. 10.
Despite the fact that the entire cumbersome system’s demise is now scheduled for June 15, San Diego and other counties still have plenty of chances to move backward.
Already, things aren’t looking particularly positive for next week’s report.
The state looks back one week when calculating each weekly set of case rates, and it will use the number of cases that started showing symptoms from March 28 through April 3 for next week’s report on Tuesday, April 13.
Because the county’s epidemiology department regularly releases updates on the number of cases that occurred each day, it’s easy to see that, as of the most-recent update posted Tuesday, the region had already recorded 1,204 cases in that span which would translate to a raw rate of 5.1 per 100,000, just eight tenths of a case under the 5.9 orange tier threshold.
A total of 1,394 cases over those seven days is the maximum that would allow the county to stay at 5.9 or less, meaning that, at the moment, a buffer of just 190 cases remains.
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The daily reports aren’t helping. Wednesday’s daily COVID-19 report listed 328 new cases though it was not immediately clear how many of those tracked back to the seven-day window the state will use for its next report. Hospitalizations, though, remained stable, falling from 190 to 181.
The county could see that raw number reduced significantly if the amount of coronavirus testing performed exceeded the statewide average, but that has not happened recently. Local testing numbers have generally fallen right in line with the state average, affording no bonus.
While a red score next week would not immediately cause a fall — remember, two consecutive red scores are necessary for eviction from orange — it is none-the-less a nervous place to be for many, especially business owners who remain scarred by brief reopening stints in 2020.
One such edgy entrepreneur is Josh Rathweg, co-owner of Sky Zone Trampoline Park locations in San Marcos and Carlsbad. For such family entertainment centers, the orange tier offers a new opportunity to operate indoors at 25 percent capacity or at 50 percent if all participants are vaccinated or can prove they have recently tested negative for coronavirus infection.
But making it to the orange tier Wednesday did not bring an immediate reopening for the two gravity-defying locations.
Reopening by the end of the month, Rathweg said, is the goal, but at the moment, he is not quite sure if that is possible. Having been forced to shut down and send home his 140 employees, the business owner said he found that only about 19 remain able to work. Many have moved on to other jobs.
Not only that, but there are not yet solid enough instructions on just how a business would go about verifying vaccination or testing in order to operate at the more-sustainable 50 percent capacity. The idea of trying to train employees to ask for and verify such sensitive information is nauseating.
“It feels like a tough position to be in, asking for information that I probably would not want to share myself,” he said.
And then there are the memories of last year. The business returned to service twice in 2020 when operating restrictions temporarily lifted — 32 days in August and 11 in November — only to be forced to shut down again when the pandemic surged. Training, stocking and other costs, he said, ended up costing the business $30,000 it did not have, forcing the family to draw from its own savings.
This time around, he said, it feels like it will pay to be cautious. It won’t be go time until it seems like further shut downs are nearly impossible.
“If I have to stand on one foot while jumping through the hoops, I’ll do it,” he said. “I will work with whatever they give me, as long as they stop changing the rules.”
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