Indoor uses in gyms, salons, malls, churches must close at midnight Tuesday
‘This is just horrible,’ said business owner Rodrigo Iglesias. ‘We’re going to go into the greatest depression ever’
Once again, San Diego County health officials followed the governor’s lead, going along with a new order for the 30 counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list to shut down indoor operations for a significant number of businesses and organizations, from churches to salons, by Wednesday morning.
The new edict came Monday, just six days after local restaurants, bars and family entertainment businesses, including movie theaters, faced similar restrictions designed to drive down increasing novel coronavirus rates state and nationwide. San Diego County was added to the governor’s COVID watchlist on the Fourth of July weekend after the number of local cases per capita exceeded state guidelines for three straight days.
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during a regular COVID-19 briefing Monday that the latest coronavirus curtailment was not easy.
“We feel tremendously bad about having to be put in the position of starting you up and then having to limit your operations,” Fletcher said. “Rest assured, I don’t believe that anyone takes any of these steps lightly.”
The indoor closures (unless they can be modified to operate outside or by curbside pickup) include:
- Fitness centers
- Worship services
- Offices for non-essential sectors
- Personal care services, like nail salons, body waxing and tattoo parlors
- Hair salons and barbershops
San Diego County has seen the number of positive coronavirus tests increase in recent weeks. An additional 419 cases announced Monday pushed past a fresh milestone, landing at 20,348. The region has recorded 422 COVID-related deaths, the same total reported Sunday.
The 14-day rolling average of the percentage of positive cases has been climbing since mid-June, and is back up around 6 percent. While significantly higher than it was a few weeks ago, San Diego County’s 14-day rate continues to be lower than the state’s which, according to the California Department of Public Health, now sits at 7.4 percent.
Despite its better performance on test positivity rates, San Diego continues to register a large-enough number of positive test results among its 3.3 million residents to put the region over the state’s trigger threshold of 100 cases per 100,000 residents as measured by a 14-day average. On Monday, the rate sat at 137 per 100,000.
San Diego County officials leading the local coronavirus response have repeatedly said in recent weeks that their decisions on which businesses and activities should cease or modify their operations would be based on the available data. The idea was to focus most intently on the places associated with the greatest numbers of infections.
Unlike restaurants, especially those with bars, personal care businesses have not been among the daily list of community outbreaks shared by the health department daily.
Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, said Monday that a lack of outbreaks was not enough.
“While there might not be an outbreak, individuals are associated with these particular locations, so we are following the data,” Wooten said.
She added that the county’s code compliance division is working with the state to put together enforcement “strike teams” that will enforce outdoor rules. No information was immediately available Monday afternoon on when those teams might start their work.
The county has not yet provided a full accounting of infections by business or location type despite regular requests from the public and media.
Decisions to go along with the governor’s recommendations have continued to chafe some on the county Board of Supervisors, especially Supervisor Jim Desmond who was quick to put out a statement Monday that called the move “unwarranted.”
“Our hospital numbers are not going up. Our testing is focused on the most vulnerable and those with symptoms, which is why you see an increase,” Desmond said. “In light of today’s decision, we must look at all options so that our businesses have a chance of surviving.”
The shift to outdoor-only operations will be easier on some businesses than others.
Aided by an executive order from San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer that waived permits for outdoor dining, restaurants in San Diego have already begun shifting their operations to sidewalks and patios.
But ambiguity still remains about whether other businesses such as gyms and retail will get the same treatment. When asked if the county would waive permits for outdoor operations in its unincorporated areas, San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox deflected during Monday’s press conference, pointing business owners to the county website for more information on how to expand outdoors.
Salon owner Gayle Fulbright, who runs Headlines The Salon in Encinitas, said she’s already looking into renting tents and outdoor sinks for an outdoor migration.
“I’m pretty shocked about today,” said Fulbright. “Part of me is disappointed. The other part of me wants to do what we can to end this.”
A handful of business owners had already started working on shifting their operations outside, taking their cue from the restaurant orders last week. Letha Sandison, co-owner of Four Moons Spa, has renovated her outdoor bungalows - originally meant to be peaceful meditation gardens built over ponds and waterfalls - into treatment rooms where guests can get massages outside.
“They have curtains all around them, and the breeze sweeps through,” Sandison said.
After hearing Newsom’s new order Monday, however, she’s also considering adding tents to the outdoor space where other services can be offered. Still, Sandison said the shift would be hard on her business, which has only been doing about 5 percent of its normal revenue these past few months.
“While I respect the need to protect public health, personally I think it’s difficult to keep being forced to close,” Sandison said. “If you’re going to ask businesses to close, then we need legislative or fiscal protection from these measures. You’re asking us to absorb months and months of loss.”
But some businesses can’t go alfresco. The ability to do so is based largely on location.
Rodrigo Iglesias, owner of Balanced Fitness and Health in downtown San Diego, was shell shocked Monday upon hearing the news of his impending shutdown. The gym took advantage of the last shutdown to renovate its space, reopening in mid-June once rules were eased. Now, Iglesias doesn’t know how he’ll continue operating outside since the gym has no parking lot or outdoor space available.
Iglesias, who just got married Friday after postponing his wedding twice (and seeing his wedding venue literally burn down), said he was experiencing a “riot of emotions” upon hearing the new mandates.
“This is just horrible,” Iglesias said. “We’re going to go into the greatest depression ever. They’ll have to issue more stimulus checks, more unemployment checks, more loans. Guess who pays for that? We all will.”
Retailers at the region’s outdoor shopping malls, such as Westfield UTC and Fashion Valley, likely won’t see much change. But some stores located inside indoor malls, such as Westfield North County, probably will face tougher rules under the governor’s order.
Shops that can only be accessed from interior corridors of an indoor mall will have to close. They can set up merchandise outside for curbside shopping. But shoppers are not allowed to walk through an enclosed area to get to their storefronts.
Some retailers at indoor malls can remain open under the governor’s order, however, as long they have direct entrances/exits so shoppers can walk straight from the parking lot into the stores.
“Those businesses such as a Macy’s, which has outdoor exits, they can remain open,” said Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s public health officer. “It is primarily the businesses where you enter them from the inside of a mall. They can do curbside, but they cannot do business from people entering them from the inside” of the mall.
Several faith leaders in San Diego County said they will continue to follow the governor’s latest health orders, though some are frustrated at the back-and-forth process.
Some said their churches are not affected by the new order prohibiting any indoor services because they weren’t holding any, while other churches said they were about to start and now have to change their plans.
In May, Newsom amended restrictions on churches and allowed meetings of no more than 25 percent of a room’s capacity or 100 people, whichever number was lower. The new restrictions announced Monday do not allow for any indoor seating.
David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church, said the congregation at the El Cajon megachurch was too large to follow the indoor guidelines, so all services are held outdoors.
“We’re having a couple of thousand people,” he said. “People come and sit together as families, and they’re distanced in the way chairs are set up.”
Jeremiah said church officials noticed an area outside the 2,500-seat worship center formed a natural amphitheater, so they built a stage next to the building and began holding services there a few weeks ago.
The new order will affect the church’s smaller chapels in Encinitas, Alpine, downtown San Diego, South Bay and San Luis Obispo, which had just started holding indoor services last week.
A 1,000-member Latino congregation also is without a place to meet under the governor’s orders, he said.
South Bay United Pentecostal Church of Chula Vista has a pending lawsuit against Newsom challenging the legality of the state order.
Bishop Arthur Hodges III, senior pastor for the church, said Newsom’s new order was a surprise and a disappointment.
“We have complied with every CDC request, from the president’s office to the governor’s office, and we’ve gone beyond,” he said. “ Jesus did say if you’re compelled to go one mile, go two.”
Kevin Eckery, vice chancellor with the Catholic Diocese in San Diego, said the new order also will not mean a change in local churches because they had not been holding any services, indoors or outdoors.
The Rev. Meg Decker of Trinity Episcopal Church in Escondido said the church had done one indoor service, but stopped after the Episcopal Diocese said to hold only outdoor services even before the governor’s new order.
At the Muslim Community Center of Greater San Diego, former board member Shamus Sayer said the new order also will not affect services because they have not held an indoor meeting in months.
People must make appointments to come to the mosque to conduct the five daily prayers, which are outdoors, and people must bring their own prayer rugs and follow other precautions, he said.
Becky Davies, San Diego regional director of communications for the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints, said local Mormons also won’t be very affected by the new order.
Churches had planned to begin holding indoor services Aug. 1, but those plans have changed with the new order, she said.
Davies said many men in the church also are priesthood holders, meaning they are allowed to perform Sacrament services, which has been a nice experience in hers and many other Mormon households during the lockdown.
County officials also reiterated a message that appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune Sunday, notifying the public that supply shortages have caused the county to pull back a bit on its ongoing testing efforts.
Starting Monday, the county will no longer book appointments at its drive-through testing centers for people without specific symptoms unless they are part of a high-risk group. High-risk groups include health care workers, people with chronic diseases or compromised immune systems, people living in nursing homes or other congregate living facilities, first responders and others.
A much larger cutback was in store in San Diego County due to severe reductions in the numbers of test kits that the county’s public health lab receives weekly from vendors, including Hologic Inc. But a last-minute deal with San Diego-based Helix Clinical Laboratory will allow the county to eventually be able to perform up to 2,000 COVID tests per day. It is a significant increase over the 1,500 tests per day that the local public health lab was able to perform before test materials suddenly suffered supply shortages.
Broad-based surveillance of the novel coronavirus’s penetration in the community at large is the biggest loss caused by the new, more tailored, approach to testing. Without being able to offer a test to anyone who wants one, it will be less likely that asymptomatic residents — those who are infected but show no symptoms — will be identified and isolated.
One technique sometimes used to get a sense of a pathogen’s prevelance in a community while reducing the amount of scarce resources used is called “pooling.” This method combines samples taken from about 100 different subjects, using just one set of materials to analyze all in a single mixed-up batch. If the pool comes back positive, then additional tests are performed until the positive result or results is found.
Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of the county epidemiology department, said that pooling has been a significant point of discussion on the region’s testing, tracing and treatment task force, but has been set aside as a conservation method. In the end, he said, the region’s overall percentage of positive tests appeared to be too high for the technique to deliver much benefit. There are now enough positive results coming back, he said, that too few pools would come back clean, reducing the resource-saving benefits that pooling can deliver while also making it take longer to return results to individuals who provided samples.
“When the (the positive rate) goes above 4 percent or 5 percent, which, you know, we are as a county right now, it doesn’t make sense to pool,” McDonald said.
--- San Diego Union-Tribune report
--- U-T staff writers Mike Freeman, Karen Kucher, Gary Warth and Lyndsay Winkley contributed to this report.
4:38 AM, Jul. 14, 2020: This story has been updated to note that San Diego County closures will start Wednesday, according to County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.
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