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Return of live indoor events raises hopes, questions in San Diego County

Vaccine.
Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke with news reporters about San Diego’s newest pop-up vaccination site at the Park de la Cruz Recreation Center in the City Heights neighborhood on Friday. With him was Juan Vargas, Ben Hueso, Sean Elo-Rivera and Todd Gloria.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a visit to City Heights, Gov. Gavin Newsom praised San Diego’s coronavirus vaccine rollout

State officials announced a sweeping set of guidelines governing indoor live events on Friday, April 2, leaving many in San Diego County’s arts and entertainment community hopeful for a return to some semblance of normalcy — though perhaps not immediately.

The new guidance, announced by the California Department of Public Health, allows indoor live events and performances to resume beginning April 15 in any county not in the state’s most restrictive reopening tier. The number of people venues can bring in will depend on a county’s tier and whether attendees have been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the coronavirus.

The state made similar announcements regarding indoor private events and relaxed its regulations around informal gatherings; those changes will also take effect April 15.

The news comes at a time when it’s increasingly likely that San Diego County will move into the state’s second least restrictive reopening tier next Wednesday, April 7, with about 587,000 residents fully vaccinated.

Many welcomed the announcement but also pointed out that tight restrictions on capacity meant that indoor events wouldn’t be profitable any time soon.

“I’d be surprised if any of the arts venues will be able to open with those numbers,” said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer. “We still have a long way to go to be able to sustain what it costs to put on an indoor performance. But we’re moving in the right direction.”

Gilmer added that, for now, the symphony is still concentrating on The Shell, its new $85 million bayside venue at Embarcadero Marina Park South.

The county is currently in the state’s second most restrictive tier, the red tier. If the region remains there, live event venues with a capacity of up to 1,500 will be able to seat up to 10 percent of their usual capacity or 100 people (whichever is less). That grows to 15 percent (or 200 people) and 25 percent (or 300 people) in the orange and yellow tiers, respectively.

That all changes if everyone in attendance has been vaccinated or tested negative for the coronavirus. In that case, these venues can seat 25, 35 and 50 percent their usual capacity in the red, orange and yellow tiers, respectively.

The guidelines are a bit stricter for venues that ordinarily bring in more than 1,500 people. In those settings, venues in red tier counties can only have indoor attendees if everyone has been tested or fully vaccinated, with a cap of 20 percent. If a county moves into the orange or yellow tier, that cap raises to 35 percent or 50 percent if all guests have been vaccinated or tested and drops to 10 percent if they haven’t.

During a call with reporters on Friday, April 2, state officials added that venues will be able to seat groups of fully vaccinated people next to one another rather than 6 feet apart if they’re wearing masks.

Those who’ve been immunized must show a vaccination card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirming that they’ve been fully inoculated. Otherwise, paperwork showing that someone has tested negative for COVID-19 within the 72 hours before the event will suffice.

In all cases, employees will need to get COVID-19 tests weekly, guests must purchase tickets electronically in advance, and out-of-state attendees won’t be allowed.

It’s a strategy that makes sense to Dr. Davey Smith, UC San Diego’s chief of infectious disease research. But he adds that it’s important to remember that the pandemic isn’t over, and that cases are rising in other parts of the U.S., fueled by reopening and the growth of a fast-spreading viral variant first seen in the U.K.

“It’s a good idea as long as we keep our eye on the ball,” said Smith of the state’s plan. “There are states that are not following any of these sorts of precautions … (and) the uptick that they’re seeing is bound to hit us. But we just need to have procedures in place that we can close things down when needed.”

Many in the arts and entertainment community were caught off guard by the guidance. Sam Woodhouse, artistic director and co-founder of one of the city’s oldest and largest theaters, San Diego Repertory Theatre, said he was shocked at the unexpected arrival of the new report. He added that he needs more time to review the guidelines, but he doesn’t think the Rep will open before the fall.

The state issued similar updated guidance for private events, such as wedding receptions and business conferences. Once counties move into the red tier, private events can bring together up to 50 people outdoors, or 200 if everyone is fully vaccinated or has tested negative for COVID-19. Those outdoor limits raise to 100 and 200 in the orange and yellow tiers, or 300 and 400 at events in which attendees have been vaccinated or tested.

Vaccination or testing is a requirement for holding indoor private events, with capacity increasing from 100 to 150 to 200 people through the red, orange and yellow tiers.

Hoteliers say the loosened rules will help some smaller and mid-sized hotels that up until now have not been able to book receptions and business meetings. But some say the capacity limits are still a major barrier.

“While these guidelines are still very restrictive compared to our neighboring states, it is a breath of fresh air and will provide much help,” said longtime hotelier Bob Rauch, who owns three hotels in the county. “It’s a big help to me because we have meeting space at all of our hotels, and now we can aggressively promote meetings. We had already been talking about requiring a negative COVID test or vaccine, so we’re prepared for that.”

Hotel owner Bill Evans, whose family owns the Catamaran and Bahia resorts and The Lodge at Torrey Pines, was less enthusiastic, noting that the cost of running meeting space venues at hotels is the same no matter the size of the gathering.

“It’s totally useless,” Evans said. “Ten percent or 25 percent of anything doesn’t help the business problem. All our cost structures are based on the expectation you’ll do a certain level of business. That’s not even break-even point. It’s like drowning in 2-1/2 feet of water or 10 feet of water, you’re still under water.”

The new guidelines will also allow for outdoor social gatherings of up to 25, 50 or 100 people in counties in the red, orange and yellow tiers.

These guidelines will likely intensify vaccine demand. By April 15, all Californians 16 and up will be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine.

Vaccine supply is set to increase substantially in the coming weeks. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said that the state expects to receive 572,700 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week and 2.4 million doses total. About two weeks ago, the state was receiving 1.8 million doses a week; that’s a 33 percent increase.

Standing alongside local officials Friday morning at a pop-up coronavirus vaccine site in City Heights, Newsom praised San Diego’s efforts to get as many shots into arms as possible — particularly in communities hit hard by the pandemic.

“This county, this city is leading the way in the state of California in terms of doses administered, in terms of meeting, not just the broad platitudes, or rather broad strokes on the issue of equity, but actually manifesting them by doing the hard work of getting into communities like this,” said Newsom, just one day after getting vaccinated in Los Angeles.

Mayor Todd Gloria, City Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera, Chair of the Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, Congressman Juan Vargas and State Sen. Ben Hueso accompanied Newsom. It’s the second appearance the governor has made in San Diego in recent months; in February, he visited the vaccine superstation near Petco Park.

The press conference was held in the Park de la Cruz Recreation center, which is functioning as a one-day vaccination site. The city of San Diego ran similar pop-up clinics at the Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park and the Montgomery High School in Otay Mesa in a bid to ensure that San Diegans in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities have the same level of access to vaccine as those in more affluent regions.

But while the governor celebrated local efforts to get shots into arms, he stressed the need for continued caution during the holiday weekend.

“This disease is not taking Easter weekend off. This disease is not taking spring break off. This disease is as deadly as it’s ever been.”

On Friday, the county reported 496 new coronavirus infections and 13 additional deaths. There are 201 San Diegans in the hospital with COVID-19, including 61 in the intensive care unit, less than half of what the region reported a month ago.

— Jonathan Wosen, George Varga, Pam Kragen and Lori Weisberg are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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