A guide to reopening in the COVID-19 orange tier: what San Diegans need to know

Movie patrons order food at the Theatre Box in downtown San Diego.
Vassilis Xykis (left) and Sabastian Theodoropoulas order food from Alex Phiakeo before the start of a movie at the Theatre Box in downtown San Diego where the allowed seating capacity has been raised to 50 percent.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Restaurants and movie theaters can now double their capacity, as can museums and aquariums, and family entertainment centers like bowling alleys can open indoors


As San Diego County this week enters yet another phase in the reopening of its pandemic-era economy, the public will have to navigate a mind-numbing set of new rules and capacity limits, whether it’s dining indoors at a restaurant, catching a new release at the multiplex, or heading to Petco Park to watch the Padres.

While California’s color-coded roadmap for safely easing back into something resembling a pre-COVID-19 life is set to vanish by June 15, San Diegans still have two more months to live with a system that rewards both consumers and businesses when infection, hospitalization and vaccination rates continue to improve.

Under the county’s more relaxed orange tier — the second least restrictive in California’s reopening plan — some business categories, like restaurants and movie theaters, are seeing their indoor occupancy limits double overnight, offering some hope for a return to profitability following a year of decimated revenues. In other instances, such as attending an outdoor sporting event, capacity levels will increase significantly as long as all attendees show proof of a negative coronavirus test or full vaccination against COVID-19.

And still more new rules will go into effect April 15, when indoor live events like concerts and theatrical performances will be allowed to resume, again with prescribed capacity limits.

As tantalizing as it all sounds, significant challenges remain. Restaurants and theme parks are having a tough time hiring enough workers as they all expand their business operations at once. Also a puzzler for business owners is how to implement a verification process for COVID-19 vaccinations and tests among their patrons.

And then there’s the ever-nagging fear of returning to the more restrictive red tier should COVID-19 hospitalization and transmission rates rise locally the way they have in other parts of the U.S.

“We’ve been here before, and we’re still not completely out of the clear,” said longtime restaurant owner Brian Malarkey, whose three restaurants are now open indoors. A fourth, the more casual Herb & Eatery, ceased operating last year due to the pandemic. “I can’t help but look over my shoulder and see rising numbers in the East Coast. “We’ve been put on a yo-yo, and it’s exhausting for our employees and the customers. I just hope we’re doing the right thing and am excited to get back to as much as normal as we can.”

In the interest of simplifying life under the orange tier, the Union-Tribune has assembled a guide showing what has and has not changed.

So how did San Diego qualify for the orange tier?

The county moved from red to orange because its case rate has been under six cases per every 100,000 residents for the last two weeks since moving to the red tier March 17. That move became a little easier once the state raised the qualifying case rate threshold after meeting a goal to vaccinate more than 4 million Californians living in areas deemed to have the worst access to health care and other resources necessary for healthy living.

What’s changed for dining out and drinking?

Indoor seating at restaurants and bars that serve food has expanded from 25 percent capacity to 50 percent, or 200 people maximum, whichever is fewer. And the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew has been lifted. There are no changes for outdoor seating, which many restaurants have expanded by moving onto sidewalks and parking areas of streets.

The Field Irish Pub
The Field Irish Pub in the Gaslamp Quarter
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bars that offer no food service can now open up outdoors, with modifications. Wineries, breweries and distilleries are permitted to operate indoors after being restricted to outdoor-only in the red tier. The capacity limit is 25 percent or 100 people maximum.

Working out

Pacific Beach Training
Led by Junior Leoso, Pacific Beach Training offers both group classes and private lessons at its indoor facility.
(Courtesy of Pacific Beach Training)

Gyms and fitness centers are also getting an increase in capacity — from just 10 percent to 25 percent — and indoor pools can now open. Indoor hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms are still off-limits.

Going to the movies

Movie theaters can seat 50 percent of their usual capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer. Many theaters will continue to use online reservations to control capacity and make it easier for moviegoers to socially distance themselves while they munch on popcorn and watch the latest flick on the big screen.

Angelika Film Center & Cafe
Jason Mahrdt watches a movie with his Kids Ryan,4, Phoebe,8, and Olivia 4 at Angelika Film Center & Cafe at Carmel Mountain Plaza on March 20, 2021.
(Sandy Huffaker/SDUT)

While it’s not required, some movie theaters are limiting concession sales in the theater lobby and instead offering online ordering with treats delivered to where people are sitting.

What about grocery shopping and going to the mall?

Retail spaces, including supermarkets, and shopping centers can reopen to full, pre-pandemic indoor capacity if they stick with public health modifications such as masking, regularly cleaning surfaces and Plexiglass barriers at checkout stations. In the red tier, capacity was set at 50 percent. For malls, the capacity limitations for restaurants remain in place for food courts.

Tattoos, haircuts and pedicures

Pacific Beach Tattoo
Eric Whitman works on a tattoo on Alexa DeFrazie on at Pacific Beach Tattoo in this June 2020 photo.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Barbershops and personal care services, which include tattoo parlors, nail salons and other places you go for grooming and pampering, have been open indoors without capacity limits since the purple tier and will stay open. That’s because there’s no evidence these settings play a major role in the spread of the coronavirus.

Case in point: In a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last July, two hair stylists with COVID-19 who kept their masks on while working with 139 clients didn’t get any of their customers sick.

Museums, zoos and aquariums

San Diego Automotive Museum
The San Diego Automotive Museum recently reopened since closing back in November. During the closure the museum underwent a total remodel, including flooring, painting, and new wall graphics.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

These venues can now operate at 50 percent of their indoor capacity. They’ve been able to operate outdoors since the purple tier but were previously limited to 25 percent indoor capacity in the red tier. The orange tier probably won’t change much for visitors to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, as both parks are largely outdoors.

A return to roller coasters

Theme parks were only allowed to reopen a little more than a week ago, and with San Diego now in the orange tier, the overall capacity limit is going from 15 percent to 25 percent. That same restriction applies to any part of the park that is indoors.

Checking Electric Eel coaster at SeaWorld
Martin Lopez, left, and Katie Byle check seat restraints on the Electric Eel roller coaster for a test run at SeaWorld in advance of reopening its rides on Monday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Belmont Park in Mission Beach opened up its rides April 1, and Legoland, which had been closed for more than a year, also reopened that same day, with a wider reopening planned for April 15. On Monday, SeaWorld, which has been allowing guests under rules for accredited zoos since early February, will now reopen many of its rides. Additional conditions, including required reservations and a prohibition of out-of-state visitors remain the same, regardless of the tier level.

Family entertainment centers

For the first time under the tier system, such venues — think bowling alleys, escape rooms and trampoline parks — can open indoors. The capacity limit is 25 percent, although that goes up to 50 percent if all customers are tested for COVID-19 or show proof of full vaccination. Masking is required except for food and beverage service at such locations.

Padres games and other outdoor live events

The San Diego Padres take on the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park.
The San Diego Padres take on the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park in their home opener on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Following California COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines for sporting events, Petco Park opened with reduced capacity.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The biggest change is more generous limits on overall capacity, which has gone from 25 percent to 33 percent in the orange tier. That limit, however, rises dramatically — to 67 percent — if attendees can show evidence of a negative test for COVID-19 or proof that they’ve been fully vaccinated. In advance of the Padres’ next homestand, the team has sent out a survey to its season ticket holders querying them about their seating preferences, noting that it may be possible to allow 67 percent capacity in certain sections of Petco Park for those who have provided proof of COVID tests or vaccinations.

Team spokesman Craig Hughner said the Padres are still awaiting clarification on guidelines to see if they will allow for larger capacities in designated seating sections.


Manchester Grand Hyatt
The Manchester Grand Hyatt is the biggest hotel, by capacity, in Southern California.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Hotels have been open since the purple tier, but the move to orange means that on-site fitness centers can use 25 percent of their capacity. And if sweating on a treadmill isn’t your style, you can take a dip in the indoor hotel pool, which was closed in the red tier.

These are incremental changes. What’s arguably more significant is that, starting April 15, hotels can host private meetings, such as conferences and wedding receptions. In the orange tier, these events can hold 100 people outdoors. If all guests can show that they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested negative against the coronavirus, then hotels can host 300 people outdoors or 150 people indoors.

Some hoteliers have welcomed the news, while others have said the capacity limits are too strict for them to make a profit — a common refrain among business owners frustrated with the state’s tiered reopening system. No decision has been made yet by the state on large conventions, a sector that has been moribund since the start of the pandemic.

Concerts and other live events

Like the upcoming changes for hotel meetings, there will be expanded opportunities for indoor performances starting April 15. For venues with a capacity of up to 1,500 people, the cap will be 15 percent or 200 people, and will increase to 35 percent if all guests are tested or fully vaccinated. For larger capacity venues able to accommodate more than 1,500 people, the cap for the orange tier is 10 percent or 2,000 people, whichever is fewer, though it could increase to 50 percent if all those attending are tested or fully vaccinated.


The move to the orange tier now allows offices to be open indoors, although working remotely is encouraged.

Places of worship

Similar to many indoor business activities, places of worship get a bump up in their indoor capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent. These settings include churches, mosques and synagogues, as well as locations where weddings and funerals take place.

— Lori Weisberg and and Jonathan Wosen are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune