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San Diego to close bars as county responds to coronavirus surge

A mixed drink lies on a table
California bars were allowed to reopen on June 12, but San Diego County bars, breweries and wineries that don’t serve food will again not be allowed to operate starting Wednesday.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Just 17 days after they were allowed to reopen on June 12, San Diego County bars, breweries and wineries learned Monday that they will not be allowed to operate, at least not in the traditional sense, starting Wednesday at 12:01 a.m.

While restaurants will still be allowed to serve drinks with meals, no one will be allowed to stand around with drinks in their hands after the stroke of midnight Tuesday.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announced the decision, which follows a mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom over the weekend that asks bars to close in some California counties due to increasing rates of novel coronavirus transmission.

San Diego, though, is not on that list. But Fletcher, backed up by Dr. Wilma Wooten, the region’s public health officer, said it does not make sense to wait, given that local COVID-19 trend lines have been headed in the wrong direction for about a week now. Bars, he said, tend to encourage the kind of socializing that makes it easier to spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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“While San Diego County was not included in actions taken by the state, we believe it is appropriate, and we believe it is wise, for us to take this action now, given the increases we’ve seen in cases, in percentage of positive cases, in outbreaks and the increases in hospitalizations,” Fletcher said. “We don’t want to wait to be forced to take an action when we know it is the wise and responsible thing for us to do now.”

On Monday, the county announced 498 new COVID-19 cases, a single-day record and one more than was announced Sunday. Only one of the past seven single-day totals has been under 300 cases, and more worrisome, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 cases continues to climb, reaching 458 Sunday, significantly higher than the 346 hospitalizations tallied a week ago. The number of local COVID-19-associated deaths held steady at 361.

The announcement took some establishments by surprise.

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“We finally reopened,” said Rachel Dymond, co-owner of the Carriage House in Kearny Mesa. “I cannot believe this is happening again. It’s just unreal to me. Why bars? There are thousands of protesters, and they’re blaming bars.”

Air Conditioned Lounge owner Gary John Collins, though, said he was not surprised.

“When the governor did it yesterday for L.A. County, I thought, ‘We’re next.’” Collins said. “A lot of people are ignoring the guidelines, and here we are.”

Skip Coomber, co-founder of Coomber Craft Wines in Oceanside, said, “I guess what’s happened is we’ve taken one step back. It’s awkward, and it’s frustrating. But I understand and respect what they’re doing.”

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But the order applies to only those places that don’t serve food. It’s clear that, while the county is specifically forbidding anyone from standing around and having a drink, establishments that serve both food and alcohol may still serve customers while they’re seated.

Coomber said his winery has a license to serve food from four nearby restaurants, so he will be allowed to keep his doors open. But he’ll have to educate his staff and his customers about the need to eat and drink.

Meanwhile, Collins, the Air Conditioned Lounge owner, said he believes his bar on 30th Street near Adams Avenue is in the clear because he just started selling food as part of a collaboration with a food truck vendor, Tacos La Mezcla. His bar offers ceviche, shrimp cocktails and chips and salsa.

But it’s not, he added, like things have been booming since bars were allowed to reopen. A large outdoor space, he said, has not been packed.

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“We are very slow,” he said. “People come on the patio. It’s very spacious, and we haven’t had any capacity issues and not all the spaces available have been taken.”

San Diego County again hit a “trigger” threshold with the number of community COVID-19 outbreaks once more reaching seven in the past seven days. The latest two, officials said, occurred at restaurants on Sunday with two more detected Saturday at restaurants that also have bars.

It was clear Monday that the upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend is a major concern for local leaders. Asked whether the county might consider closing beaches this weekend, as Los Angeles County has, Fletcher was noncommittal, saying the county was in the process of reaching out to beach cities to “get a sense from them if there is some action they would like us to take.”

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But officials have said that they do expect to take additional actions to curtail allowed activities before the holiday arrives. Supervisor Greg Cox said that given the growth in cases, this should be a more subdued holiday than usual. He especially pleaded with the public to avoid traditional barbecue gatherings, which, he reiterated, have already generated many COVID-19 outbreaks.

“No barbecue is worth that,” he said.

Sisson, Weisberg and Kragen write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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