Less COVID, more visitors: Can San Diego keep it up?

La Jolla Cove in San Diego
Is now the time to head south to La Jolla Cove? San Diego County has some of the lowest coronavirus infection and death rates in Southern California.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In Little Italy, there’s never been more sidewalk dining. In Balboa Park, museum-goers are joining the joggers. In hotels from Coronado to Mission Valley, tourists are turning up.

San Diego County, where the desert meets the sea and the U.S. meets Mexico, now stands in the middle of a new sort of Venn diagram: For many weeks it has had the highest hotel occupancy rates on the West Coast and some of the lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates in Southern California.

These figures are welcome for local workers and visitors. The worry, of course, is that incautious tourists, or locals, could imperil everything.


“It’s a balance,” said Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the Little Italy Assn., which has helped restaurateurs add sidewalk tables.

As local officials and tourism leaders navigate the fine line between enough promotion and too much, visitors must make their own decisions.

With fewer restrictions in San Diego than in much of the rest of Southern California, is it time to eat a meal in a dining room rather than on another patio? Are you comfortable entering a museum? What if it’s a flight museum, with rooms big enough to hold a dozen aircraft?

Liberty Public Market
Liberty Public Market in San Diego is a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

The San Diego Tourism Authority, mindful of the risks, fills its videos with masked travelers and urges visitors to take a “Safe Traveler Pledge,” which includes mask-wearing, hand-washing, keeping six feet apart and using contactless payment.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom loosened restrictions on Aug. 28, San Diego was the only Southern California county allowed to open most of its restaurant dining rooms, museums, movie theaters and places of worship at 25% capacity. (Eleven days later, Orange County was given approval to do the same.)

As of Sept. 9, San Diego County reported 123.6 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents in the previous 14 days. The figure for Orange County was 106. For L.A. County, it was 152.4 cases.

But plenty of risks remain. With the new semester of hybrid learning just a few weeks old at San Diego State University, county health officials have reported 400 COVID-19 cases among students . In response, the university on Sept. 2 shut down most in-person classes for at least a month.

Meanwhile, state officials continue to discourage tourism, urging Californians to “avoid traveling long distances for vacations or pleasure as much as possible.”

Here are some scenes from a recent week around town:

Little Italy al fresco

The sidewalks are busy along India Street in San Diego's Little Italy neighborhood.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In Little Italy, just north of downtown, about 30 restaurants have been allowed to add tables on the sidewalk and in parking spaces, a move that has multiplied pedestrian energy on India Street, its main artery.

Those hundreds of new seats don’t make up for the revenue lost in recent months (especially in downtown areas dependent on convention and ballpark business), but even on a Tuesday night, the foot traffic was heavy and the mood was light.

Saxophone player Jason Brown was soloing over Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” on the Piazza della Famiglia at Date and India streets.

“This is healing,” said Brown, studying the crowd between tunes.

But at the corner of India and Fir streets, I counted 74 people who properly wore their masks, 61 with masks out of place or absent.

One of the restaurateurs’ biggest challenges, Li Mandri said, is “people who believe that it’s an infringement on their freedom to wear a mask. We say, ‘Go somewhere else.’”

The brighter side, Li Mandri added, is seeing business owners rehire many of the workers laid off in the spring. And now “we’re working on tents. Tents and heaters.”

Old ships and new seafood

Diners and drinkers at the Ketch at Portside Pier
Diners and drinkers at the Ketch, part of the new Portside Pier complex in San Diego.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

On the downtown waterfront, no big cruise ships have called since early spring. But the USS Midway Museum, a recycled aircraft carrier with more than a dozen vintage planes on its deck, is open. So is the San Diego Maritime Museum, whose 10 ships include the Star of India, built in 1863 and described as “the world’s oldest active sailing ship.”

Lights twinkle in the Star’s rigging after dark. A few steps away stands the Portside Pier, a two-level, three-restaurant complex that opened July 28 in a striking new building on Harbor Drive. The operation includes the Brigantine (seafood), Miguel’s Cocina (Mexican) and the Ketch, a bar and grill whose skeletal dome structure looks like a doodle made by Buckminster Fuller after four or five Coronas. Consider the tuna melt, which includes bacon and avocado.

Rebirths in Balboa Park

Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park
The Japanese Friendship Garden is open for visitors in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Most of Balboa Park’s cultural institutions have been closed for much of the summer (the San Diego Zoo opened June 20). Now that’s changing, and museum-goers are trickling in among the joggers and young families on the park’s lawns and walkways.

The park’s San Diego Air & Space Museum — able to move quickly because it never laid off staff — reopened Aug. 31. Labor Day weekend brought reopenings at the San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego History Center and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Even if you’re indifferent to trains, the museum’s miniature world is jaw-dropping.

The park’s lush Japanese Friendship Garden and Spanish Village art studios are open, and the Prado and Panama 66 restaurants are serving lunch daily. For other organizations, however, reopening will be a longer haul.

The park’s Natural History Museum and Fleet Science Center will remain closed through the end of the year. The Timken Museum of Art will stay closed through March. The Old Globe, Museum of Photographic Arts and several others are closed as well.

Rooms for rent

For the month that ended Aug. 15, lodging analyst STR found that San Diego’s hotels were 50% to 53% full.

Those would be abysmal numbers in any other year, but in 2020 they made San Diego the busiest hotel market on the West Coast, narrowly surpassing Los Angeles and San Francisco. (San Diego’s average room rate: $132, before taxes and fees.)

At the Hotel del Coronado, the county’s most iconic lodging, rooms were booked solid for most of the Labor Day weekend despite various pandemic measures and a renovation that has closed parts of the property.

The front desk is now outdoors in the garden patio, and the beach-facing Sun Deck and Sheerwater restaurants are busy. In the year ahead, the hotel is due to open a renewed lobby, spa and retail area.

In Mission Valley, the Legacy International Center, a hotel project of the late evangelist Morris Cerullo, opened early this year, and the familiar Town and Country Resort has moved into a new era.

The Town and Country, born in 1953 (when Mission Valley was mostly dairy farms) reopened in late June after a $70-million renovation that emphasizes its midcentury vibe.

The resort might make a solid family destination with its big pool, water slide and prices starting at $129. But it’s not there yet. During my Aug. 31-Sept. 2 stay, construction and landscaping were in progress, blocking guest walkways and filling the site (before 8 a.m.) with the sounds of shovels, saws, backhoes and other heavy machinery.

Pandemic or not, Griffith Park takes you to L.A.’s urban edge and plunges you into what remains of our wilder side. Let this mini-guide send you on your way.

SeaWorld resurfaces, La Jolla endures, Legoland waits

A view of kayakers from Goldfish Point in La Jolla
Kayakers paddle off Goldfish Point, near the Cave Store in La Jolla.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

On Mission Bay, SeaWorld San Diego reopened Aug. 28 with a limited schedule — Fridays through Sundays — and a bid to position itself as a zoo rather than a theme park.

The marine park, calling itself SeaWorld Zoo Days: Bayside BBQ and Brews, has opened a 40-acre outdoor area with animal presentations and exhibits along with barbecue, fish tacos and beer from local breweries. None of the park’s roller coasters, rides or arcade games is open.

In La Jolla, day-trippers and tourists are paddling rental kayaks near the basking sea lions. UCSD’s Birch Aquarium will reopen Sept. 15. On the busy Ocean Terrace at George’s at the Cove, tables are now separated by glass panels. Downstairs at the Level2 cocktail bar and restaurant, hostess Vivienne Gotz reported that “we’ve been booking out every weekend at least two weeks in advance.”

Even the quirky little Cave Store on La Jolla’s Coast Boulevard has found a way to open its self-guided sea cave tours. In August, access to the century-old sandstone tunnel beneath the shop was limited to a handful of customers each half hour, by advance reservation, but the Cave Store is now taking walk-ins on Tuesdays.

Farther up the coast in Carlsbad, Legoland remains closed. But the Legoland Hotel is open (“some of our lowest prices ever”), and guests can access the park’s Miniland USA. Also, the adjacent Sea Life Aquarium opened Sept. 4.