San Diego County escapes being elevated to most restrictive tier

Dr. Rodney Hood speaks during a press conference Monday with community members and medical professionals.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Latest scores from the state keep the region in the red for at least two more weeks.


San Diego County business owners surely breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday, Sept. 22, as the state’s latest COVID-19 reopening report showed the region in the red tier for another week.

Had the county’s collective case rate been over 7 cases per 100,000 residents, the COVID risk-ranking system would have automatically moved the home of the Padres to the more restrictive purple tier, reserved for locations where the novel coronavirus is thought to be spreading most quickly.

An adjusted average score of 6.9 cases per 100,000 residents and a positive test rate of 3.8 percent improved upon last week’s adjusted scores of 8.1 and 4.3 by enough to keep businesses, houses of worship and other organizations from having to move their operations back outdoors after only recently regaining the ability to resume fractional use of indoor spaces.

It takes two straight weeks of bad numbers for a county to topple a tier and had the case rate been over 7 again this week, local leaders would have found themselves with a decision to make. They would have had to choose one of two paths: go along with the reductions that dropping a tier would require or revolt by refusing to enforce such edicts, subjecting the region to millions in lost state revenue and a very public fight with Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Tuesday’s numbers clearly diffused what could otherwise have been a very tense standoff. Supervisors made it clear last week that they thought positive cases among San Diego State University students should have been removed from the state’s calculations and, after meeting behind closed doors Thursday and Monday, seemed ready to choose a different path had the purple tier been a certainty.

But there remains a growing discontent among many, especially small-business owners and employees who have seen their livelihoods evaporate during six long months of government shutdowns, to split from the state and reopen at a faster pace.

Before attending a special meeting to discuss the latest state results Tuesday, Supervisor Jim Desmond attended a rally in Carlsbad alongside Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner to support an online petition that demands that the governor loosen his current tier-based strategy.

Under the red tier, restaurants are able to use 25 percent of their indoor capacity, a fraction that restaurateurs, including Lesley Cohn of the Cohn Restaurant Group and Mike Morton Jr., president of The Brigantine Restaurant Group, said is not enough.

The percentages allowed by the current tier, Desmond argued at the event, are simply unsustainable.

“There’s no business plan for a gym at 10 percent capacity to be successful,” he said. “There’s no business plan for a restaurant to be open and operating at 25 percent capacity.”

But in the supervisors’ afternoon meeting, Desmond did not demand that his colleagues depart from the state tier system, come what may. Instead, he asked his fellow supervisors to support a letter to the state supporting alternative measures that could be used to gauge local success in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

He said the weekly worries over the number of cases, and whether those totals might be affected by forces that are beyond local control, such as university reopenings, has been “very trying on people and very harmful.”

County Health Officer Dr. Wooten said that many public health officers, herself included, are already making suggestions to the state that argue for considering other factors that could create a ranking system with a broader base than the current two-factor one used by the state.

Additional “secondary” metrics, Wooten said, that she and many of her colleagues favor include taking into account local hospitalization and intensive care admissions, the local speed of contact tracing and positive case investigations and whether regions are doing enough to provide access to testing and treatment services for disadvantaged residents.

“These are suggestions that we have made and will continue to make to the state, as we get through these next several weeks, in improving the state’s metrics system,” Wooten said.

The board ultimately voted 4-1 to send a letter to the state indicating that it supports such efforts. Supervisor Nathan Fletcher was the lone no vote and indicated that what’s really needed is simply a unified effort around the simple measures — hand washing, social distancing and mask wearing — that, if followed day in and day out, will further slow the rate of person-to-person transmission.

“We can continue every week to search for a new metric that will somehow meet an outcome that we want, or we could just devote our energy toward slowing the spread and getting the case count down and opening folks when it’s appropriate and when we’re reasonably certain that they’re going to be able to stay open for awhile,” Fletcher said.

Local coronavirus numbers Tuesday, Sept. 22, included 222 additional cases announced among 8,130 test results returned for a positive rate of 3 percent. The number of COVID patients in local hospitals remained under 300.

The latest report also included five additional deaths, bringing the total to 765. Three of the five, all said to be in their 50s or 60s, had no other underlying medical conditions, underlining the fact that this disease remains highly infectious and able to kill healthy people.

The 6.9 case rate included in the state’s latest report was one-tenth of a case higher than it otherwise would have been due to an adjustment that penalized the region for performing fewer tests, on average, than the state as a whole.

County officials said Tuesday that the state refused to include more than 1,000 tests performed on San Diego State students due to last-minute questions about the lab that performed the diagnostic work under contract with the university. Had those tests been included, Wooten said, the local rate would have not been adjusted and would have remained at an average of 6.8 cases per 100,000 residents, the number that the county’s latest data release indicated Monday, Sept. 21.

Wooten said her office is continuing to work with the state on an “adjudication” process to get the tests included.

Businesses said during Tuesday’s gathering in Carlsbad that they are not asking for carte blanche to throw their doors open and serve customers as they used to before the pandemic.

Desmond said the petition drive was not “medical versus business.”

“They’re all willing to do the right thing,” he said about business owners. “They are innovative. They’re resilient. They’re entrepreneurs. They have invested thousands of dollars to protect their workers and their customers.”

Wagner reiterated that businesses already have best-practice manuals on how to open safely, and he said the governor was on his “third scheme” for how to deal with coronavirus.

“It’s fairly clear that he’s making it up as he goes along,” he said, adding that the hospitalization rate in Orange County has been low and the county had done what the governor had requested.

Cohn said she and her husband had to lay off about 1,800 of their 2,000 employees earlier this year. Since being allowed to partially reopen, they have hired back about 1,200 employees, she said.

“Unfortunately, as of today, everything we’ve built over the past 38 years is in jeopardy,” she said of her group’s 26 restaurants.

Morton, whose restaurant group includes Miguel’s Cocina in the same parking lot as Draft Republic in Carlsbad, said more than 1,200 employees were furloughed at the first shutdown in March, and several hundred thousand dollars in perishable food was lost.

“Just 25 percent maintenance is not going to do it,” he said. “We’ve got to get bigger than that.”

“We just want to get back to operating safely, with greater capacity, socially distanced, mask-wearing, all the safety protocols,” he said.

— Paul Sisson and Gary Warth are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune