Bars that don’t serve food to close as county responds to local coronavirus surge

Bartender Penny Clack, works at Carriage House bar in Kearny Mesa.
Bartender Penny Clack works at Carriage House bar in Kearny Mesa, which, like other bars in the county that don’t serve food, will close July 1 in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
(John Gastaldo / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Just 17 days after they were allowed to reopen June 12, San Diego County bars, breweries and wineries learned June 29 that they will not be allowed to operate, at least not in the traditional sense, starting at 12:01 a.m. July 1 due to increasing rates of COVID-19 coronavirus transmission.

While restaurants will still be allowed to serve drinks with meals, no one will be allowed to stand around with drinks in their hands.

The decision, announced by county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, follows a mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom, released over the weekend, that asks bars in some California counties to close.

San Diego County is not on that list. But Fletcher, backed by Dr. Wilma Wooten, the region’s public health officer, said it doesn’t make sense to wait given that local COVID-19 trend lines, though currently less severe than in other places, have been headed in the wrong direction for about a week. Bars, Fletcher said, tend to encourage the kind of socializing that makes it easier to spread the virus.

“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.”

Establishments with licenses to serve food can do so, and alcohol also can be on the menu, though food and drink must be purchased together as part of the same transaction.

Establishments that stay open and essentially turn themselves into restaurants should make sure they enforce the rules on their properties, county officials said. Work is underway to increase enforcement of COVID-19 orders as the Fourth of July weekend approaches, Wooten said.

“Enforcing the regulations that are already in place will help to bring our numbers down,” Wooten said.

On June 29, the county announced 498 new coronavirus cases, a single-day record and one more than announced the day before. Only one of the past seven single-day totals has been under 300 cases, and the number of related hospitalizations continues to climb, reaching 458 on June 28, significantly higher than the 346 hospitalizations tallied a week earlier. The number of local COVID-19-associated deaths held at 361.

The county again hit a “trigger” threshold, with the number of community coronavirus outbreaks again reaching seven in the past seven days. The latest two, officials said, occurred at local restaurants June 28, with two more detected the day before at restaurants that also have bars.

The county was unable to provide information June 29 on how many of San Diego County’s 13,832 total confirmed cases to date had recently visited bars, wineries or breweries. Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of epidemiology for the county, said his office is working to make such information more easily available to the public.

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

But officials have said they do expect to take additional actions to curtail currently allowed activities before the Fourth 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 this weekend. Such events, he said, have already generated many coronavirus outbreaks.

“No barbecue is worth that,” he said. ◆