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La Jolla businesses work to adapt again as county falls into most restrictive coronavirus tier

Warwick's bookstore hopes to weather purple tier restrictions cutting retail stores' indoor occupancy to 25 percent.
Warwick’s bookstore on Girard Avenue hopes to weather purple tier restrictions cutting retail stores’ indoor occupancy to 25 percent.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

La Jolla restaurants, retailers, gyms and other businesses are adapting their plans and hoping to weather the latest round of restrictions as San Diego County moves into the state’s most restrictive COVID-19 tier. The restrictions, which must be in effect by Saturday, Nov. 14, prohibit many businesses from operating indoors and further limit the capacity for indoor occupancy for many others.

The county’s fall from the red tier to the purple tier, the lowest of four, came Nov. 10 after two weeks of coronavirus case numbers higher than seven per 100,000 residents, exceeding state guidelines for red tier status. The state’s latest report had San Diego County measuring 8.9 per 100,000.

Purple status means restaurants, gyms, houses of worship, museums, movie theaters, zoos and aquariums must stop indoor operations. They can still operate outdoors. Under the red tier, they could be open indoors at limited capacity.

Retail stores and shopping centers must cut their indoor capacity to 25 percent from the red tier’s 50 percent.

Schools that have not already reopened for in-person instruction must remain in distance learning. Schools and districts can apply for a county waiver to reopen for elementary students. Schools already open do not have to close.

This chart shows what to expect as San Diego County falls from the red tier to the purple tier in coronavirus restrictions.
This chart shows what to expect as San Diego County falls from Tier 2, or the red tier, to Tier 1, or the purple tier, in the state’s framework of coronavirus restrictions.

A county in the purple tier must remain there until it maintains case rates under seven for two weeks.

The new rules are the latest in a series of varying restrictions placed on businesses and organizations since March because of the pandemic. The upheaval has resulted in many businesses closing, either temporarily or for good, and others making major adjustments to stay afloat.

A lawsuit filed late Nov. 12 by two San Diego County restaurants and two gyms seeks an emergency injunction that would halt the restrictions.

The four businesses — Cowboy Star and Butcher Shop, Home and Away Encinitas, Fit Athletic Club and Bear Republic — filed the legal action on behalf of all restaurants and gyms, asserting that the state and county orders interfere with their rights and violate the California Constitution.

They want a judge to grant an injunction that would allow affected businesses to be open indoors under required sanitation and social distancing protocols.

The case is scheduled to be heard Tuesday, Nov. 17, by San Diego County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel.

La Jolla store manager Natalie Aguirre said several businesses will be affected by the shift to the purple tier and she worries about stores closing when there are already so many empty storefronts in The Village.

She urged people to shop at local businesses instead of on the internet. “Always look to see if you can get it in The Village before you go online,” she said.

Nancy Warwick, owner of Warwick’s bookstore on Girard Avenue, said the fourth quarter of the year, which includes the holiday period, is “the most important time” for the store. She anticipates a “significant reduction of sales” with the reduced capacity, an effect she said was “already inevitable because of COVID.”

Warwick said she’s holding out hope that customers will still shop in the store or through online ordering for pickup, shipping and delivery.

“It’s a critical time for everyone to support local businesses,” she said. “We feel much gratitude for the support we’ve received during this pandemic. The shift to purple will require everyone to be more patient and prepared, but I believe this is the time to find ways to be positive, hopeful and committed to our community.”

The La Jolla Historical Society’s gallery on Prospect Street also will continue to operate under retail standards.

“We are keeping the Wisteria Cottage Gallery open in compliance with state of California guidance for in-store retail,” said Executive Director Heath Fox. “Visitors to the gallery in recent weeks have been in low numbers but regular, and we have appreciated our visitors’ compliance with posted public health requirements. We are therefore comfortable remaining open under retail guidelines.

“The Office & Research Center will also remain open to the public on a by-appointment basis only. Appointments are for one researcher, or two from the same family, at a time. ... Visitors to both facilities are required to wear face masks, observe social distancing guidelines and provide their name and contact information.”

Many La Jolla restaurants have instituted or expanded outdoor dining since the summer as a way to lessen the impact of coronavirus-related limits on indoor service.

Outdoor dining on Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla Shores has begun after months of planning and negotiating hurdles that nearly took the program off the table.

Megan Heine, co-owner of Brockton Villa and Beaumont’s, said closing her restaurants’ indoor spaces “seems like three steps forward and two back.”

Without an indoor option, Heine said, the outdoor dining areas “become more and more expensive to maintain” in terms of renting or purchasing tents, umbrellas and heaters as the weather transitions from summer and fall to winter.

“Our priority remains keeping our staff and guests safe,” Heine said. “We have been doing everything by the book. … [It’s] really disappointing and frustrating.”

Customers eat outdoors at Puesto on Wall Street in La Jolla on Nov. 13.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Bistro du Marché owner Sylvie Diot said she is “torn” about moving to the purple tier. “The business is important to us, and operating in a healthy surrounding is also a major concern. A continued solidarity is our hope for the difficult winter that we are facing. Thank you to the community: you are already fantastic, and we must go on.”

Representatives of Nine-Ten and Catania restaurants did not respond to requests for comment.

Children reach into a shallow tank to pet sea creatures at the tide pools exhibit at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla on Nov. 12.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In deference to the new restrictions, Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will begin operating outdoors only on Nov. 14, according to Marketing Director Beth Chee.

“We have added a number of new outdoor experiences,” she said, “and will continue adding new activities throughout the next month.”

Plans for gym facilities at Life Time La Jolla are still being finalized, but the intent is to remain open as restrictions allow, according to Life Time Chief Operating Officer Jeff Zwiefel.

In a statement provided to the La Jolla Light, Zwiefel said: “We can confidently say Life Time is not contributing to a rise or spread in coronavirus cases, and yet we — along with our industry as a whole — continue to be grouped inappropriately with others. We have implemented some of the most robust safety protocols that exist, and they are proving effective at keeping our members and employees safe. Our members are telling us every day how thankful they are Life Time is open and how confident they are in the safety protocols we have in place. We will continue working diligently to remain open to help members improve their immune systems and mental wellness through exercise.”

The Life Time fitness club on Wall Street in La Jolla is pictured Nov. 13.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Since mid-May, he said, Life Time clubs nationwide have been visited “more than 19.4 million times with reported confirmed cases of 962, less than .004 percent. ... Our contact tracing capabilities are among the best and we have not had any evidence to suggest transmission is occurring in our spaces, nor that any cases are originating in our spaces.”

Since late October, gyms have made up just 0.5 percent of the locations that residents told case investigators they had visited in the two weeks before the onset of illness, according to the county’s COVID-19 Watch report. Bars and restaurants have come up in 10 percent of interviews. Places of worship were mentioned by 3 percent of those interviewed.

By comparison, about a third of those interviewed said they went to work in the two weeks before they first felt sick. A similar portion
reported spending time at another person’s house, and one in five said they had traveled.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, alluded to that data in an adjudication request filed to the state Nov. 5 asking that the county not enter the purple tier because “San Diego’s increased cases are not due to the sectors impacted by moving into a more restrictive tier.”

The request was denied.

Brett Murphy, La Jolla Sports Club owner and La Jolla Village Merchants Association president, said he was still deciding how his club would operate in light of the new restrictions. But he offered the following message to all La Jolla merchants:

“The county has already come around and said they will be cracking down heavily on [enforcing the new restrictions]. ... I would ask three things of the business community: compassion, this is such a hard moment for everyone; patience, we have to have patience with people, workers and the overall situation; and respect, for those around you and those that are working. ...

“As the owner of La Jolla Sports Club, I’m concerned about public health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. ... COVID is a terrible thing and we should be aware of it, but I think it’s important to prevent heart disease while we are in this process. I beg everyone to eat healthy, work out and don’t smoke.”

—The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.