Compliance Vs. Survival | San Diego County's Looming Rollback Of Restrictions Will Continue To Kill Many Area Businesses

September 19, 2020

Speculation is mounting that on Tuesday, September 22, California Gavin Newsom will announce San Diego County's move to the state's most restrictive tier of COVID-19 precautions, meaning restaurants and many other business sectors will once again be forced to cease indoor operations. This latest in a series of rollbacks of restrictions will ring the death knell for many San Diego businesses and some are already saying they will refuse to comply. At this point, can we blame them?

It is believed that next Tuesday, Governor Newsom will announce San Diego County's movement into the state's most severe purple/widespread tier of COVID-19 restrictions, which will likely result in an order that indoor operations cease at restaurants, places of worship, movie theaters, museums, zoos, aquariums, gyms, dance studios, yoga studios, fitness centers, hair salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors, piercing shops, skin care and cosmetology services and nail salons. Rumors are swirling the California Restaurant Association has already been informed these restrictions will go into effect as of midnight on Friday, September 25. Several San Diego businesses have already reacted to the news with preemptive refusal to close indoor service again for the third time in 6 months.

"With no more money in the bank, and no clear path to a viable business model, [we] had to make an impossible decision," wrote San Diego steakhouse Cowboy Star's co-owner Jon Weber on a post on Eating & Drinking in San Diego Facebook Group. "If the county goes backwards and requires restaurants to cease indoor dining, we have only two choices. 1) We can follow the order and close. We will lock the door forever. We will lay off 54 members of our family that rely on us to pay their bills and support their families. Cowboy Star will cease to exist. We will lose everything we have worked for. Or 2) we can keep our doors open. We can continue to follow all the safety, sanitization protocols, and capacity restrictions that are in place today. The exact same requirements that are safe today, are they somehow unsafe next week? So, we made our decision. We’re not trying to be 'heroes' and we would never intend to be 'reckless', but we are going to try and survive. We are not going rogue and throwing out the playbook, quite the opposite actually, we’ve had more safety protocols in place than many businesses ever even thought of. We are not the only small business that has been backed into this corner, and now we are faced with survive or disappear forever. We are choosing to survive."

Other local restaurants including Rudford's in North Park and Bub's Bar & Grill in Pacific Beach have taken similar positions, citing an inability for their businesses to make ends meet with only outdoor seating. Rudford's owner Jeff Kacha even went as far as printing signs to distribute that read "STAND UP SMALL BUSINESS! #DEFY". Restaurants across the county and country are facing drastically reduced business due to coronavirus precautions on already razor thin margins, all the while continuing to pay rent and other businesses costs with little to no government assistance. Restaurants are also being forced to interpret, comply and pivot with so many frequently-changing requirements that they are now in a position where they must constantly police the actions of guests. Just this past Labor Day Weekend, a bar manager in San Diego was attacked when attempting to enforce the statewide facial covering policy.

Many notable San Diego restaurants have already permanently shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions, including the entire San Diego-based Souplantation chain after 42 years in business, Crab Catcher in La Jolla after four decades, Searsucker in the Gaslamp after a 10 year run, Donovan's Steak & Chophouse after 12 years, Whisknladle in La Jolla after a dozen years, The Oceanaire Seafood Room in the Gaslamp after 15 years, The Dubliner on 4th Avenue after almost 20 years, and most recently, 9 year-old Tiger! Tiger! Tavern in North Park. The review platform Yelp recently published a report finding that, as of the end of August, nearly 163,000 total businesses on Yelp had closed since the beginning of March, a 23% increase since July. Of those shutters, 32,109 are restaurants and 6,451 are bars. Yelp's ominous report predicted 61% of those currently shuttered businesses would never reopen. The James Beard Foundation and the Independent Restaurant Coalition recently surveyed independent restaurant operators and one-third said they would not be able to stay in business through October without some financial assistance. The National Restaurant Association has predicted the industry is likely to lose $240 billion in 2020 because of the pandemic.

"Right now where I'm standing, I'm saying we can't close," said Bub's Bar & Grill owner Todd Brown. "If we close now, we're not going to reopen. We've had this place for 22 years, and if we close now, I don't see us opening back up. We have no PPP money. We don't have any of that stuff. It's all exhausted. I mean, the walk ins get filled up, the beer and the liquor go on the shelves and then two weeks later you're going to shut us down again? That doesn't make any sense."

So what does one do when faced with the prospect of losing a business they worked tirelessly to build? How can we expect business owners to continue to bleed money and ultimately lose everything if they comply with ever-changing health orders that many deem hypocritically applied? The issue has moved beyond public health and is not part of a partisan divide. At this point, this is about survival for many businesses beyond solely the hospitality sphere. It is a convenient position to take that these select businesses should comply for the sake of alleged public health when them doing so would ensure their demise. California is currently the only state in the country where restaurants in less than 50% of the state are forbidden to host diners indoors.

"We are not looking to defy anything, and I would hate to be in the leaderships' roles, but you know, there has been a lack of consistency, and we need to have local control - the county, at best." said Thruster's Lounge owner Nick Zanoni. "The state can't be making decisions for us. But, the answer is, we can't follow an order that is an impossibility for our business to survive... We could be as clean as an operating room. It doesn't matter if greater society is still open and moving about. Places don't spread it. It's people gathering, and so it's really inconsistent and the burden is just landing on us unfortunately. Hospitality is uniquely put in that position."

San Diego restaurants were first forced to shut down all onsite operations other than take-out and delivery on March 17. San Diego restaurants were finally permitted to open with restrictions on May 20, but due to rising COVID-19 numbers were ordered to shut down indoor operations on July 13. On August 18, San Diego County was removed from the state monitoring list, but a new 4-tier structure of restrictions was introduced on August 28, allowing for the reopening of indoor operations among several business sectors, including restaurants, starting on Monday, August 31. Predictions are Governor Newsom will announce San Diego County's move to the highest and most severely restricted tier next week due to rising coronavirus metrics. This change will result in many non-essential indoor business operations being forced to close for at least 2 weeks until data is reviewed once again at the state level.

One of several large gatherings along San Diego's Sail Bay on Saturday, September 5
A great deal of attention surrounding rising local COVID-19 cases has been directed at San Diego State University, which topped more than 700 positives since in-person classes resumed in late August. San Diego County Board of Supervisors pressed Governor Gavin Newsom to exclude the university's cases from the county's overall count in an effort to avoid movement into the most restrictive tier but was told by the governor this week that was not an option. This past Thursday, the Board of Supervisors met in a closed session to discuss the possibility of legal action against the state in order to protect the county from being moved to the purple/widespread tier, but no decisions were made. Another closed session of the Board of Supervisors will meet on September 21 & 22 to further discuss the possibility of litigation. Small business owners have also planned to gather in front of the San Diego County Administration Center at 4pm on September 21 for the We Mean Business rally in protest of rolling back restrictions.

Many are speculating county and independent city officials may refuse to enforce new restrictions if the governor imposes them next week. El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells already came forward to announce his position not to enforce laws or regulations over businesses who violate pandemic rules for opening.