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San Diego Has Sunk Back To Purple Tier. What Does That Mean?

Maribel Estrada, the owner of El Toro Grill Taqueria, talks about her restaurant in City Heights, Nov. 5, 2020.
Claire Trageser
Maribel Estrada, the owner of El Toro Grill Taqueria, talks about her restaurant in City Heights, Nov. 5, 2020.

It was the middle of the afternoon, and El Toro Grill Taqueria in City Heights was completely empty of customers. Still, owner Maribel Estrada was hustling through her small restaurant. She took orders over the phone and through a walk-up ordering window she'd made that opened to the street.

"When we were at 25% capacity, that's three tables inside," she said. "That's not much, but it was helping a little."

San Diego Has Sunk Back To Purple Tier. What Does That Mean?
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

Unfortunately, Estrada can kiss those three tables goodbye for the time being. San Diego County has sunk back to the dreaded purple tier, the worst possible ranking in California’s system meant to control COVID-19 spread.

The move backward, which became official on Tuesday, means restaurants must close all indoor dining spaces, gyms must close indoor operations and schools that have not yet opened cannot reopen.

For months, San Diego County stayed in a narrow range, teetering on the edge of the red and purple tiers. Yet, we haven’t seen a huge surge in cases or hospitalizations as is happening in other parts of the country, which is exactly what the tier system is meant to prevent, said San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.

"The tier system is designed so we don't wake up and have a problem like we're seeing in other states. We have checks that stop you before you hit true exponential spread and growth," he said. "It's a system that's working well for California right now."

RELATED: San Diego County Will Enter Purple Tier Saturday As COVID-19 Cases Increase

San Diego Has Sunk Back To Purple Tier. What Does That Mean?

The San Diego region is seeing a rise in cases and hospitalizations, he added.

Along with the tier system keeping restrictions in place based on case counts, the San Diego region has had good weather on its side, said Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an epidemiologist at UC San Diego. Good weather helps people stay outside, where COVID-19 is far less likely to spread.

"After those heat waves over Labor Day, I was curious to see if we'd have spikes in cases, because if it's 100 degrees in San Diego, people will go inside. So I look to see little bumps after heat advisories," she said. "When there was a heat wave and fire, you see a little bump after that, and after that heat wave in late September, you see cases climb, so you can see a pattern in the data."

As rain and colder weather comes in the next few months, Fielding-Miller worries that more people will take their gatherings inside, which could increase spread. Fletcher said he hopes the tier system doesn’t come under attack if that does happen.

"We have to recognize and understand that there is no economic recovery when you have increases in cases," said Fletcher, who has been helping lead the county's strategy on COVID-19. "That's not just because of the tier system and restrictions, but that's the general public that is not comfortable and confident and willing to go out and do these types of things."

Fletcher added that he believes the county would have been better off if it had opened more gradually in July when the tier system was implemented rather than immediately opening all establishments that were allowed under the red tier.

"We opened everything associated with red the very first day that we could, and I strongly felt that we needed to wait, we were on a downward trajectory," he said. "Get down to where you have really low spread and then when you have really low spread, then you can be a little more open with some of the things you're doing without the risk of closing people down."

A sign at El Toro Grill Taqueria in City Heights, Nov. 5, 2020.
Claire Trageser
A sign at El Toro Grill Taqueria in City Heights, Nov. 5, 2020.

Up until now, Fletcher has been the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors and on the losing end of many 4-to-1 votes. But now, two additional Democrats will take office in January, giving that party the majority.

Fletcher said that majority could change some things about the county's COVID-19 response, but that reopening decisions are made by the county's public health officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, not the supervisors. He also complained that law enforcement has been reluctant to issue citations for violating public health orders, but said supervisors are also powerless to change that.

"There's nothing a majority board of supervisors can do," he said. "The sheriff can set his own posture. You could have all five supervisors and it wouldn't matter."

Still, Fletcher said, a majority board could vote to use more county staff on the COVID-19 response, including issuing public health cease and desist orders.

Incoming Supervisor Nora Vargas, who will represent much of the South Bay, said she also plans on the board directing more resources to testing and education.

"San Diego still has a lot of work to be done," she said. "There's still not enough access to testing or basic needs."

Vargas wants free rapid testing in the South Bay, and more education and outreach to Spanish-speaking communities.

"We also have to stop politicizing health care," she said. "It's become this conversation about the small business community versus peoples' health, and I don't know how we ended up in that situation. We need to provide more resources to keep small businesses afloat, and if we hold on tight right now we'll get out of this sooner."

That may be true, but El Toro Grill owner Estrada isn't sure she can hang on much longer if the restaurant she and her husband have ran for 10 years has to close its indoor dining.

"We don't have a lot of space outside, only four tables outside," she said, gesturing at small tables that hug her restaurant's walls and sit on the sidewalk on El Cajon Boulevard. "And we've had a lot of problems with homeless people bothering customers."

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