San Diego Nightlife Hotspots Are Also Outbreak Hotspots, Analysis Shows
A night out in the city of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter has a decidedly different look during the pandemic. A blocked off street gives way to a makeshift promenade and parking meters sit in front of pop-up dining rooms.
Such measures, meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, are being replicated in neighborhoods throughout San Diego County. But a KPBS analysis of community outbreak data at the ZIP code level shows that downtown San Diego and a handful of other neighborhoods have the most at stake.
The ZIP code 92101, which includes the Gaslamp as well as Little Italy and the East Village, had at least 14 community outbreaks, more than any other ZIP code countywide, according to the analysis of data obtained by KPBS that runs through late July. An outbreak is defined as three or more cases involving people who don’t live together that can be traced back to one location.
Overall, more than a third of outbreaks during the pandemic’s first five months were traced to establishments in only four ZIP codes. Next on the list, after 92101, with eleven outbreaks was the 92109 ZIP code, which includes Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. The other two high-outbreak ZIP codes are in the South Bay, where more than 40% of the outbreaks hit food processing or manufacturing facilities.
While officials have provided countywide outbreak totals — and more recently breakdowns by city — this is the first public look at outbreak data at the ZIP code level. San Diego County officials have refused to release the exact locations of community outbreaks, arguing that doing so would have a chilling effect on businesses and individuals freely sharing information with county staff.
KPBS has joined a lawsuit filed by Voice of San Diego against the county for exact outbreak locations. The news organizations argue that the public’s right to know outweighs the concerns of an individual business. Also, in the past the county has released specific community locations where cases of other infectious diseases have occurred, most notably during the 2017 hepatitis A outbreak.
KPBS obtained the ZIP code level data through California Public Records Act requests to multiple cities in the county. The county health department did not respond to an interview request for this story.
New plans in the Gaslamp
Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, said he wasn’t surprised by the large number of outbreaks in the 92101 ZIP code because it has one of the highest volumes of restaurants and bars in the city. Nearly two-thirds of the ZIP code’s community outbreaks occurred in eateries that have their own bars.
“So really it would make sense with all the employees that are working down here and all the different establishments that our number would be higher than say Del Mar or La Jolla or other places,” Trimble said during an interview Thursday evening in the heart of the Gaslamp as football fans at outdoor tables cheered on the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans.
However, Trimble said he was not aware that any outbreaks in the 92101 ZIP code had been linked back to establishments in the Gaslamp district.
“If it happened here, I would know about it, and at this point I don't know of anyone who had an outbreak in the Gaslamp,” he said, but he noted there is no mandate for any member business to report an outbreak to the association.
Trimble said the association launched its outdoor dining initiative and a pledge to protect customer safety after images of dense crowds surfaced when bars first reopened in June. A San Diego Union-Tribune journalist’s photos showed scores of uncovered faces descending on the Gaslamp, sparking condemnation from a state legislator.
“It really lit a fire under my office and my association and really taught the merchants that people are watching what we're doing,” Trimble said.
The association obtained a city permit to close the road for on-street dining during certain hours five nights a week. It also hired a consultant and private security to enforce safety regulations and distribute masks, Trimble said.
At least two establishments in Little Italy closed after employees fell ill, the Little Italy Association district manager said.
“The Association has been continually reminding businesses about the State and County guidelines and if a business is reported to us, we educate them on what is needed to get into compliance,” Chris Gomez said in an email.
The East Village Association did not return an email message from KPBS.
Managing beach crowds
The 92109 ZIP code, which includes Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, experienced 11 total outbreaks, with eight in the “restaurants/bars” category.
Sara Berns, executive director of the neighborhood business association Discover Pacific Beach, said the coastal communities draw a high volume of locals and tourists, especially during the Memorial Day to Labor Day period.
“People are coming in to the beach and with that they're bringing symptoms and coronavirus, and so it's not surprising it's happening here,” Berns said.
Berns said the business group helps ensure owners are familiar with the latest public health regulations to protect customers — a challenge when guidelines can vary at each level of government and changes with little notice.
“Businesses care about preventing outbreaks — I mean, their staff is probably the one most at risk — and they're trying to stay open to feed their families and so that their staff can feed their families,” Berns said.
But like the Gaslamp, Pacific Beach became a poster child for flouting the county’s health order thanks to one restaurant.
Video posted on social media showed customers, many without face coverings, packed inside El Prez sports bar and restaurant. Supervisor Nathan Fletcher aired the footage during a televised county news conference and announced the business would close until the owner proved they could operate the facility safely. The business eventually reopened.
Berns said she was unaware whether an outbreak was linked to El Prez, and the restaurant did not respond to messages from KPBS. Nonetheless, Berns said she welcomed the county’s swift action.
“That's what we want to see, us as a community; that those that are not following the rules or need assistance with the rules are getting that,” Berns said.
ZIP code 92154, which covers Otay Mesa, and Chula Vista’s 91911 had the third and fourth highest outbreak totals, respectively. The Otay Mesa area had 10, four of which occurred in food processing facilities.
A representative for the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce said she had not heard of an outbreak occurring in one of its member businesses.
In 91911, a total of nine outbreaks were spread across seven categories, including two each at adult day care and faith-based facilities, one at a manufacturing facility and one at a food processing center.
Lisa Cohen, CEO Of Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, said she did not know the identities of those that experienced outbreaks. But she said she personally visited establishments along a main commercial corridor in Chula Vista and was confident in measures they implemented.
“I went up and down Broadway to businesses of all different sizes — some were corporate and some were mom and pop — and I was very impressed with the protocols they had in place,” she said.
L.A. is an exception
Like San Diego, the vast majority of California counties have not released outbreak locations. A notable exception is Los Angeles County, where the department of public health regularly publishes the business names and addresses of outbreaks to a public website.
“The sharing of COVID-19 outbreaks and contact tracing has been a goal of the Department to maintain transparency with our LA County community in hopes to educate, protect and improve health and well-being of the 10 million residents we serve,” a health department spokeswoman said in an email.
However, San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said her L.A. counterparts post the information because the department cannot adequately investigate potential outbreaks in such a large county.
“L.A. does not have the capacity to do the investigations the way that we do them, and if you call any other health department in Southern California, no other health department does what L.A. does,” Wooten said in response to a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter’s question.
KPBS asked the L.A. County health department about Wooten’s comments but a spokeswoman said the agency’s subject matter expert was unavailable to respond.
San Diego officials have said they will announce the location of a coronavirus outbreak if there is a concern for public safety and residents need to take any action, but the county has yet to do so.
Laurel McFarlane, the consultant hired by the Gaslamp Quarter Association, said a business should notify patrons if any cases are linked to the facility, but she didn’t agree with publicizing the information further.
“I do feel there’s a responsibility to let your customers know, but I don’t know if there’s a responsibility to let everyone know because it’s really about keeping the people who came safe and knowledgeable,” said McFarlane, who runs a large events business.
But she said if reporting publicly was the rule, the business association would follow that.
“If that's something they feel we need to do more and do it publicly, then we'll follow those rules too,” McFarlane said. “Everyone’s just trying to follow the rules right now.”