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San Diego’s Staggering COVID-19 Surge

Cover image for podcast episode

PHOTO BY GREGORY BULL / AP PHOTO

Above: A man passes a store that closed as part of efforts to combat the spread of the new coronavirus Thursday, April 9, 2020, in San Diego.

New efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in San Diego, Amazon's Jeff Bezos donates millions to help local climate change research, and a major development in Mission Valley gets final approval from the city.

Speaker 1: 00:01 New restrictions, including a county-wide curfew with the COVID 19 surge, all medical personnel and hospitals are coping. The Salk Institute gets a big grant from the world's richest man to support plant research, to mitigate climate change. And a $3 billion project will transform a mission Valley golf course into a model of sustainable development. I'm Mark Sauer, the KPBS round table starts. Now. [inaudible] welcome to our discussion to the week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer, and joining me on this remote version of the round table today. KPBS health reporter, Taron mento, Gary Robbins, who covers science and technology for the San Diego union Tribune and KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. This weekend efforts to deal with an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases will reach a new level, a statewide overnight curfew for non-essential activity begins Saturday. It will last a full month and when it comes to enforcement expect to see cops take a more active role as sheriff bill Gore, put it plainly this week. Where are those masks out there, here to sort through it all and give us an update on progress toward a vaccine is KPBS health reporter Tarren mental high Terran A-mark will give us a general idea of the local situation, how it's worse, and when it comes to rising case levels over the past couple of weeks. And how are hospitals coping

Speaker 2: 01:28 Earlier this month? Uh, County public health officer, dr. Wilma Wooten said, you know, our target for daily cases would be 200 or below that's where they would like to see it in order to keep us at, at that time in our current stage of reopening. But we know that we have seen a significant increase in cases. You know, it was between the 300 to 400 range being reported every day. Um, in the last week we've seen that completely skyrocket. At one point we were over a thousand cases announced in one day. So it's been just an incredible uptick and that as a lot of people know, pushed us back into a more restrictive stage of the re state's reopening plan. Uh, businesses had to shut down indoor operations and hospitals are also seeing an increase, uh, supervisor Nathan Fletcher. Did we saw a doubling in hospitalization?

Speaker 2: 02:16 So we're over about 400, maybe four 25 was the last number I saw in, you know, a month ago we were in the two hundreds and we've also seen ICU cases increase a little bit, maybe in the low seventies a month ago, and now we're over a hundred again. And so that shows us that we're seeing more, uh, severe illnesses that were requiring that type of care. And that's putting concern. Um, that's placing concern that we're overstretching our hospital resources, and that's always what we've been trying to, to protect against and control the spread against, because that just means that maybe there won't be enough resources to go around if we ever get into a dire circumstance and no one wants to see it, that

Speaker 1: 02:52 It's different. Now, why are local leaders worried about what they're seeing or not seeing as the case may be for those who aren't following guidelines? Well, I mean, we've broken

Speaker 2: 03:00 Records, uh, three times. Um, we've had the most amount of cases reported one day with a thousand and we've had the second, most amount of cases reported with over 900. Then just yesterday, we had 899 cases reported. And what happens is it's about two, three, four weeks after we see a surge in cases, you usually see a jump in and hospitalizations. We're starting to see that increase in. So there's concern about two, three, four weeks from now, what's going to happen to our hospitals. And also we have, um, like I said, entered a more restrictive stage of reopening. This has kind of been, you know, businesses have been opening and closing, opening and closing, and there's a lot of people who are very, very worried that they'll never reopen again. And so some people are talking about how they're just going to defy these orders. And the County is really concerned about that. Cause that could further increase spread. We're also going into the holidays where people gather at homes, which is where we've seen a lot of case spreads. So there's just a lot of factors that are making a lot of people, very worried that we could see this grow out of control. And this is some of the highest daily case totals that we've seen since the beginning of the pandemic. So eight months into it now are at a point where we're breaking records,

Speaker 1: 04:07 Pandemic fatigue is certainly taking hold by a thrill up for a lot of people. Unfortunately now there's changes at the state level that includes a month long, overnight curfew begins this weekend. Why did the governor announced this stuff

Speaker 2: 04:18 Again? Just because an unprecedented increase in cases, this is again, haven't seen this, you know, eight months in the pandemic. This is the highest increase that we've seen over that time. So the governor is very concerned about that because don't want to put pressure on our hospitals and also, you know, we want to maintain people's health and don't want to see this spread even further to individuals because we know that it can be incredibly severe for some people and even deadly. And so they're trying to curb the spread and, you know, we know early on that San Diego County and some other counties, particularly those that are in higher restrictive tiers had to shut down their bars because there was concern that with alcohol, maybe people would let their guard down a little bit, not wear their masks, not socially distance. And then bars, restaurants were a significant source of outbreaks and spread. And so kind of curtailing, engaging and interaction, um, during those late night hours where maybe people might be, um, drinking a little bit more and, and letting their guard down, um, is, you know, a way that they're trying to further reduce, spread, especially as we're getting into the holidays. And it's getting a little bit colder even here in San Diego and people may be going indoors for those celebrations, which is where we know that, uh, the risk of transmission increases. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 05:30 And, uh, enforcement's going to change too. It looks like, uh, the County says it's working to do more than just educate. Now what's the sheriff saying about that?

Speaker 2: 05:38 They still say that they want to prioritize education and get everybody into compliance, but they're significantly stepping up efforts to contact businesses where they're learning, where people are complaining about that. They're not following the rules. The sheriff is directing I think two or four teams of two deputies to go around to jurisdictions too, and get compliance. And they've talked about, that's not just for the unincorporated areas. That's also going to be for all of the incorporated cities in the County. They're also talking about, um, the district attorney's office is dedicating a deputy district attorney to be ready to go forward with any sort of enforcement and citations. The city attorney's office is also directing an attorney to that effort. There's also talk that some cities may be dedicating police officers to, uh, these team of deputies to step up enforcement. And so they want to get people into compliance, but they will proceed with further enforcement if they need to. The County is posting its letters that it issues to businesses on its website. Right now, those are cease and desist letters, and that could be increased to closure orders, um, and, and citations and,

Speaker 1: 06:46 And people are thinking ahead, of course, to the Thanksgiving holiday, the CDC is advising people to stay put and not travel, uh, County leaders echoing that plea. Right?

Speaker 2: 06:54 Correct. And they're saying, you know, if they are not members of your household and a member of your household is defined as someone that you've been living with at least for the last 14 days. So if they're not members of your household, you should not be gathering with them. And they're also encouraging people to, you know, to wear masks in their homes to further, um, you know, reduce the spread of the virus because people can spread it to the individuals that they live with and not as also, um, what is, could be increasing the cases that we're seeing reported.

Speaker 1: 07:20 You're also tracking efforts to develop a vaccine. Some good news are received this week. How soon might we see a rollout,

Speaker 2: 07:27 Right? The silver lining, um, some really good news just this morning. Um, Pfizer has announced that it is actually formally seeking emergency use authorization approval from the FDA. And PR has reported that that process, that review process should take about two weeks. They're expected to have a group of outside experts that will, will meet publicly to, to evaluate the data from Pfizer and to give a recommendation to the FDA about whether or not they should go forward with that EUA. And then Pfizer has said that they could roll out the vaccine within hours after receiving the EUA. And there's talk about potentially having it administered to people, um, by, you know, sometime next month,

Speaker 1: 08:07 I'm going to get these vaccines and how widely will they be available at first?

Speaker 2: 08:11 Right. We have an idea that it'll mostly be those high risk individuals that we've been hearing about frontline, healthcare workers, people who are older or have chronic conditions, but the doses will be very, very limited, uh, probably about there's talk that it's maybe 20 million, um, people could potentially get this. So it's going to be a long time before it's widespread and those decisions on who will get it first and where it'll go are happening right now.

Speaker 1: 08:34 Yes, it is promising. And we're all hoping for that. Uh, hoping for an end to this thing and normalcy, at some point, I've been speaking with Taren mental health reporter for KPBS. Thanks very much, Darren you, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos has spending some of his multi-billion dollar fortune on efforts worldwide to combat climate change. And one of the benefactors announced this is the Salk Institute in LA Jolla here to explain the purpose of the grant as reporter Gary Robbins, who covers science and technology for the San Diego union Tribune. Very welcome back to the round table. Hey Mark. How are you? Well, I'm good. And so as SOC, apparently a start with this grant that the SOC got, how much is it and what will it be used for?

Speaker 3: 09:14 So Jeff bays on escape, the solid $30 million that $30 million is part of approximately $10 billion at Bezos and tends to distribute over time. Uh, he has a new fund called Bezos earth fund. He gave out the first grants, uh, this week. Uh, he gave out almost a billion dollars this week to places like the natural resources, defense council and others, the sock Institute, which came as a big surprise because most of us know it as a biological Institute. Primarily in other words, the SOC is known for making discoveries about the human body, but in recent years, assault made a shift or an expansion about three years ago, they decided to invest more in plant biology. There was a shift in the, kind of in the, uh, within the Institute. That's very similar to what happened at, um, at Amazon more and more, the faculty said, you know, we have an obligation to look at, you know, basic biology of humans, but we also need to know more about our world, like the impact that humans are having on our world and climate change is the biggest driver. So they beefed up the amount of people and the quality of people they have that studied plant science and the plant science they're doing is meant to find ways to get plans, to capture and to hold on to more carbon. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 10:24 I wanted to ask about how promising plants are when it comes to limiting greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere. How does that work? Exactly

Speaker 3: 10:33 Well, they're, they're not only just promising, they already do an extraordinary amount. I mean, around the clock 365 days a year, plants take in carbon dioxide through their leaves as part of photosynthesis. And they hold on to some of it after photosynthesis is done. And a lot of that carbon stays into plants for a very long time. What the Salk Institute is doing is talking about kind of altering, you know, one of the fundamental arcs of nature. They want to find ways to get the roots of these plans to become bigger so that they hold on to more carbon. And then they want the roots of the plans to go deeper. So the carbon can be put deeper into the soil and they want to change the chemicals of the, in the roots to make that carbon dioxide stay in the soil for longer periods of time. So just simply take more of it out of the air, hold onto more of it and hold onto it for longer periods of time.

Speaker 1: 11:29 And these are plants that are grown now for food and other purposes all over the world, right?

Speaker 3: 11:33 Everything you in. I E they're primarily looking at, uh, six really large important crop plants, things like canola corn, wheat, rice, sorghum. I don't think I have the list of all of them with me, but these are the principle foods that are grown in this world is sustain more than 7 billion people.

Speaker 1: 11:51 And this Bezos grants follows an even bigger one given to SOC last year and it's climate change research, right?

Speaker 3: 11:56 Yeah. The audacious project gave the all $35 million audacious it's part of Ted talks or the Ted foundation. They raise a lot of money and distributed to thinkers and teachers and visionary ideas and is being used for primarily the same purpose as a basis. Money. This is basic plant biology. What do you do to get these plants to hold onto Maher more carbon? Because they're naturally taking it out of the, out of the atmosphere anyways, you know, it's seen as just a very distinct alternative to using high technology, to grab it out of the atmosphere, process it and store it. You know, um, the idea is that plants are gonna grow anyways and it'll be less expensive to use plants as carbon sinks, as opposed to doing it the other way.

Speaker 1: 12:38 Uh, the, uh, bluff up there in LA Jolla, it's becoming kind of the climate change research Mecca. You've got UCF, Scripps institution of oceanography and long history of research giants when it comes to climate change. And then of course, we're talking about socks. Tell us a little about, uh, UCF script's institution up there.

Speaker 3: 12:57 You want to know about the history of climate change. You just need to go to LA Jolla shores and black Veatch. Uh, the Scripps institution of oceanography is more than a century old and Mark. I know, you know, this story, Roger Ravel, who was the leader of, um, of scripts also was the person that essentially founded UC San Diego. And dr. Ravel was one of the early pioneers in green house science. A lot of people call him the grandfather or the greenhouse effect. So he helped put science on the track of recognizing what greenhouse gases were doing to the atmosphere and how they were contributing to global warming at the very same place down there on the holiest shores at scribes, that also became the home of Charles Keeling as a professor. He's the guy that set up the, um, the system in Hawaii, where they took measurements of the atmosphere, uh, for CO2.

Speaker 3: 13:47 So he began to send the 1950s in Hawaii and he created what was called the Keeling curve. Um, from that curve, you could see year after year after year of data, from the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere, and you could see it going up and scientists were able to learn a lot about how, uh, man-made contributions to the atmosphere were increasing global warming. So, uh, Charles Keeling and Roger Revelle works for ordinary people in that. And the other guys who have worked at Scripps and UC San Diego have also contributed. So when they wrote the Paris agreement, I think it was in 2015, you know, that worldwide cord, well, scripts played a major role in that. And they were there in Paris when it was done. And also in 2015, Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment. And again, scripts was involved today. They're doing something that affects you and I have a great deal there. They're trying to understand how climate change is contributing and intensifying wildfires and forest fires, particularly in California and how it's intensifying atmospheric rivers, the kind that come to say, San Diego during the winter and our, our storms and make them stronger and cause more damage.

Speaker 1: 14:55 Well, finally, as a public broadcaster, KPBS has pledge drives where we often have matching gifts from donors. I'm wondering with the Biden administration coming in on January 20th, if we might see the U S and other governments offering to match research grants with billionaires like Jeff basis, and maybe some kind of public private partnership to finally address the worldwide threat of climate change.

Speaker 3: 15:15 Mark, I think that is going to happen. Uh, president elect Biden has already said that he's going to steer the United States directly back into the Paris agreement. President Trump canceled our involvement in it. Biden has said that he is going to take us back there. He's already said that he's going to overturn a lot of the things that Trump did when it came to the climate. And, um, president elect a Biden also has talked about public private partnerships when it comes to climate change research. So I think that you're going to see a lot more money invested by the administration in this particular,

Speaker 1: 15:47 I've been speaking with Gary Robyn science and technology reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Thanks very much, Gary. Thank you, Mark. The key to San Diego's climate and housing goals is simple build near transit. That's a big reason. The city council this week agreed to a massive new project in mission Valley known as Riverwalk San Diego. In the years ahead, thousands of new homes will be built on land currently occupied by the greens and fairways of the golf course, just West of fashion Valley mall KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen joins us to talk about how this is just part of the city's long-term growth plan. I Andrew, how did Mark well set the scene for us? How much space will this project take up and how many homes are likely to be built there?

Speaker 4: 16:28 Very big parcel. If you've ever driven by the river walk a golf course, you know, it's a, it's a pretty big piece of land. It's about 200 acres. The number of homes are, uh, 4,300. So 4,300 new homes built on this land that is currently just a golf course and not one that is, um, doing a whole lot of business nowadays, I would say,

Speaker 1: 16:48 No, it's not, I'm a golfer and I can attest to that, but it's kinda, it's kinda careworn these days, not a lot of money going into it. Well, who's the lead developer on this project? How much will it cost

Speaker 4: 16:58 Or is a large company called Heinz? Very big real estate firm. The property is owned by the Levi Cushman family trust. So it's a partnership between those two entities. Um, the total project cost is estimated at around $3 billion. That includes building the housing, the office space and retail space, some new streets along the property within that parcel and various community benefits, including the creation of a bunch of new Parkland along the San Diego river,

Speaker 1: 17:24 Right? The river runs through it as the name would suggest Riverwalk. And, uh, we get a new trolley stop out of this, right? And the public doesn't have to pay for it,

Speaker 4: 17:33 Right. As a condition for the approval of the developers are agreeing to pay for the construction of a new stop on the green line trolley. If you've ever written the green line before mission Valley through mission Valley, you know, there's this big, long stretch between the fashion Valley station. Then the next stop to the West of that Marina Linda Vista and the rail line goes right through this golf course. So this new trolley stop is really kind of allowing the project to exceed, uh, you know, uh, or build much more intensely because there's automatically having a public transit stop or a mass transit stop in, uh, near housing and near office space and everything, um, lessens the environmental impacts because more people are likely to be, uh, taking that public transit instead of driving their car.

Speaker 1: 18:17 Right. Those of us with a bad SLIFE slice can actually hit a train right now as it is. Well, you had a unanimous city council and a real broad backing, I mean, environmentalist cycle, San Diego union, uh, uh, leaders, everybody loves this project it's

Speaker 4: 18:31 Yeah. And, you know, I think it's also an easier project to say yes to, because it is, uh, just a big piece of undeveloped land. There's not a lot of that left in mission Valley or really anywhere in the city, at least in these urbanized communities that are where the infrastructure is already surrounding. It it's much easier to develop on open space, like a golf course than it is on a parcel that's, that's, um, surrounded by buildings and roads and you have to accommodate all the neighbors and everything like that. There's also, as we've mentioned, the benefit of having the trolley line go right through this property and the cost of building a new station along that existing rail is lower than, you know, it would be to say, build a whole new, uh, train, all new train tracks. So when you, and, and as I mentioned, when you have a transit stop, it automatically makes it easier for a government to approve a development there because it mitigates a lot of the environmental impact.

Speaker 1: 19:23 I'd say a mission Valley is very developed. As you note here, I want to San Diego is most developed areas and, uh, developers do see it as the desirable location to double down. I mean, it seems like boy, we're really going to have a lot of people and businesses now in mission Valley when this is built up.

Speaker 4: 19:37 Yeah. And not that long ago, the city already, uh, also updated the mission Valley community plan. Not only this, this project was in the works also the, um, the stadium project along, uh, you know, the former chargers stadium, um, that's now owned by San Diego state. So there were these two kind of big mega projects that were in the works during the mission valet community plan update. But through that community plan update, the city also rezoned a lot of pieces of land, like big shopping centers or commercial developments where you have a big surface parking lot. A lot of that could also be looking years into the future, right. For redevelopment because there's open space, it's pretty easy to build on a parking lot. And if we're looking further into the future, we're at least hoping that fewer people are going to be driving cars. So, um, you know, with, with additional transit and all of those, um, transportation amenities, it's easier for the city to say yes to,

Speaker 1: 20:32 And self-driving cars. There'll be a part of that too, as well. Now, uh, these are with the stadium project and this Riverwalk project they're really, uh, bookends of this development now in, uh, in mission Valley coming online and people of course have to afford these new homes. That's a huge barrier for many in San Diego. How much of the Riverwalk project is going to be set aside for affordable housing? And what does that mean?

Speaker 4: 20:53 Developers agreed to set aside 10% of the units as low income. Um, I mentioned it's 4,300 homes total. So 430 will be a restrict, have restricted rents that are affordable to households making no more than 65% of the area median income. So this is the measure of affordability we use when we talk about affordable housing. Um, as an example in 2020, a two person household, um, say a couple or maybe a single parent with one child, uh, 65% of the area meeting income would be $60,100 per year. And then the rent cannot exceed 30% of their income. Uh, another example of four person households say two parents with two kids, $75,100 per year. So those affordable units will be built along in phases, along with the rest of the housing

Speaker 1: 21:41 And outgoing mayor. Kevin Faulkner's made housing, a focus during his final days in office. And recently the council passed is a complete communities plan. How does it streamline the process for transit oriented growth? Like what we're seeing here in mission Valley

Speaker 4: 21:56 Communities is one of the mayor's biggest and most ambitious housing policies that he was able to get through the council just about a month before he leaves office. It's got different portions, but let's focus on the housing portion. So it's an opt-in program. It's not a requirement. And it only applies to parcels within a half mile of a transit stop and where apartments and condos are already allowed under the existing zoning. The biggest requirement for a developer is, is 40% of the units, um, allowed under the base zoning have to be affordable. And the there's a deeper affordability level. So even people making even less money than what we were talking about before, but also they have to include affordable units for middle income households. So they're trying to get more of a mix of, of different incomes within the same building. And then again, in exchange for that, a developer is not restricted by a height limit on the piece of land or the density limit.

Speaker 4: 22:50 And this is just outside of the coastal zone that doesn't apply to the land West of I five with a 30 foot height limit. You know, no height limit might seem like, okay, we're going to have skyscrapers, but that's not the case. The building will still be regulated by the square footage of floor space relative to the property size. That's kind of a convoluted way of saying if you build taller, you also have to make the building more slender, more narrow. In addition to that, the developer can take the building envelope. So how it looks from the outside as basically a blank slate, and then they can fit as many units and this, you know, be more flexible with the size of the units. Um, within that building, speaking to developers, we learned that it's pretty unlikely a mega project like the Riverwalk San Diego would opt into this program. It's more geared towards smaller properties, you know, with, let's say fewer than a hundred units. Okay.

Speaker 1: 23:39 Of course, a big element in all of this is climate change, trying to cut down on the sprawl and San Diego, where does this project fit into the city's decision-making when it comes to, uh, to big mega projects like river?

Speaker 4: 23:51 Well, the city's climate action plan requires a halving of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. And a big portion of that. A significant portion is getting people out of cars and the way the city is aiming to do that is to just focus all of its growth, all of its, uh, new housing and new commercial development in transit priority areas. So places within a half mile of a major public transit stop, if the new trolley station, this certainly applies to Riverwalk, um, as I mentioned, you know, it applies to all that land with that where the complete communities program, um, is, uh, an option. Think it's also worth noting that when this Riverwalk project was going through the approval process, folks at the planning commission said that they thought there's actually capacity for more density on this project. They think that with this new trolley station, we could build B building, even more housing on that site. And when you have that, um, new trolley stop, you want to take it, you know, get the most bang for your buck when you're building that. But, you know, in, in the spirit of compromise and in the interest of, of trying to get as much support as possible, the developers, um, decided not to go further than they did. And they, they decided to limit it at 4,300 units.

Speaker 1: 25:01 What's the timeline when we're going to have shovels in the ground and the build-out on this one,

Speaker 4: 25:05 The developers say they hope to break ground in the second half of 2021. So think summer next year, it's supposed to be built in three phases. So figure the first phase will be done around 20, 26. And that's also about when the new trolley stop is supposed to come online

Speaker 1: 25:20 15 years overall to get the whole thing built. That's right. Yep. I've been speaking with Andrew Bowen, Metro reporter for KPBS news. Thanks Andrew. Thank you, Mark. That wraps up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Gary Robbins of the San Diego union Tribune and Taron mento and Andrew Bowen of KPBS news. You can find all the stories we discussed today on our website, kpbs.org. I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for listening and join us again next week for a special holiday edition

Speaker 4: 25:49 Of the road. [inaudible].

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KPBS Roundtable

Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.