The outlook for San Luis Obispo County in terms of reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a turn for the worse. SLO County is currently in the red tier, but health officials warn the current case count indicates a purple tier is looming.
"What a difference a week makes, unfortunately," SLO County public health official Penny Borenstein told county supervisors this week. "We have the highest number of active cases in our community since the beginning of this pandemic. "
"We have been pushing hard and asking our community to get us to lower numbers for the sake of our economy, our businesses and very importantly, for getting our children back in school," Borenstein said.
California’s purple tier is the state’s tightest stage for coronavirus restrictions. If SLO County moves back to that tier, movie theaters, gyms, places of worship and restaurants would have to close indoor operations—again.
Asked about how the rise in case number will impact businesses, Borenstein said, "If we were to go to purple today, and then we had a second week next week, then the businesses have three days after we hit two weeks of purple to make the changes—to close or make the additional modifications or reduce capacity."
“It’s not a surprise to me, just because I’m watching the cases in the county,” said Brooke Town, owner of Spoon Trade Restaurant and Bakery in Grover Beach.
Town said even though the red tier allowed a reopening of indoor dining with restrictions, she figured that would change, so she kept her indoors closed just in case.
“If you look at our [point-of-sale] and see the table map of inside versus outside, it is quite a significant difference," Town said. "But this way we don’t have to disappoint anybody.”
Town said if the county moves into the more restrictive tier, she still feels grateful to have her business, especially since she’s watched others close for good.
“This has been a dream of mine for all my life," Town said. "Our guests are just fabulous. Sorry I’m getting emotional. It’s the people who literally keep this community going.”
In the red tier, wineries and breweries are allowed to open with modifications. Elizabeth Thompson of Claiborne & Churchill winery in Edna Valley says since reopening in June, they started doing reservations and pre-poured flights, and they’ve stayed busy.
“People still are enjoying wine," Thomspon said. "We’ve got a beautiful outdoor patio, so lots of space to be socially distanced.”
Thompson said the time of year when more people tend to go wine tasting is approaching.
“We do see a lot more people kind of around the after holiday part," Thompson said. "So the day after Thanksgiving and a couple days after we’ll be busy.”
But If SLO County regresses to the purple tier, breweries, bars and wineries that don’t serve food would have to close indoor operations, possibly as early as Thanksgiving week.
Thompson said they are waiting and watching to see what happens.
“We are always just waiting to hear from the county, the city and the state," Thompson said. "But we hope [customers] be able to taste outside still.”
If the county does revert to the purple tier, it would be 2021 before SLO County would get back to where it is this week.
"It's a minimum timeframe of three weeks before you can advance again," Borenstein said.
Cal Poly students are playing a role in hiking the county’s numbers. Borenstein said half those with COVID-19 now are in the Cal Poly community. Many students will be heading home on November 20 and Borenstein says the county will ask the state to take that into consideration.
"We will very much have that dialogue with the state," Borenstein said. "And see if there isn't any way that we can work with them to not have our entire community have to close, when we have on the horizon the opportunity to interrupt transmission in the Cal Poly community, at least to a certain extent."
The county also said Tuesday that 14 patients and nine staffers at Atascadero State Hospital have tested positive for COVID-19 and the county is working with the facility to control the outbreak.