The start of the semester at San Diego State University was, as always, a time for students to make and renew friendships on and off its urban campus and enjoy the beach and the city's unmatched August weather.
The coronavirus meant far fewer people returned to campus this year but the parties, cookouts and other festivities that mark the start of the fall semester went on as usual for a week or two, then abruptly stopped as infections quickly mounted.
James Floyd, a freshman from Davis, California, noticed a mood change when classmates began getting tested. “Once a friend got it, they got scared,” he said.
There have been larger outbreaks at U.S. colleges but none may be more impactful than the one at San Diego State.
California has seen remarkable recent success with the virus — the infection rate of 2.8% for the last week is the lowest since the pandemic began, and hospitalizations dropped to a level not seen since the first week of April. But the campus outbreak is large enough to put San Diego County over a state threshold for cases that mandates many businesses close or restrict indoor operations.
For some, it will mark the third closure since California instituted the nation's first statewide shutdown order in March.
It is a dizzying and discouraging turn of events for the county of 3.3 million residents that less than a month ago was the only one in Southern California with virus case numbers low enough to advance to a second level in the state's four-tiered system for reopening.
The county argued that San Diego State cases — which have topped 800 among students — should be excluded from state tallies, like prisons are. Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected the proposal before it was even formally delivered.
“You can’t isolate as if it’s on an island, a campus community that is part of a larger community, so the answer is no,” Newsom said last week.
The county Board of Supervisors dismissed a proposal to disregard state rules but met in a closed-door, emergency session last week to consider litigation.
Jon and Angie Weber said they won't comply with orders to stop serving patrons inside their restaurant.
They closed their Cowboy Star Restaurant and Butcher Shop in downtown San Diego on March 17 for three months, laying off all but one of 55 employees. A June reopening lasted 19 days until cases began spiking again in California and Newsom ordered another round of closures.
When San Diego businesses got permission last month to open more indoor operations with restrictions — 25% indoor capacity for restaurants — the Webers waited two weeks to train staff on sanitation measures and revamp its seasonal menu. When they opened Sept. 15, they learned the same day they would likely have to pull back again in a week unless there was a dramatic turnaround in San Diego.
California uses two metrics for its 58 counties: percentage of positive tests and per capita new cases. Each of the four tiers for reopening include ranges for those categories and a county must meet both for two consecutive weeks before advancing to a higher tier. If they fail on one or both counts for two weeks, they are bumped to a more restrictive tier.
San Diego's infection rate is low enough to advance to another tier but its per capita cases of 7.9 for every 100,000 people in weekly figures announced Sept. 15 is above the rate of 7 needed to stay put. Without San Diego State, the rate would have dropped to 6, according to county officials.
If San Diego's case rate registers above 7 again when weekly figures are announced Tuesday, restaurants could still seat outdoors and do takeout in a lower tier.
Cowboy Star doesn't have room for sidewalk service. “It's demoralizing to open and close, open and close, hire and fire, hire and fire,” Jon Weber said.
The Webers say they have exhausted savings and can't survive another closure. Without the restaurant they opened in 2008, they are unable to pay home loans.
“This is our life,” Jon Weber said. “To walk away from it would be nearly impossible. It would be like walking away from your child.”
The Webers, whose restaurant is 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the San Diego State campus, are upset with the governor, not the university.
It's difficult to overstate the school's stature in San Diego with its 300-acre (741-hectare) campus atop Montezuma Mesa and alumni that permeate every fabric of the city, including two recent mayors, baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and countless political and business figures.
San Diego State began classes Aug 24 with about 8,000 of more than 35,000 students living on campus or taking at least one in-person class. About 2,400 students also lived on campus, roughly one-third the usual level.
When new cases topped 80 for four straight days, the school suspended in-person classes for four weeks starting Sept. 3. Dorms were locked down.
“The idea here was to really ratchet back the amount of housing available to students," said Adela de la Torre, San Diego State president. "We also wanted to be very, very clear that our classes would be virtual at a moment’s notice if we saw a spike at all. That’s exactly what we did.”
San Diego is one of only two schools in the 23-campus California State system that had to pull back on in-person classes after they began. De la Torre says that’s because its students tend to live on or near campus, in contrast to the system’s many commuter schools.
About 75% of San Diego State cases originated in off-campus housing, where rents are high and it’s not unusual for three or four people to share a bathroom, she said.
De la Torre said state authorities might consider hospitalization rates as a measurement for reopening, noting only one San Diego State student was hospitalized — briefly.
The Daily Aztec student newspaper credited administrators for a “measured” approach that included free testing and mandated masks on campus. Fraternity leaders banned in-person events before the semester began. The newspaper said a “smart reopening” once appeared possible.
“The start of the semester has made it abundantly clear that besides bringing 2,600 socially-starved 18 to 20-year-olds back to campus, the administration’s biggest failure was assuming students could handle that much responsibility,” the newspaper editorialized Sept. 1. “In real-time, we see the consequences of this miscalculation playing out: large groups of students partying, not wearing masks and cases on the rise.”
Miles Crawford, a junior, stayed in his campus apartment when classes resumed last month and is growing frustrated by the lockdown. The music major plans a year off if in-person learning doesn’t fully resume by next fall.
“Patience is growing thin,” said Crawford, 22. “We’re just trying to have the regular college experience.”