LISTEN: Scene in San Diego Podcast – Pandemic Progress: Coronavirus Vaccines for Restaurant Workers and Setting Sights on The Red Tier

Monica Garske, lead editor of NBC 7's The Scene, and Candice Woo, founding editor of Eater San Diego, talk about San Diego’s food scene in these times of COVID-19

On this episode of our Scene in San Diego podcast, we talk about coronavirus vaccinations for restaurant workers and how San Diego County appears to be inching toward the red tier in California’s pandemic reopening plan. We’re not there yet, but there is some pandemic progress.

We talk about what the shift from the purple to the red tier would mean for our local restaurant scene and other activities around our county.

Joining our conversation is Ben Clevenger, president of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, who will talk about the state of our local restaurant scene.

How will vaccination eligibility for restaurant workers impact the industry? What are the challenges that San Diego County eateries – big and small – continue to face? How will the industry rebuild after the pandemic?

Listen to Episode 17 Here:

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San Diego County Inching Toward the Red Tier: What Will Change?

San Diego County’s adjusted case rate has been trending downward lately. This is one of the metrics used by California public health officials to determine how and when counties can safely reopen businesses and other activities during the pandemic. The metrics help determine tier assignments for counties in California – purple, red, orange or yellow – the state’s color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

San Diego County has been in the purple tier – the most restrictive or “widespread” tier – for a while. Fresh data came down from the state on March 2 that confirmed our county would be staying in purple for a while longer. Public health officials measured San Diego County’s adjusted case rate at 10.8.

On Feb. 22, California public health officials had measured San Diego County’s adjusted case rate at 15. A week before that (Feb. 15), that metric was 22.2.

For our region to move into a less restrictive tier – like the red tier – San Diego County must have a case rate that’s less than 7.0 daily new cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate that’s between 5 and 8 percent. So, we continue to inch closer.

If we move into the red tier, things will change for San Diego County restaurants. Eateries will be able to offer indoor dining again at 25% capacity or 100 people – whichever is fewer.

Under the purple tier rules, San Diego County restaurants have only been able to offer takeout and outdoor dining.

A shift to the red tier will also impact businesses like museums in San Diego County, many of which have been closed for months. In the red tier, museums will be able to reopen indoor operations with modification, including 25% capacity.

On March 3, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said some changes were coming that could shake up the state’s tier system. Mainly, coronavirus vaccination rates may be factored into the states metrics for reopening counties.

California would begin setting aside 40% of its coronavirus vaccine doses for the state’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, which would make about 8 million more people across the state eligible for vaccinations. The idea is that as more people are vaccinated, the state will ease the case-rate restrictions and make it easier for counties to move into less restrictive tiers.

This means more businesses can be authorized to reopen and at higher capacities. The state is not going to eliminate the tier system just yet – only modify it.

California is working to allocate 40% of its doses of the coronavirus vaccine to underserved communities. The state is also considering factoring coronavirus vaccination rates into its color coded tier system. Both changes could make it easier for counties including San Diego County to move into less restrictive tiers. NBC 7's Lauren Coronado reports.

Coronavirus Vaccines for San Diego County Restaurant Workers

On Feb. 27, San Diego County opened its coronavirus vaccinations to those who are eligible in Phase 1B, Tier 1, which includes essential workers in the food and agriculture sectors.

Phase 1B, Tier 1 also includes teachers, childcare workers, grocery workers, farm workers, and non-medical emergency first responders -- so this opens our local vaccination pool to another half-million San Diegans.

You can read all about San Diego County’s vaccination tiers here.

Guest Interview: Ben Clevenger, President of San Diego Chapter of The California Restaurant Association

Ben Clevenger owns Eastbound Bar and Grill in Lakeside and The Hills Pub in La Mesa. He also works with the group that runs The Waterfont Bar & Grill, also known as San Diego’s oldest tavern.

Clevenger is also currently serving as the president of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association (CRA). He joined our Scene in San Diego podcast to talk a bit about what the CRA does in support of eateries across the state and how the organization works to impact legislation.

Members of the CRA’s San Diego chapter include small restaurants and bigger hospitality groups. Clevenger talks about how restaurants across the board have been impacted by the year-long pandemic.

As a restaurant owner, Clevenger said the biggest challenge during the pandemic has been having to lay off staff – and then rehire. Riding that restaurant roller coaster time and time again has been heartbreaking, he said.

He said the CRA has worked closely with county public health officials throughout the pandemic to support restaurants while following coronavirus guidelines.

Clevenger said the CRA believes it’ll take about two years for the industry to rebuild once the pandemic is over.

Part of the progress will come with vaccinations for restaurant workers, Clevenger said.

“We’re working with the county right now, trying to see if we can get one of those central [vaccination] stations for our team members,” he explained. “We haven’t really nailed it down. Right now, we’re just educating our employees and saying, ‘It’s now available. Go get vaccinated.’”

Right now, we're just educating our employees and saying, 'It's now available. Go get vaccinated.'"

Ben Clevenger, owner of Eastbound Bar & Grill

Clevenger said he hopes to have a vaccination station for restaurant workers set up in the coming weeks.

Clevenger also talked about the possible return of indoor dining if the county can get itself into the red tier. For some restaurants, even 25% capacity indoors could be a saving grace during these incredibly tough times.

“For us, personally, indoor dining at 25%, gets us by. I guess you can say it pays the bills; we’re able to keep more staff on,” he explained. “We don’t make any money. On a personal level, I haven’t received a paycheck in over a year. We’d like to see something over 50% to where I can start paying my own bills again and seeing a profit.”

Clevenger said he hopes the public – once it’s safe – wants to get back out to local restaurants and not only eat but also socialize.

Ben Clevenger (bottom left), joins the conversation on our Scene in San Diego podcast.

For more content from The Scene, visit this website. For more content from Eater San Diego, click here. And to read our collaboration content with Eater and The Scene every week, click here.

The Scene in San Diego Feat. Eater Podcast is hosted by NBC 7’s Monica Garske and Eater San Diego’s Candice Woo, and is produced by NBC 7’s Matthew Lewis.

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