Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The bizarre coming out party for San Diego’s reopening started on Monday. Mayor Kevin Faulconer showed up at Phil’s BBQ in Rancho Bernardo around 11 a.m. to “demonstrate new dine-in protocols” that would prove eating out can still be safe and fun.

About a dozen Phil’s employees tried to recreate the casual intimacy of a sit-down restaurant experience. Tables were spaced out eight feet apart. Several groups managed to chat, despite the distance. Some were eating and, therefore, mask-less. Others, who had finished, made themselves understood through paper surgical coverings.

The counter was lined with plexiglass, shielding the rest of Phil’s workforce. Phil Pace, the owner, showed the mayor around. His restaurant used to hold 330 people, but under the new setup would only accommodate around 140. If a table hadn’t yet been cleaned, a place card would remind people to stay back: “This table has not been cleaned & sanitized. Please wait for a team member.”

“We have one employee that will be walking around with a spray bottle touching all these hot spots,” said Pace, gesturing. The mayor, in a navy sports coat and black facemask, peered around corners approvingly. Pace pointed out that customers will no longer use the soft drink fountain. An employee will be permanently stationed there, filling all drinks in fresh cups.

Faulconer was there for business. He did not order any food or drink.

Standing in front of the restaurant with Pace, he spoke to several TV cameras: “We’re here today with a very direct message: San Diego is ready to safely reopen.”

Apparently, the governor got the message. On Wednesday night came welcome news for the mayor and County Board of Supervisors. Gov. Gavin Newsom had approved their accelerated Stage 2 plans. That meant restaurants would be able to open for dine-in and some retailers would be able to resume business, too. San Diego would be among the first of the reopeners.

But the mayor’s press conference, along with other “reopening” events this week, made clear that whatever comes next will bear little resemblance to life pre-COVID.

The “Back In Business” Coalition, which includes business and tourism groups, held a press conference Wednesday – virtually. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders kicked off the event from what looked to be his home office in a floral print, Hawaiian-style shirt.

Faulconer flashed on the screen as well, continuing his reopening tour.

“If I was cool like Sanders I would have a cool shirt on. But, I’m not as cool as Jerry Sanders,” he said.

The representatives of different organizations all agreed on their willingness to get back to business. Then they heard an economic outlook briefing from Ryan Ratcliff, an economics professor at the University of San Diego.

Ratcliff, framed in an upward camera angle, started with this sobering news: During two years of the great recession, the United States lost 10 million jobs. In the last month, it has lost 20 million. Hospitality, health care, retail and administrative work – all big in San Diego – accounted for more than half the losses.

“This is such a fast-moving crisis that our normal methods of keeping tabs on the economy may not be as precise as we’d like,” he said. “When you look at claims being filed for unemployment, 15 percent feels a little bit low. Some of the estimates that we’re seeing for California suggest it’s more like 20 percent.”

“We haven’t seen anything like this in modern economic history,” he said.

There was some good news. The tripod of San Diego’s economy, Ratcliff said, is military, technology and tourism. Military is so far stable. Tech has only taken a five percent hit. But tourism – tourism is nearly extinct.

Ratcliff presented a chart that showed leisure and tourism sustaining 85 percent losses. Those industries are also among the very least likely to recover, as long as social distancing measures remain in effect.

Another staple of civic life, the local court system, also provided updates on getting back to work this week. Local courts will be open for the first time since March this Tuesday – kind of.

“We can’t just go from full stop to opening up completely,” said Judge Lorna Alksne, who manages the local court system.

In criminal court, 20,000 cases need to be reset for hearings. Cases in other courts, including family and civil, are also backed up in the thousands. And the big question on all the lawyers’ minds: What about jury trials?

“We wont’ be calling any jurors until June 15 and probably after,” said Alksne. “While the county is starting to talk about an expedited phase two and three, we’re not quite there yet. It takes us six weeks to send out a jury summons and yield jurors.”

Not to mention, the logistics of trying to get them all into one building – or the fact that many jurors are older than 65 and more at-risk of getting seriously ill. Many courtrooms will only fit 14 people under new social distancing guidelines. That’s not even enough for a jury pool, a judge and a team of lawyers. Even the larger courtrooms will only fit 17 or 18.

The backup to the court system, which will need to be undone over months or years, is nearly unfathomable. Judge Michael Smyth acknowledged that the future of the courts is defined by questions, not answers.

“If jurors appear but refuse to take part because they feel unsafe, will we let them not serve on the jury? Can we let them not serve? With social distancing how do we pick more than one or two juries per day?” he asked. “Will masks be required during trial for attorneys? What type of masks will be allowed?”

Michael Roddy, the court’s executive officer, finished off the session with a last bit of news: The court is looking at a budget deficit caused by coronavirus that is bigger than any hit during the last recession.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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