Brisk holiday shopping crowds on ‘Super Saturday’ despite pandemic surge

The oft-changing rules over restaurant dining during the COVID-19 pandemic — now at the center of a state appeals court battle — seemed to have little impact as businesses served throngs of San Diego shoppers on the last Saturday before Christmas.

On “Super Saturday,” typically the second-busiest shopping day of the year, hundreds of people lined India Street in Little Italy at midday, sipping coffees along the sidewalk, perusing the booths at the farmer’s market and drifting in and out of specialty shops for which the neighborhood is known.

“We grabbed a few things,” said Chelsey Ward, who was visiting San Diego from Sun City, Ariz., with her friend Paulette Palladino. “I haven’t been to a farmer’s market in a long time, so it’s been nice to get out.”

Both women took off their face masks while sharing chai lattes outside Caffe Italia, but the virus was not far from their minds.

“In this busy area, yes,” Palladino, an e-commerce worker from San Carlos, said of wearing a mask.

Other patrons filled appropriately distanced tables throughout the neighborhood, even though outdoor dining is no longer permissible under a state appellate court decision Friday.

Earlier in the week, a San Diego Superior Court judge overturned a ban on indoor and outdoor restaurant dining — an outgrowth of a case involving live entertainment at two strip clubs — but the state Attorney General’s Office moved quickly to appeal that decision and was successful in getting a temporary stay. State authorities said the judge’s ruling hampers efforts to get the coronavirus’ surge under control.

On Saturday, San Diego County public health officials announced 2,509 new COVID-19 infections, pushing the total caseload to nearly 123,000. An additional 27 deaths were also recorded, bringing the death toll to 1,280 since March. The number of intensive care unit beds in use also ticked upward with 309 patients, continuing to strain the region’s health care systems.

The escalating numbers did not dissuade Kate Safa and Sheldon Pizzinat, who were on the hunt for fresh pasta, basil, fresh tomatoes and cheeses for a special dinner.

“I am very cautious,” said Safa, a bookkeeper from Tierrasanta who was sharing drinks and snacks with Pizzinat outside the Nonna cafe. “I don’t want to make anyone sick or get sick myself.”

Chelsey Ward and Paulette Palladino enjoy their chai lattes in front of Caffe Italia in Little Italy on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Chelsey Ward and Paulette Palladino enjoy their chai lattes in front of Caffe Italia in Little Italy on Saturday, Dec. 19.

(Kristian Carreon)

Two blocks north, Clint Stromberg was less sanguine.

The owner of Bolt Brewery had just told his staff for the second time this month that he would likely be forced to cut their hours because of the on-again, off-again rules governing restaurant dining.

“It’s terrible; I live and die by this,” Stromberg said about the opposing court rulings this past week. “Nobody’s on the same page. After nine months, it’s still the same BS.”

Stromberg had a skeleton crew working late Saturday morning. Some customers ordered meals and drinks from the counter and sat at tables set up under a temporary canopy erected on India Street, even though it was technically not permitted.

“I don’t know how I became the bad guy in this situation,” the brewery owner said.

With just days left before Christmas, thousands of customers flocked to area malls to round out their shopping and enjoy an afternoon out of the house.

Stores at the Westfield Mission Valley outdoor mall required people to wear masks before entering. Business was so brisk at several stores Saturday that workers asked customers to line up outside so too many people were not inside at once.

Bolt Brewery owner Clint Stromberg cleans the windows of his restaurant in Little Italy on Saturday, Dec. 19.

Bolt Brewery owner Clint Stromberg cleans the windows of his restaurant in Little Italy on Saturday, Dec. 19.

(Kristian Carreon)

“We’re just shopping for my sister and (her husband) David,” said Adam Widner, a fourth-grader from Oak Park who was waiting to get inside Bath & Body Works. “I’m thinking about something like a scented candle, something relaxing.”

While the pandemic has buoyed online sales, most consumers still enjoy shopping outside the home, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The agency reported last month that online retail sales totaled almost $210 billion from July to September. E-commerce accounted for 14 percent of the nearly $1.5 trillion in total third-quarter sales, up from 11 percent for the same period in 2019, the government said.

Shopping online was not an option for Adam. “I just don’t do it,” he said. “I want to know what I’m actually getting.”

Darell Johnson was waiting his turn outside Zumiez, the skate-culture clothing store around the corner. He was holding a bag from Victoria’s Secret and wearing a mask with an anime fox’s toothy grin.

“I’ve been cooped up in the house for so long,” the College Area carpenter said about his decision to shop during the pandemic. “It’s just nice to get out in the real world. It’s been too long.”