Customers are served outdoors on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp at Rockin’ Baja Lobster. Photo by Chris Stone

By Brian Huynh

Thanks to our region’s balmy climate, San Diego’s restaurants are weathering the COVID-19 economic downturn by moving their diners outdoors. Cheered on by Mayor Kevin Faulconer and members of the San Diego City Council, restaurants have transformed busy sidewalks and streets into convivial, social-distancing-compliant outdoor dining spaces where San Diego residents and visitors are welcome to gather for meals, company and conversation.

Although the City of San Diego’s emergency outdoor dining ordinance stipulates these outdoor patios as smoke-free, no law exists to prevent customers from lighting up a cigarette, e-cigarette or cigar once it expires.

This reality flies in the face of the recognized health dangers linked to exposure to secondhand smoke. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, passive smoking is deadly. That’s because there is no safe exposure to secondhand smoke.

Secondhand smoke is a mixture of gases and more than 7,000 chemicals. Hundreds are toxic and close to 70 cause cancer. Considering secondhand smoke is responsible for an estimated 38,000 deaths among non-smokers each year in the United States — including 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 deaths caused by heart disease — it’s difficult to understand why San Diego does not have a smoke-free outdoor dining ordinance on the books.

Alarming, as well, is emerging research that demonstrates a correlation between secondhand smoke, secondhand vaping, and COVID-19. A report released by the UC Merced Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center found that smokers and people who inhale nicotine have weakened immune systems and increased expression of the ACE2 enzyme in the respiratory system. Because COVID-19 binds to ACE2 receptors, exposure to nicotine may increase the likelihood of contracting the disease.

The health and safety of restaurant patrons and employees should not be left to chance. In a region where 12 municipalities — including the County of San Diego — have passed laws that ban smoking on restaurant, bar and nightclub patios, Faulconer and members of the City Council should take immediate action to pass a smoke-free outdoor dining ordinance.

As the largest municipality in the county, San Diego had the opportunity to lead the vanguard of the smoke-free outdoor dining movement. Instead, more than a decade after Chula Vista passed the region’s first smoke-free patio dining ordinance, San Diego elected officials are playing catch up to smaller, more visionary cities such as Imperial Beach, National City, and Coronado whose leaders acted before the economy was hit by a global pandemic.

A constituent pulse check would have informed the mayor and council members of the public’s strong support for dining in smoke-free environments: 71% of San Diegans support a law that prohibits tobacco use in outdoor areas of restaurants, bars and nightclubs; 77% have been bothered by secondhand smoke in an outdoor dining area; and 77% would vote for a mayoral or city council candidate who supports a smoke-free outdoor dining policy.

The time has come for smoke-free outdoor dining in San Diego, and by extension, restaurants under the Port of San Diego’s jurisdiction. Having been thrown a life preserver by the city, restaurant owners and their employees are striving to provide their customers with safe and pleasant outdoor dining experiences. For their part, San Diegans who are venturing out to support neighborhood restaurants, should not have to put their health on the line once San Diego County flattens the coronavirus curve sufficiently to enter a new phase of regional economic growth.

If we’re truly in this together, Mayor Faulconer and the City Council should have no reason to delay. The health of their constituents, and the resilience of San Diego’s restaurant industry, hang in the balance.

Brian Huynh is a UC San Diego graduate and a member of The Collective Coalition, a grassroots movement committed to lifting under-served communities through advocacy that spotlights the tobacco industry’s unjust targeting of LGBTQ individuals and people of color. In collaboration with a network of community organizations, the coalition promotes a collective vision of a healthier and safer San D­­iego.­­

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