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Fencing in San Diego’s Ocean Beach becomes flashpoint amid COVID-19 restrictions

Two San Diego Police Department officers showed up to investigate as city crews haul away a fence
Two San Diego Police Department officers showed up to investigate as city crews haul away a fence that had been put up to prevent gathering at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza and was torn down Tuesday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A simple orange plastic fence embodied the enduring divisions of an entire community Tuesday as the city increased enforcement of public health orders and promised that more is to come for those who refuse to comply.

As the county’s daily number of new COVID-19 cases fell below 200 for the first time since June 22, dozens of people surrounded San Diego officials intent on fencing off a small Ocean Beach park to prevent the kind of too-close gatherings that violate health orders.

The temporary barrier around Ocean Beach Park didn’t last long.

Someone apparently felt strongly enough to cut it down Tuesday morning. The barrier’s installation set off a shouting match between those who feel the police have not seriously enforced distancing and masking orders and those who view such edicts as government overreach.

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One dispute between two men at the park looked for a moment like it might come to blows.

Kevin Hastings, 40, of Ocean Beach, said Tuesday that it was frustrating to see people “hijack” the community’s farmers’ market every Wednesday night with big gatherings and live music so loud it bothers nearby residents — and police doing nothing to break up the party.

“It’s not worth their time, I guess,” he said of police. “Unless you stab someone, they don’t show up. And that’s how it’s gotten to this point because everyone knows, ‘Let’s go to Ocean Beach! There’s no laws there! We can do whatever the ... we want!’”

Joel Day, senior advisor for the city of San Diego's COVID-19 response and recovery
Joel Day, senior advisor for the city of San Diego’s COVID-19 response and recovery, speaks to the press at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza on Tuesday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Dr. Joel Day, a senior advisor to the city for COVID-19 response and recovery, spoke at the park Tuesday afternoon as city officials balled up the orange fencing in the back of a pickup truck. He asked the gathered crowd to socially distance and he emphasized the importance of individual responsibility to thwart the virus.

“We’re not going to ticket our way out of this, but what we do realize is that it is incredibly important for all of us as a community to come around and say what is acceptable and what is not,” Day said. “We’re here today to say it’s unacceptable to come together in this congregate way, and that it is unfair to the business owners who are in good compliance, to the residents who are in good compliance.”

“This is unacceptable,” a woman shouted. ”

“Where are the police?” the woman asked. “Where are the sheriff’s [deputies]? Where is the law enforcement?”

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“We’re sick of you guys telling us what’s what,” a man shouted.

City crews haul away a fence that had been put up to prevent gathering at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza
City crews haul away a fence that had been put up to prevent gathering at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza and was torn down Tuesday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, a retired physician, said in comments at the park that she also wanted to see more enforcement to stop the Wednesday night gatherings.

“We have to get tough, and I’m telling you, if that situation that happened last Wednesday night happens this Wednesday night, there’s going to be a clampdown,” she warned.

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“Good!” someone yelled. Someone else yelled, “Leave us alone!”

Day said after the news conference that the city’s compliance strategy was to first educate offenders, then elevate to county action such as cease-and-desist letters and orders to close, and finally enforcement.

He said the city needed to work with the county for the elevation step because it had unique authority to issue cease-and-desist letters and closure orders.

Day and Campbell both said after their comments Tuesday that there needed to be greater clarity on the amount of the fines associated with citations. Campbell said the City Council might need to get involved.

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San Diego City Councilmember Jennifer Campbell speaks to the press at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza on Tuesday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“They can only do what the mayor allows them to do,” she said of police enforcement of the health order. “The City Council needs to pass a law to make the citations, to set the amount of the fee.”

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher made it clear during a regular COVID-19 briefing Tuesday afternoon that the public health department is working with local law enforcement agencies to levy $1,000-per-day citations for businesses and other “entities” that do not comply with shutdown orders.

To date, local law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to fine those who keep operating after being told in writing to cease and desist. The San Diego Police Department and the county sheriff’s office, Fletcher said, have agreed to begin citing more aggressively than they have in the past.

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“Only the law enforcement agency that is responsible for that specific location has the ability to issue these citations,” Fletcher said after thanking the “vast majority” of organizations that have been complying with health orders.

He said the county is working on similar plans with other cities that have their own police departments to take similar actions.

Thus far, though, law enforcement officers with most local agencies have largely restrained themselves from writing tickets when individuals appear in public without face coverings or crowded together tighter than social distancing requirements demand.

Though law enforcement agencies appear to be taking a more unified approach to citing businesses and other organizations, that does not appear to be the approach for individuals. Fletcher said the citation push does not, at this point, extend to individuals.

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“As it relates to individuals, it really will be a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction decision,” Fletcher said.

Though there was plenty of heat down by the shore, the region’s daily COVID-19 report continued to cool. Just 182 positive cases, out of 5,669 total results returned, were reported to the county Monday for inclusion in Tuesday’s report. The last time the county reported fewer than 200 cases in a single day was June 22. After surpassing 5% over the weekend, the region’s 14-day average positive test rate has now dropped to 4.8%.

Even more encouraging is the 14-day average of cases per 100,000 residents. As calculated by the state, the local rate sat at 105, just above the 100-per-100,000 threshold that landed the county on the governor’s watch list.

Daily numbers under 240, said Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, will soon bring the region off the watch list. A rate under 100 would need to continue for 17 days, Wooten said, for schools serving grades seven through 12 to open. Elementary schools are already able to seek a waiver from the state to open sooner.

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But the public health officer reminded the public that only schools, not businesses and churches currently forced to operate outdoors or not at all, are certain of regaining lost freedoms.

“When we come off the state’s monitoring list, the only sector that will be allowed to reopen is schools,” Wooten said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has previously signaled that his office will have to approve a broader reopening plan, and the county has signaled that it will follow the state’s lead.

North county mayors speak

It’s clear, though, that there is still plenty of interpretation underway where public health order enforcement is concerned.

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Two North county mayors said Tuesday that the inconsistency among state, county and local laws makes health orders difficult to enforce.

“We need to be following state law,” said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall. “It should not be up to each city ... it would come from the state, to the county, to the city.”

Beach closures this spring and summer were an example of that. Each coastal city made its own decision about opening and closing, which at times left some open and some closed. The differences were especially confusing to tourists and other visitors arriving from outside the county.

“You want to be sure the laws are the same from Oceanside to Encinitas,” Hall said. “We all want to do what’s right, but we have to have clear direction.”

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Local laws also need to be consistent with the state and federal constitutions, he said, and should not infringe on anyone’s freedom.

“If we are in a compromised [health] situation, we need to protect ourselves,” Hall said. “To try and dictate what you should or should not be doing, that’s a challenge.”

Most businesses and residents are trying to comply with the orders, said Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss.

Oceanside police arrested one person, Metroflex Gym owner Louis Uridel, in May when after a weeks-long closure, he reopened his business in defiance of the county health order.

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Uridel was released later the same day. His business closed again briefly after his arrest, but reopened a second time a few days later and has been open since then. It currently operates outdoors on the sidewalk beneath canvas canopies.

“Given what happened last time, it is unlikely we are going to arrest anyone [else],” Weiss said.

“We have turned several cases over to the district attorney’s office and are awaiting their decision,” he said.

City officials need to consider the negative effects closures can have on small businesses, Weiss said.

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“To me, the economic impact to all these businesses is going to be greater than the pandemic,” he said. “We should do ... anything we can do to keep these people afloat. We’ve got to get people back to work, to keep businesses open.”

The county’s public health order is vague and as a result it is enforced selectively, Weiss said.

“All persons are to remain in their homes” ... except to travel to essential businesses or activities, according to the first sentence of the updated health order now in effect.

“All public or private ‘gatherings’ (with a few narrowly defined exceptions) are prohibited” is the second sentence, Weiss pointed out. Yet people widely violate those orders, and others, with impunity.

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The initial goal of the health order was to prevent a surge of COVID-19 patients from overwhelming the region’s medical facilities. So far, that has not happened.

“We have more than flattened the curve,” Weiss said. “The hospitals are not being overwhelmed.”

The latest numbers back him up, with the total number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations under 400 for nine straight days in a region where total bed capacity exceeds 6,000.

Gym is closed, for now

The doors were open at Boulevard Fitness but there was no socially distanced line out front Tuesday.
The doors were open at Boulevard Fitness but there was no socially distanced line out front Tuesday. Earlier in the day, the San Diego Police Department cited the business’ owner, Shawn Gilbert, and he closed for business.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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On Tuesday afternoon, the doors remained open at Boulevard Fitness, but the socially distanced line out front was gone.

The University Heights gym’s owner, Shawn Gilbert, stood behind a piece of plexiglass at the gym’s front counter, turning away several clients who showed up expecting to exercise. He said that he received a citation earlier in the day from the San Diego Police Department and that, for now, the gym is closed.

“They were really polite, really nice,” he said. “True professionals.”

He said that he didn’t know what his next steps would be.

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“I’m going to meet with my lawyer and take it from there,” he said.

As he spoke, the clink of weights against metal could be heard behind him. Gilbert said they were still allowing personal trainers, who were employees of Boulevard Fitness, to work out one-on-one with clients in the outdoor area at the back of the gym.

Photojournalist Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.


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