Crowds gather at Ocean Beach, defying public health order and residents’ safety concerns
Ocean Beach residents, business owners and community leaders say complaints about Wednesday gatherings have been largely ignored.
Dozens of people often gather on a strip of grass known as Veterans Plaza in Ocean Beach on Wednesday afternoons, bobbing their heads to the rhythm of drums and acoustic music.
Later at night the scene will change, as people typically gather around a drum circle and watch fire dancers perform.
In recent weeks, the crowds have grown to hundreds of people as many vendors selling jewelry, clothing and food have popped up.
These days the festivities are less than welcome.
Some Ocean Beach residents, business owners and group leaders complain that the weekly gatherings have become disruptive and dangerous given the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus. They note the lack of face masks and social distancing among much of the crowd and say loud music, trash and unauthorized street vendors are problems.
They say elected officials and police have done nothing to stop the gatherings, which have been going on since June, residents say. On Aug. 5 few law enforcement officers were visible in the crowd.
The gatherings, known as the Ocean Beach Drum Circle and Fire Dancing, coincide with the weekly farmers market, which was organized by the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, a business group. But the drum circle events are separate from the farmers market; the association does not organize them.
The Ocean Beach Town Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the community and creates events, sent a letter Aug. 4 to county and city elected officials and police seeking to stop the gatherings.
“Our neighborhood should not be used as a playground for crowds of people who do not take the public health and safety of others seriously and come here to act irresponsibly in our community,” the Town Council board of directors wrote.
Cameron Reid, a member of the Town Council, said the Wednesday gatherings historically have been a display of Ocean Beach community spirit — with music, yoga, fire dancing and drum circles— but now the events are putting residents’ health at risk.
“This is the sort of thing that pre-COVID would have flown under the radar ... but it’s gotten crazy,” Reid said, adding that more people show up every week.
County spokesman Michael Workman said in an email that the county is aware of the issue and that the county’s new compliance teams will work with the city of San Diego to address the situation.
The county Board of Supervisors on Aug. 4 approved $1.8 million in funding for staff members to respond to reports of violations of public health orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
City Council member Jennifer Campbell, whose district includes Ocean Beach, said in a statement that her office will work with the community and she urged the mayor and county to enforce rules on mask wearing and social distancing.
She said the San Diego Police Department has committed to directing additional resources on Wednesday evenings to handle noise complaints.
Local artist and drum circle drummer Genesiah Cervantes said she doesn’t think the gatherings should be going on, given the pandemic.
“I think it shouldn’t even be happening right now, but it is and it’s hard to control,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes, a former Ocean Beach resident who now lives in Imperial Beach, is one of the original members of the drum circle, which came together in 2016 on the same days as the farmers market. She said the group grew from a couple of drummers and fire dancers to a large crowd.
Cervantes created a Facebook page for the gatherings but said people are coming together organically, without the need to organize.
“It’s a phenomenon I feel in a way ... people have found a place of comfort going there every week,” she said.
Cervantes said the gatherings stopped when the city closed beaches and parks, but they resumed when those areas reopened. She said she has posted on social media telling people not to go to the gatherings and to wear face masks if they do, but it hasn’t helped.
Genoa Dickson, co-owner of Ocean Beach Hotel, said the gatherings have always been an issue for her business, which is across from Veterans Plaza. Lately the late-night music has cost the hotel money because guests leave or ask for refunds, she said.
“Right now everybody is just trying to survive, and we don’t need any extra obstacles,” Dickson said.
Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, said businesses in Ocean Beach are “under the gun” to comply with health regulations, yet the gatherings occur every week without repercussions.
“It seems like there are rules for people who follow the rules, and we can’t make a mistake, but out there it’s a free-for-all,” Knox said.
The association puts together the farmers market, which has been cut down to 50 vendors to allow for social distancing.
Knox said it’s unfair that there are vendors setting up at Veterans Plaza without hand-washing stations or safety protocols, yet the market has to follow those guidelines.
“I just don’t understand why it’s allowed to go on and on,” Knox said.
Milat Laali, who lives in El Cajon, was selling jewelry and clothing at Veterans Plaza on Aug. 5. She said her husband isn’t working because he recently had surgery and that the sales she makes are their only source of income at the moment.
She said she understands that residents and businesses don’t like that vendors set up on the plaza, but it’s not illegal.
“We need money,” Laali said.
Less than a block from Veterans Plaza, other people shopped at the farmers market. A line to get into the market went around the corner of Cable Street because the market was at capacity.