Fence in Ocean Beach becomes flashpoint in dispute over COVID-19 health order enforcement
Frustrated residents lash out as city officials threaten crackdown on violators.
A simple orange plastic fence embodied the enduring divisions of an entire community this week as the city of San Diego increased enforcement of public health orders and promised that more is to come for those who don’t comply.
As the county’s daily number of new coronavirus cases fell below 200 for the first time since June 22, dozens of people surrounded city 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 meant to prevent large gatherings at Veterans Plaza didn’t last long.
Someone apparently felt strongly enough to cut it down the morning of Aug. 11. The barrier’s installation set off a shouting match between those who feel police have not seriously enforced distancing and masking orders and those who view such edicts as government overreach.
One dispute between two men looked for a moment like it might come to blows.
Kevin Hastings, 40, of Ocean Beach said it was frustrating to see people “hijack” the nearby farmers market every Wednesday evening with big gatherings and live music at the plaza so loud that it bothers nearby residents, and police doing nothing to break up the party.
Ocean Beach residents, business owners and community leaders say complaints about Wednesday gatherings have been largely ignored.
“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 [expletive] we want!’”
Joel Day, a senior advisor to the city for COVID-19 response and recovery, spoke at the park Aug. 11 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. “How long are you going to keep blowing smoke up our [expletive]?”
“What’s unacceptable is you guys getting up our butt about all of this,” a man shouted.
“Where are the police?” the woman asked. “Where are the sheriff’s [deputies]? Where is the law enforcement?”
“We’re sick of you guys telling us what’s what,” a man shouted.
San Diego Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, whose district includes Ocean Beach, 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 said.
“Good!” someone yelled. Someone else yelled, “Leave us alone!”
Day said after the news conference that the city’s compliance strategy is 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 needs to work with the county for the elevation step because it has unique authority to issue cease-and-desist letters and closure orders.
Day and Campbell said after their comments that there needs to be greater clarity on the amount of the fines associated with citations. Campbell said the City Council might need to get involved.
“They can only do what the mayor allows them to do,” Campbell 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.”
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during a regular COVID-19 briefing Aug. 11 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.
“Only the law enforcement agency that is responsible for that specific location has the ability to issue these citations,” Fletcher said. He thanked the “vast majority” of organizations that have been complying with health orders.
Thus far, though, law enforcement officers with most local agencies have largely restrained themselves from writing tickets when people appear in public without face coverings or crowd 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.
“As it relates to individuals, it really will be a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction decision,” Fletcher said.