Officials and police take educational approach to gatherings at Ocean Beach’s Veterans Plaza
Police and city officials handed out face masks Aug. 12 and reminded people to practice social distancing.
The scene at Veterans Plaza in Ocean Beach early in the evening of Aug. 12 provided a contrast to previous weeks, when hundreds of people would gather on a strip of grass to drum and dance to acoustic music.
This time, most people were wearing face masks. Those who weren’t were offered free masks by city employees and police officers walking through the area. And most people were staying at least six feet from one another.
At about 6 p.m., some 75 people were sitting on the grass and sea wall or walking around Veterans Plaza. At least 10 vendors were lined up along Abbott Street, most positioned several feet apart.
But by about 8:30 p.m., at least 200 people had gathered in the area and inside the drum circle to dance. Many were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing. Police officers watched from a distance and reminded people to wear face coverings.
Staff from the city of San Diego and the county walked the area, offering people KN95 masks and reminding people to practice social distancing.
Joel Day, senior advisor for San Diego’s COVID-19 response and recovery, said city staff handed out at least 300 face masks in an hour around 5 p.m. He said the city was taking an educational approach, giving people warnings, though San Diego police officers in the area could issue citations.
“I hope it educates people that coming together without masks and social distancing can put people in danger,” Day said.
Recently, Ocean Beach residents and business owners complained that the crowds at Veterans Plaza were disruptive to the community and dangerous, given the coronavirus pandemic. Some also complained that police and the city had done little to curb them.
Ocean Beach residents, business owners and community leaders say complaints about Wednesday gatherings have been largely ignored.
On Aug. 11, the city of San Diego installed an orange plastic fence around Veterans Plaza to prevent people from gathering. However, it was quickly cut down by several people.
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Kyra Kapelusznik, an Ocean Beach resident, said she often goes to the weekly circle gathering to work on art or give tarot card readings. She left shortly after arriving Aug. 12 because she felt the sense of connection and community that attracts people to the circle was gone, thanks to all the police and media attention.
The gatherings, known to many as the Ocean Beach Drum Circle and Fire Dancing, have evolved from a few people sitting around playing drums and watching fire dancers perform to hundreds of people and vendors selling jewelry, clothing and food.
The drum circle crowd gathers in the afternoon every Wednesday, which coincides with the weekly farmers market less than a mile from Veterans Plaza.
The farmers market is put on by the business group Ocean Beach MainStreet Association. The events are separate, and the association does not organize the drum circle.
The Ocean Beach Town Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the community and hosts events, sent a letter last week calling on police and county and city elected officials to stop the gatherings.
The San Diego Police Department cleared the area last week in response to complaints from residents, business owners and local group leaders. That crowd had grown to 100 or so at about 10 p.m., when police arrived. Most were not wearing masks.
One person was cited last week for carrying an open container of alcohol, police said.
Corey Bruins, treasurer of the Ocean Beach Town Council, said having police and city staff in the park this week educating the public was the response the group was hoping officials would take.
“It’s a huge improvement from last week,” Bruins said.