County sounds alarm on COVID-19 violations; cease-and-desist orders include businesses in Pacific Beach
The San Diego County health department is taking its biggest swing to date at willful health-order violators, serving cease-and-desist orders this week to many establishments across the region, including some in Pacific Beach, as coronavirus case rates continue to climb.
As of Nov. 18, the 39 orders issued included Reach Yoga and Shock Fitness in Pacific Beach and four locations of Yoga Box, including one in Pacific Beach.
Officials said the actions are based on public health investigations that discovered “willful and blatant violation of public health orders.”
The actions came soon after California officials applied what they called an “emergency brake” to the state’s reopening, announcing that 28 more California counties would enter the purple tier, the most restrictive of the four-level process. Now, 41 of the state’s 58 counties, including San Diego, are requiring restaurants, gyms, places of worship, museums and movie theaters to operate outdoors only. Retail stores and shopping centers are restricted to 25 percent indoor capacity.
In addition, the state announced Nov. 19 that any county in the purple tier will be subject to a curfew requiring that all non-essential gatherings and activities involving members of different households cease between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. daily starting Saturday, Nov. 21, and continuing until Dec. 21.
Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, said Nov. 16 that too few people in San Diego County are heeding advice to keep their distance, avoid large gatherings and wear masks when around people from outside their household.
The county reported a record 1,087 newly diagnosed infections Nov. 15, followed by 833 more the next day. More than 920 new cases, and a dozen fatalities, were reported Nov. 18, the eighth consecutive day the county reported more than 600 new coronavirus cases.
A regional COVID-19 report showed 150 total hospitalizations for the week ended Nov. 15, higher than the total of 118 tallied the previous week, and significantly higher than new hospitalization totals that were usually in the 80s from mid-September through late October.
“Over the last weeks we have seen the results [of] what can happen when we relax our personal standards and let our guard down,” said Wooten, who delivered her weekly COVID-19 briefing two days early to sound an alarm. “We are in an emergency situation; COVID-19 is not going away and we must act.”
Last week, Wooten noted that county contact-tracing investigations indicate that restaurants, places of worship, museums and other locations now required to operate outdoors do not appear to be generating as many exposures as are occurring in households and workplaces. Those two scenarios — people going to their jobs and people congregating in their homes — were responsible for more than 60 percent of the places people told contact tracers they visited before getting sick.
Wooten included such observations in an “adjudication” request sent to the state about two weeks ago. But she said this week that the sharp rise in new cases warrants the harsher restrictions San Diego County faces now that it’s slipped from the red tier into the most restrictive purple tier.
But a group of local restaurants and gyms have used the county’s own words to challenge its ability to enforce its cease-and-desist orders. A lawsuit filed last week seeking a temporary injunction was scheduled for a hearing Nov. 17, but the hearing has been moved to Friday, Nov. 20.
Cease-and-desist orders do not turn into citations without the help of local law enforcement agencies, said county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.
A survey of local law enforcement agencies late last week showed that the focus has remained on asking violators for voluntary compliance rather than writing tickets that can generate $1,000 fines. And citations have grown much less frequent.
Across the county, officers and deputies had issued 431 COVID-19-related citations. The vast majority of those — 393 — were issued in April by the San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and Carlsbad Police Department.
San Diego police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said officers have issued very few citations over the past several months — likely less than 10.
“That’s because we really took an approach to achieve voluntary compliance,” Takeuchi said.
When asked whether the department would shift tactics in light of the region’s purple tier status, he said, “The chief is consulting with our city leaders and other law enforcement leaders in the region to determine how to assist the county health department so that we can all work together to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Wooten recently wrote a letter to law enforcement agencies and local leaders asking for more help in enforcing health orders.
The Sheriff’s Department said Nov. 19 that it will allocate eight full-time deputies to help investigate health-order complaints and
quickly issue citations.
“We will continue to ask [law enforcement] for help,” Fletcher said. “We will continue to push and we will continue to do everything we can countywide.”
— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writers Lyndsay Winkley and Alex Riggins, City News Service and PB Monthly staff contributed to this report.