A simple orange plastic fence typified the permanent divisions of an entire community on Tuesday as the city stepped up public health enforcement and promised more will come for those who refuse to obey.

When the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the county fell below 200 for the first time since June 22, dozens of people surrounded San Diego officials trying to fence off a small Ocean Beach park to prevent crowds from gathering who have favourited health injuring orders.

The temporary barrier around Ocean Beach Park did not last long.

Someone apparently felt strong enough to cut it down Tuesday morning. The installation of the barrier sparked a screaming match between those who believe the police have not seriously enforced distancing and masking orders and those who consider such orders to be overreach for the government.

For a moment an argument between two men in the park looked like it was going to be beaten.

Kevin Hastings, 40, of Ocean Beach said Tuesday it was frustrating to see people “hijack” the community farmers market with large gatherings and live music loud enough to disturb nearby residents every Wednesday night be – and the police do nothing to solve the party.

"It's not worth your time I think," he said of the police. "If you don't stab someone, they don't show up. And so it got to this point because everyone knows," Let's go to Ocean Beach! "There are no laws! We can do whatever we want!"

Joel Day, Senior Advisor on COVID-19 Response and Recovery in San Diego, speaks to the press at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza on Tuesday.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dr. Joel Day, a senior city advisor on COVID-19 Response and Recovery, spoke in the park Tuesday afternoon as city officials balled the orange fences on the back of a pickup truck. He urged the assembled crowd to distance themselves socially and stressed the importance of individual responsibility in order to thwart the virus.

"We're not going to get out of the way, but we do recognize that it's incredibly important for all of us as a community to come over and say what's acceptable and what isn't," said Day. "We are here today to say that it is unacceptable to come together this way and that it is unfair to the business owners who obey the rules and the residents who obey the rules."

"That's unacceptable," shouted a woman. ”

"Where is the police?" asked the woman. "Where are the sheriffs (MPs)? Where is the prosecution?"

"We're sick of you telling us what's what," one man shouted.

City crews are hauling away a fence that was erected to prevent a gathering at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza

City crews are hauling away a fence that was erected to prevent a gathering at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza and that was demolished Tuesday.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego councilor Jennifer Campbell, a retired medical professional, said in comments in 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 this situation, which happened last Wednesday night, happens this Wednesday night, there will be a clampdown," she warned.

"Well!" someone shouted. Someone else yelled, "Leave us alone!"

After the press conference, Day announced that the city's compliance strategy is to first investigate criminals and then take county measures such as cease and desist orders and orders to shut down and ultimately enforce.

He said the city must work with the county on the advancement move as it has the unique authority to issue cease and desist orders and closure orders.

Day and Campbell both said following their comments on Tuesday that there needs to be more clarity about the size of the fines associated with quotes. Campbell said the city council may need to get involved.

San Diego City Councilor Jennifer Campbell speaks to the press at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza on Tuesday.

San Diego City Councilor Jennifer Campbell speaks to the press at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza on Tuesday.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

"You can only do what the mayor allows you to do," she said of the police enforcement of the health order. "The city council needs to pass a law to make the quotes and set the amount of the fee."

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher made it clear during a regular Tuesday afternoon COVID-19 briefing that the health department is working with local law enforcement to provide quotes for companies and other "businesses" that do not meet these requirements $ 1,000 per day to raise shutdown orders.

So far, local law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to punish those who continue their operations after receiving written instructions to stop and quit. The San Diego Police Department and the county sheriff's office, Fletcher said, have agreed to cite more aggressively than before.

"Only the law enforcement agency responsible for that particular location can issue these quotes," Fletcher said after thanking the "vast majority" of organizations that have complied with health regulations.

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

So far, however, law enforcement officers from most local authorities have largely discouraged themselves from writing tickets when people appear in public without face covering or when they clump together more than social distancing requirements require.

While law enforcement agencies appear to be taking a more consistent approach to citing companies and other organizations, this does not appear to be the approach for individuals. Fletcher said the citation surge doesn't currently extend to individuals.

"In terms of individuals, it's really going to be a jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction decision," Fletcher said.

Although there was a lot of heat down by the shore, the region's daily COVID-19 report continued to cool. Only 182 positive cases, out of a total of 5,669 results returned, were reported to the county on 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 average positive test rate dropped from 14 days to 4.8%.

Even more encouraging is the 14-day average of cases per 100,000 population. As calculated by the state, the local rate was 105, just above the 100-per-100,000 threshold that put the county on the governor's watchlist.

Daily numbers below 240, said Dr. Wilma Wooten, the district's health authority, will soon remove the region from the watch list. A rate below 100 would have to persist for 17 days, Wooten said for grades 7 through 12 schools to open. Primary schools can apply to the state to waive earlier opening.

However, the health commissioner reminded the public that only schools, not businesses and churches that are currently forced to work outdoors or not at all are safe to regain lost freedoms.

"If we are removed from the state watch list, only schools will be allowed to reopen," said Wooten.

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

North County Mayor speaking

However, it is clear that many interpretations are still pending on the enforcement of the Public Health Regulation.

Two North County mayors said Tuesday that the inconsistency between state, state, and local laws makes enforcing health orders difficult.

"We have to obey state law," said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall. "It shouldn't be in every city … it would come from the state, from the county, from the city."

Beach closings this spring and summer were an example of this. Each coastal town made its own decision about opening and closing, which at times left some open and others 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 the right thing, but we have to have a clear direction."

Local laws must also be compatible with the state and federal constitutions and must not violate anyone's freedom.

"When we're in a vulnerable (health) situation, we have to protect ourselves," said Hall. "Trying to dictate what to do and not to do is a challenge."

Most businesses and local residents are trying to obey instructions, said Oceanside Mayor Peter Weiss.

Seaside police arrested one person, Metroflex gym owner Louis Uridel, in May when he reopened his business after a week-long shutdown despite the county health code.

Uridel was released later that day. His shop closed shortly after he was arrested, but reopened a second time a few days later and has been open ever since. It is currently working outdoors on the sidewalk under canvas canopies.

"Given what happened last time, it is unlikely that we will arrest anyone," said Weiss.

"We have referred several cases to the prosecutor and are awaiting their decision," he said.

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

"To me, the economic impact on all of these companies will be greater than the pandemic," he said. “We should … do everything we can to keep these people afloat. We have to get people back to work to keep business open. "

The public health order of the district is vague and is therefore selectively enforced, said Weiss.

"Everyone should stay in their homes" … except for traveling to essential business or activity, as per the first sentence of the updated Health Ordinance now in effect.

"All public or private" gatherings "(with a few narrowly defined exceptions) are prohibited," emphasized Weiss in the second sentence. Yet people break these and other orders with impunity.

The original goal of the health order was to prevent an increase in COVID-19 patients from overwhelming the area's medical facilities. So far this has not happened.

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

The latest numbers show him a total of less than 400 COVID-19-related hospital stays for nine consecutive days in a region where total bed capacity exceeds 6,000.

The gym is closed for the time being

The doors on Boulevard Fitness were open, but there was no socially distant line outside the door on Tuesday.

The doors on Boulevard Fitness were open, but there was no socially distant line outside the door on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, the San Diego Police Department quoted business owner Shawn Gilbert and he closed his business.

(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Tuesday afternoon, the doors on Boulevard Fitness stayed open, but the socially distant line outside the door was gone.

University Heights gym owner Shawn Gilbert stood behind a piece of plexiglass on the gym's front counter and turned off several customers who showed up expecting them to exercise. He said he received a quote from the San Diego Police Department earlier that day and that the gym was closed for the time being.

"You were very polite, very nice," he said. "True professionals."

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

"I'll meet with my lawyer and take it from there," he said.

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

Photojournalist Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.

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