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San Diego Officials Remain Hesitant To Punish Public Health Order Violators

A sign warning people to wear masks due to COVID-19 is placed near a beach in Del Mar, July 20, 2020.
KPBS Staff
A sign warning people to wear masks due to COVID-19 is placed near a beach in Del Mar, July 20, 2020.

For months, officials in San Diego County have had the authority to cite people and businesses who flout the county's COVID-19 public health order by not wearing masks and social distancing. But go to a county park or beach and you'll almost certainly see people acting like a pandemic never happened.

Yet, local law enforcement agencies remain reluctant to crack down on violators. The San Diego Police Department, for example, issued no citations in July.

San Diego Officials Remain Hesitant To Punish Public Health Order Violators
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

Joel Day, the city official who is coordinating San Diego's public health order enforcement, told reporters last week that an educational — rather than punitive — approach is still preferable.


"Our strategy is to do as much as we can to get people to come into voluntary compliance," Day said. "We believe in personal responsibility. I think we all do, I think we understand that wearing a mask is someone's personal responsibility."

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But the strategy of education and encouragement does not always work, as shown by the case of Boulevard Fitness, a gym in University Heights that has stayed open for weeks despite multiple orders to shutter its indoor operations. San Diego police officers cited the gym's owner on Aug. 11 — but social media posts showed the gym was still open on Monday.

SDSU School of Public Health Professor Lauren Brown said American culture places a high value on personal liberty, which can lead to negative public health outcomes. And she said the failures with the pandemic start at the national level.

"Because we're starting at the top with really poor high-level decision making and infrastructure around how we're going to nationally handle this virus, we're not creating good policy at a local level to better manage how many people might be exposed at something like a gym," Brown said.


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County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher acknowledged during a press conference Monday that the county had been slow to crack down on the worst violators of the public health order, but that it had created enforcement strike teams in recent weeks to get a better hold on the problem.

"Now as those compliance teams are better staffed and we have the procedures worked out with most of the local jurisdictions, the hope is we can move much more swiftly on those egregious, willful, blatant violators," Fletcher said.

SDPD spokesman Shawn Takeuchi confirmed the department had not issued any more citations to the Boulevard Fitness owner since last Tuesday, but that further enforcement actions may occur in light of the gym's continued refusal to shut down. The gym owner could face fines of up to $1,000 for each day it is found in violation of the public health order.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.