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County Ratchets Up Coronavirus Response As First Local Death Reported

Gates open at the Ocean Beach Pier, May 24, 2019.
Matt Hoffman
Gates open at the Ocean Beach Pier, May 24, 2019.

The coronavirus tightened its grip on San Diego Sunday, with the county reporting its first death and a significant increase in cases. This news came as state and local officials took a series of dramatic steps to combat the exploding pandemic.

The first county resident to succumb to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was a man in his early 70s, said county Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten during an afternoon news conference. He was being treated in Santa Clara County after traveling to Hawaii.

The county had no further information on the man as of late Sunday afternoon. The number of cases in San Diego county is now 205, up from 159 on Saturday afternoon, according to county officials.


Also on Sunday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom formally requested that President Donald Trump make a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration for California, which would make billions in federal funds available to the state.

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Trump approved such a declaration for New York state on Friday and Washington state earlier on Sunday. During a White House media briefing Sunday afternoon, Trump acknowledged receiving the request and said he would act on it quickly.

The declaration would provide “mass care and emergency assistance, crisis counseling, disaster case management, disaster unemployment assistance, disaster legal services and disaster supplemental nutrition assistance,” according to a news release from Newsom’s office.

Meanwhile, the city of San Diego closed all parking lots for beaches and parks as part of its effort to discourage gatherings of any size during the pandemic.

City officials took this extraordinary measure after many reports of people gathering at beaches and parks despite Newsom’s order last week for all Californians to “shelter in place” and Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s order limiting gatherings in the city.


“Public health officials are clear that gatherings of any size can lead to the spread of COVID-19, which is why they continue to be prohibited everywhere, including at beaches and parks,” said Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell in a statement released Sunday. “Local and state rules limiting groups have been in effect for days, so this should not be a surprise to anyone.”

Lifeguard Division Chief James Gartland followed Stowell’s statement with a reminder that “people can still go outside for a walk or bike ride, but they should do it while following physical distancing rules.”

“The Stay At Home order makes clear that this is not a time for parties, it’s a time to protect the public health,” Gartland said.

Late on Saturday, San Diego County Democratic Party Chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy disclosed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and was in intensive care at the local VA Medical Center.

Rodriguez-Kennedy announced Friday night on Facebook that he had been hospitalized after experiencing fever, cough, nausea and muscle soreness. An update on Saturday said his test for COVID-19 had come back positive and that he was in the ICU "receiving the best care."

Rodriguez-Kennedy, 32, was elected chair of the county Democratic party last year — the youngest person to ever win that position. He is a Marine Corps veteran who was discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that banned openly gay people from serving in the military.

He said on Facebook he was uninsured, but that a local Democratic party activist had connected him with a VA specialist who got him enrolled and admitted to the hospital.

Another local political figure with COVID-19 is Chula Vista City Councilman Steve Padilla, who was admitted to intensive care and placed on a ventilator last Thursday.