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San Diego Law Enforcement Still Reluctant To Issue Mask Citations, Even As Virus Cases Surge

People walk on the Mission Beach boardwalk, July 11, 2020.
Claire Trageser
People walk on the Mission Beach boardwalk, July 11, 2020.

Even though San Diego County continues to break daily records for COVID-19 cases, local law enforcement remains reluctant to issue citations for violating the county’s health order on social distancing and the wearing of facial coverings.

While infections surged throughout June, San Diego Police Department officers issued just three citations and the Metropolitan Transit Service (MTS) issued one, according to a KPBS review of police records. None of the other 13 police agencies in the county issued any citations in June.

San Diego Law Enforcement Still Reluctant To Issue Mask Citations, Even As Virus Cases Surge
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

This despite the county’s health order regarding gatherings being in effect since March and a requirement that face coverings be worn in public being in effect since the start of May.

VIDEO: San Diego Law Enforcement Still Reluctant Issue Mask Citations, Even As Virus Cases Surge

RELATED: Police Have Cited Just One Person In San Diego County For Not Wearing Face Covering

Meanwhile, medical experts and health officials continue to stress that wearing a face covering is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus.

Eyal Oren, an epidemiologist at San Diego State, said if 80 percent of people wore a mask in public "we could almost completely stop this transmission."

But over the weekend, a KPBS reporter visited Mission Beach and the Pacific Beach boardwalk multiple times and saw more than 100 people not wearing face coverings while walking on the sidewalks, riding bikes through the crowd, or waiting in line for a restaurant.

A recent KPBS analysis of COVID-19 case data found Pacific Beach is emerging as a virus hotspot, with cases in that zip code quadrupling since the middle of June.

RELATED: Pacific Beach Emerging As Coronavirus Hot Spot

Police have said they are hesitant to issue citations because they worry about coming off as heavy-handed and damaging their already fragile relationship with the community. Another reason is that the county's public health order is very difficult to enforce, said Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department.

The rule says people must wear a face covering when out in public and within six feet of another person who is not a member of their household.

"It's hard for us when we're out in the community, out on the beach, it's hard to know who's a member of the same household, and who's not a member of the same household," Takeuchi said. "People might envision families as a couple with kids, those are simple. But in the Pacific Beach area where you see big groups of young people walking around together, how are we as law enforcement officers supposed to know who [are] members of the same household?"

He said officers sometimes stop people in big groups and ask, and if the people say yes, the officers "take their word for it."

"It would feel like a police state if we're out there checking IDs," Takeuchi said. "Also, it's not against the law to be out walking around without an ID."

He added that young people may have an ID with an old address on it, so it would be difficult to check that a large group of people were all in the same household.

Another problem, Takeuchi said, is that the face covering order is difficult to enforce because there's an exception for exercising.

"How are we as law enforcement officers supposed to know whether someone is exercising or not, because people have different definitions of what exercising is," he said.

While enforcement of health officer orders is the responsibility of law enforcement, "we certainly understand that it can be challenging due to a variety of factors," said county spokesman Sarah Sweeney.

"Law enforcement can’t do it alone, nor can any entity," she said. "That is why it is our hope that all members of this community use common sense and common courtesy in their interactions both in and outside their households in their efforts to protect their own health and that of all those with whom they come in contact."

Dr. Abisola Oluade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, said when she sees people out without face coverings, it scares her.

"You'd be hard pressed to find someone who works in health care who's not proverbially kept up at night," she said. "We need the community to help us."

Even if someone is going out and thinks they won't come within six feet of another person, she said to bring a mask to put on just in case.