The large gatherings at Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza usually during and after the Farmers Market on Wednesdays has become the latest battleground in the fight to enforce social responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And the mood turned angry and ugly on Aug. 11 at an afternoon press conference staged by District 2 Councilmember Dr. Jennifer Campbell. In response to a recent appeal by OB Town Council requesting City leaders do a better job of enforcing public health orders in the fight to contain the coronavirus in the beach community, Campbell set up a public event at Veterans Plaza. It didn’t go as planned.
Earlier that morning, City staff had installed an orange fence surrounding the grass at Veterans Plaza as a symbolic barrier to discourage groups from gathering. That fence was torn down shortly thereafter by a couple of angry people alleging it was an overreaction to the situation and suppression of their personal freedoms.
Then during the media event, a couple of crowd members yelled out claiming transients, not local residents, were “the real problem,” and largely to blame for groups gathering illegally. Other members of the crowd chimed in blaming the police of harassment.
Campbell, after being repeatedly interrupted by onlookers, finally shouted out a stern message.
“This is a life-threatening situation and this is a worldwide emergency with the worst virus in the history of medicine,” she said. “People who come here with no masks and no distancing are being irresponsible and they could get deathly sick. Every day more San Diegans are dying. So we have to get tough.”
Added Campbell, “If this situation that happened last Wednesday (Aug. 5) happens this Wednesday, there’s going to be a lot of clampdowns. The county has a rule: No more than 10 can get together. Therefore the sheriff should be arresting people who aren’t wearing masks or distancing. Behave or you’re going to be in big trouble.”
Prior to Campbell’s address, two Ocean Beach board members, speaking on their own behalf, addressed the problematic gatherings.
“If there is no compliance the City could possibly shut the park down,” said OBTC president Mark Winkie adding, “You would be taking space away from and hurting the community because they’re not allowed to use it. So our position would be to educate people to see if there’s compliance. And then if there isn’t – go to the next step.”
The next step was discussed by Joel Day, the City’s senior advisor for COVID response and recovery.
“People coming together in groups is against the public health order and we’re really concerned about community spread,” said Day. “It’s not just about the people who want to get together in the (Wednesday) drum circles. It’s about people who could be exposed through asymptomatic transmissions. We’re trying to work with Obecians to take individual responsibility: That’s what it’s all about.”
Day said San Diego Police Department and county officials would be present Aug. 12 at Veterans Plaza to educate people about the rules in place against groups gathering, noting a fine of $1,000 could be imposed for non-compliance.
Asked if public health warnings weren’t falling on deaf ears, Winkie responded: “No one has actually reached out to this group and said, ‘We’re giving you an opportunity to behave in a way that’s responsible.’ I think the town council would agree that is something we’d like to see happen first. And then, If that fails, then we’ll have to step forward with something else.”
OB had concerns about the gathering at Veterans Park long before COVID started,” said Andrea Schlageter, OBPB chair. “Now with COVID, there is just another, more deadly, concern that the OB community has gotten no help in solving.
“So it’s concerning to see our own council office insinuating that the Ocean Beach Main Street Association’s legally permitted Farmers Market is in part to blame for encouraging this illegal gathering. Let’s be clear, every time OBMA, OBTC, or any other community group throws an event we have unpermitted street vendors setting up shop to profit from these ventures – sometimes selling less than legal wares, but always there without paying any of the fees required from the other vendors.”
“I’m appalled at the situation,” said OBPB member Tracy Dezenzo. “I think all the unlicensed vendors are taking advantage, turning that section of OB into a swap meet and they are snubbing their noses at OBMA, who run a legit farmers market every Wednesday with vendors who pay for the use of the space and the cleaning of the street. Aside from the unlicensed vendors, the fire performers, buskers, and DJs are a menace.
“They have turned that area into one big alcohol and drug fest and they have zero respect for the community. All this and the police can’t do a thing but keep the peace. OB is struggling, and many of the residents feel like there is no support or any way we can stop the craziness.”