The San Diego County District Attorney's Office has, for the first time, charged a local business owner for violating a public health order that was put in place in mid-March, forcing thousands of businesses to shutter as the novel coronavirus spread across the county.
The owner of Ramona Fitness Center, Peter San Nicolas, faces five misdemeanor charges for violating the California Emergency Services Act on five separate occasions in June and July, according to a criminal complaint filed on Friday.
It is the first action the District Attorney's Office has taken in criminally enforcing the county's public health order since it was issued in March 2020 to restrict the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has infected nearly 30,000 San Diegans and resulted in the deaths of 565 county residents.
"We understand and sympathize with the significant hardship placed on businesses who are required to remain closed. But public health orders are in place to safeguard the health of everyone in our community amid this deadly pandemic," The DA's Office said in a statement to NBC 7. "Along with our law enforcement partners, we work with businesses to give them opportunities to achieve voluntary compliance. But when the public health order is ignored and the law is broken, the public's health is at risk and we will file charges."
The complaint notes that San Nicolas was given orders to follow the public health order on June 2, June 4, June 5, July 15, and July 17 but on each occasion did "refuse and willfully neglect to obey a lawful order."
If found guilty, San Nicolas could face up to 6 months in jail per count or up to a $5,000 fine.
San Nicolas told NBC 7 he disagrees with the charges and questioned the choice.
"What country are we living in?" he asked. "I feel an obligation to other business owners to stand up. We need to stand up."
The gym owner previously admitted to NBC 7 that he had violated the public health order starting June 1 -- about two-and-a-half months after his business had closed due to the public health order -- because he felt as if there was no other choice. His business had lost $250,000 by then.
The same day San Nicolas reopened, deputies told him he could face potential criminal action. He continued anyway.
Gyms, museums and several other businesses were finally given the green light to reopen their doors on June 12, followed less than a week later with nail salons, tattoo parlors and other personal care services, as long as hygiene, social distancing and other safety measures were followed.
But the reopenings were short-lived. In the weeks that followed came a surge in coronavirus cases and community outbreaks -- when more than three people tied to the same location, but who don't live together, become infected with COVID-19.
The concerning statistics led Gov. Gavin Newsom to place San Diego County on California’s coronavirus monitoring watch list in early July, which, in turn, forced county health leaders to pull back on some parts of San Diego’s reopening.
On July 13, Newsom ordered all counties on the state’s watch list to shut down indoor operations at all gyms and fitness centers, though they were allowed to operate outdoors. This order also included the closure of indoor operations at places of worship, malls, hair salons and barbershops, personal care services and offices for non-critical sectors across these California counties, including San Diego.
But some gym owners, including San Nicolas, continued to operate in defiance of the health order, according to the DA's Office.
Businesses were warned that a violation of San Diego County’s public health order could come with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a misdemeanor charge, but until San Nicolas, none have received the misdemeanor penalty.
The District Attorney's Office is reviewing more than 100 other cases of individuals violating public health orders after repeated warnings. The status of those cases is not yet known.