May 7, 2020. That’s the day it became clear to this reporter, the coronavirus was going to have a devastating impact on the dreams and livelihood of small business owners across San Diego County.
“It was supposed to be two weeks to slow the spread. It’s turned into a year,” said Peter San Nicolas, the owner of Ramona Fitness Center.
Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know San Nicolas, and I feel for him, as I do other small business owners.
But you try to stay objective. Afterall, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s the job of the county to ensure public health.
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In August, it was really awkward when I called San Nicolas to get reaction to the news he was being criminally charged for defiantly staying open. He didn’t know. I broke the news to him. It turns out, four misdemeanor charges would later be dropped.
But getting back to May 7, I was in Ramona covering what was called the “Reopen Ramona” rally, organized by San Nicolas.
I came face to face with people who spent their life savings to start their own businesses. With shutdown orders in place since March 17, business owners like Aleigha Elston were on the brink of losing everything they had worked for.
At the heart of the argument for small business owners was their frustration that big box stores were allowed to remain open, and they were not. Especially since, for Elston, her salon employees were trained to keep up sanitary conditions.
“The fact that other business can open before someone that is trained in that already, on a regular basis, is just kind of bogus to me,” said Elston, who owns Salon Blondies.
As frustration began to set in, it became clear many business owners had had enough of the shutdown orders still in place.
In May, the owner of Metroflex Gym in Oceanside became the first person in San Diego County cited for allowing patrons inside.
”I didn’t expect to get hauled off in handcuffs,” said Lou Uridel.
As I reported on the growing number of defiant business owners, it also became clear that it was extremely challenging for local police, who were put in the uncomfortable position of enforcing state and county public health orders, to enforce the orders.
Many jurisdictions chose to "educate" rather than cite, and it was obvious it wasn’t going to prevent many desperate business owners from staying open.
By May, it also became clear regular people were growing tired of the shutdown orders and longed to venture outdoors again.
That was evident when I got a tip that Viejas Casino was reopening. I was stunned and surprised to see hundreds waiting outside in the heat, and long lines, unconcerned about the health risks.
While the decision for casinos to reopen frustrated the county public health officer, state and county restrictions could not be enforced on sovereign tribal land.
There was more evidence people were growing tired of the lockdown orders.
In May, when restaurants were allowed to reopen with restrictions, social media photos showed El Prez in Pacific Beach jam-packed with patrons. The restaurant was immediately shut down. But again, it showed people were ready to gather, even it meant breaking the rules.
The same applied to beachgoers over Memorial Day weekend. I was in Carlsbad and saw hundreds of people gather on the sand, all the while, ignoring posted signs to stay socially distanced.
Meanwhile, the controversy carried over to several churches.
Hilltop Tabernacle and Awaken Church posted a video online that showed congregants violating social distancing rules. It would eventually become a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court.
I worked hard to get comments from the pastors of the two churches. They refused to talk to me. Both churches eventually had COVID-19 outbreaks.
The stories I did on the churches led to some awful backlash and criticism aimed at me on social media. Again, I worked diligently to report the facts.
Moving forward, one year into the pandemic, it’s interesting to note the county has issued more than 217 cease and desist orders, but many business defiantly stayed open.
For instance in Carlsbad, dozens of restaurants stayed open, calling it a legal protest. I've spoken with many owners who are convinced their restaurants are safe, and they go above and beyond to follow safety protocols.
Again, you have to feel for small business owners. It’s up to each of us as individuals to decide how we chose to patronize the businesses.
Peter San Nicolas says he’s lost about a half million dollars, and has chosen to keep his business open.
“I’m asking businesses to open up right now. It’s not to late to take a stand for yourself, for your business, for our country and for our freedoms,” said San Nicolas.