An orange mesh fence went up around a grassy area in Ocean Beach Tuesday as city officials planned to increase “enforcement efforts” in that zone -- where crowds have been gathering weekly for a drum circle, despite the pandemic public health order.
The grass next to the Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza at 1900 Ocean Front and Abbott streets was roped off, and a COVID-19 city sign was placed behind the barrier reminding passersby of the current health rules.
Just before 12:30 p.m., a couple of men could be seen slashing the mesh barrier.
NBC 7 asked one of the men why he was tearing down the fence.
"Freedom," the man said. "Because we want to drum circle. We want to be free; we all want to gather together."
"Because what they're doing is, they're trying to separate us," he added. "They're trying to separate us but we're all trying to come together right now. And that's what it is."
The current San Diego County Public Health Order – just as it did when the coronavirus pandemic reached our region in mid-March – still prohibits gatherings among people who are not part of the same household.
The health order says gatherings may “exacerbate the spread of COVID-19” and bring people too close together for a prolonged period. The public health order says it’s difficult to trace exposure to COVID-19 “when large numbers of people attend a single event or are at a single location.” You can read the most current version of the San Diego County Public Health Order in full here or below.
At 1 p.m., San Diego City Councilmember Jennifer Campbell had planned to host a media briefing at the plaza to talk about future enforcement efforts focused on the “troublesome” area.
“Our office continues to field calls regarding increased crowds gathering at Veteran’s Plaza in Ocean Beach on Wednesday evenings,” Campbell said in a press release. “While I appreciate the San Diego Police Department’s increased presence last week, it’s clear more comprehensive action needs to be taken to keep San Diegans safe.”
However, after the fence was slashed, the press conference was called off. Campbell instead planned to speak with reporters one-on-one.
The gatherings at the OB park have been happening every Wednesday since June. They’re put on by a local group called Ocean Beach Drum Circle & Fire Dancing.
Locals are concerned because those who attend the gatherings don’t always wear face masks or practice social distancing – and the gatherings blatantly ignore the public health order.
NBC 7 spoke with Mark Winkie, president of the Ocean Beach Town Council, at the park. He said he was “disappointed” to see the mesh barrier had been slashed. He said the council “in no way” condoned those actions.
But Winkie said he was also disappointed that the city had blocked off the park.
He wants an “education first” approach to the enforcement efforts and said, to date, no city official has been out to the park to speak with the drum circle group about complying with the health order. That approach should also, Winkie said, include reminders to wear face masks and keep a proper social distance.
“When you shut the park down, you’re taking space away from the community,” Winkie said. “And that hurts the community because they’re not going to be able to use it.”
Winkie said if he can’t predict if the warning/education approach would work but added, “I can tell you, there are people that congregate here, that are socially responsible and would be willing to listen.”
But if that's not enough to change the behaviors there, Winkie understands the next step would be to close the park.
“If it doesn’t work, then we’re back to a situation that this has to be removed from the community for a long period of time,” he said.
Winkie said the city has been helpful in communicating with the OB Town Council during the pandemic health orders, and he appreciates that. He noted that it’s a challenge for the city and county to work together to enforce the public health order, and, so, putting up a barrier is easier.
He said the OB Town Council will continue working with the city to adapt to the pandemic rules.
“It’s important to get it right,” Winkie added.
The county said it is aware of the problem at the OB location. County leaders are in the process of forming COVID-19 compliance teams that can better enforce health order violations like this.
Over the past few months, as the pandemic wears on, the county has had trouble enforcing the health order at places like gyms and houses of worship. The gatherings near Veterans Plaza are a similar story.
Joel Day, a senior advisor for COVID response and recovery for the city of San Diego, said the park near the Veterans Plaza has been a “community concern” for a long time. He said residents and businesses have said they’re worried about the potential spread of COVID-19 there during those large gatherings.
Working with the city, the community, and the county, Day said placing the barrier around the grass is a “test case.”
He said the barrier is a physical reminder that gathering in large groups is not allowed anywhere in the county right now.
“We decided that it’s important to have a physical representation,” Day explained. “Now, a flimsy fence is nothing compared to people being irresponsible. We know that if people are choosing to the irresponsible in flagrant disregard, fencing is not going to be the thing.”
Day said people often buy food in the area and then sit at the park to watch the drum circle show. This causes the crowds there to grow on Wednesday nights and that’s simply unsafe during the pandemic.
“It is not acceptable,” he added.
On Wednesday, Day said an “interdisciplinary team” – pulled together at the direction of the mayor and city of San Diego – will gather around 3 p.m. at the park, ahead of the drum circle event.
They will stand there for several hours to let people know that gathering in a large crowd is a violation of the public health order. Day said the education is meant to help protect the city’s most vulnerable residents from the spread of COVID-19.
“Asymptomatic transmission has occurred in our communities and it is unacceptable to put more people at risk,” he added.
Day said most residents and neighboring businesses are following the public health rules in OB, but a gathering like the drum circle “puts the whole neighborhood at risk.”
He said San Diego Police Department officers were at the park last Wednesday following up on noise complaints and checking for open containers. They also reminded the group about social distancing.
The city, Day said, will continue to work with the SDPD and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to enforce the public health order at the OB park and across the county.
If their approach of “constant communication, outreach and education” doesn’t work, the city will elevate the OB park situation to county partners so a cease and desist order can be issued.
Day said both SDSO and SDPD have the power to enforce COVID-19 compliance, and anyone who breaks the rules could face a fine of up to $1,000.
Day said the barrier and the city’s enforcement efforts at the park this week are a “plea.”
“We are saying that you need to stop,” Day said.
Campbell, who represents San Diego’s second district, including Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, spoke to reporters at the park and said she’s fed up with the gatherings.
“I’ve been wanting since day one of this COVID thing, for this city and this county to get strong!” Campbell said. “This is a life-threatening situation.”
Campbell said it would be great if OB could get back to its old self, where people can gather and enjoy the public areas. Ultimately, Campbell said that’s what city leaders want, but it’s just not safe or possible right now.
“But right now, people who come here – with no mask, with no distancing – are being irresponsible and they could get sick,” she said. “Deathly sick and die. Every day more and more San Diegans are dying. So, we have to get tough.”
Campbell said that if Wednesday’s drum circle event happens as it’s happened for the last few months, there’s will be “a lot of clamp down.”
“They have to stop it,” she said. “They’ve got to behave in a responsible, adult, mature manner. This is a worldwide emergency. Every single person has to take part in ending it.”
“The county has a rule – no more than 10 can get together,” Campbell added.
NBC 7 spoke with a member of the drum circle group who said that if they can't gather at the OB park, they will move their weekly gathering to another area, perhaps Fiesta Island.