A city-led enforcement team visited a park in Ocean Beach Wednesday ahead of a weekly drum circle gathering that has been attracting crowds and “flagrantly” violating San Diego’s public health order, but that didn't stop the beat.
"I think we’ve given away 300 masks so far in the last 30 minutes. People want to be in compliance and they want to be safe," said Joel Day, senior advisor for the city's COVID-19 Response and Recovery Team.
Day said response team agents took an educational approach to enforcement Wednesday.
Since June, a local group called Ocean Beach Drum Circle & Fire Dancing has been gathering every Wednesday on the grassy area next to the Ocean Beach Veterans Plaza and Ocean Front Way and Abbott Street.
The drum circle attracts spectators and, according to local leaders, the weekly crowd has gotten out of hand. Some locals are concerned because those who partake in the gatherings don’t always wear face masks or practice social distancing.
The gatherings also ignore San Diego County’s Public Health Order and the rules brought forth by the coronavirus pandemic. One of those rules is gatherings among people who are not part of the same household are not allowed.
Sure enough, as the sun went down Wednesday the drum circle formed on the same patch of grass that was fenced off some 24 hours earlier, and a crowd of around 200 people, some shoulder to shoulder, sang, danced, and embraced.
Officers standing by allowed the circle to drum on until around 10 p.m. when they moved in and ordered the crowd to disperse.
Police cited some park visitors for violations such as open containers, but no one was cited for public health order violations, Day said. That's because, according to Day, citing only a few among the large crowd would only make things worse.
Some neighbors have filed complaints about crowd ruckus at the park in the past -- when there wasn't fear of worsening a communicable disease pandemic. So the park crowd's disregard for anti-gathering rules is drawing even greater ire now.
"[They have] No respect for the people of Ocean Beach," one neighbor said. "They are diseased and spreading the virus."
Day told NBC 7 his team needs to go back to the drawing board and meet with Ocean Beach community leaders to figure out a way to get a handle on the weekly event.
San Diego City Councilmember Jennifer Campbell, who represents San Diego’s second district, including Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, said Tuesday that she’s fed up with the OB drum circle gatherings at the park.
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 with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“But right now, people who come here – with no mask, with no distancing – are being irresponsible and they could get sick,” Campbell told reporters Tuesday. “Deathly sick and die. Every day more and more San Diegans are dying. So, we have to get tough.”
On Tuesday, the city started its crackdown on the OB spot by putting an orange mesh fence around the grass and a sign reminding the public of the local COVID-19 restrictions.
But the fence did not sit well with some people.
NBC 7 spotted a man cutting down the barrier. When he was asked why he was doing that the man said, “Freedom.”
“Because we want to drum circle. We want to be free; we all want to gather together,” the man told NBC 7. “Because what they're doing is, they're trying to separate us. They're trying to separate us but we're all trying to come together right now. And that's what it is.”
Campbell and other city officials talked about plans to increase enforcement at the OB park Tuesday.
Day said the park near the Veterans Plaza has been a “community concern” for a long time. He said residents and businesses are worried about the potential spread of COVID-19 during those large Wednesday gatherings.
Working with the city, the community, and the county, Day said placing the barrier around the grass on Tuesday was a “test.” He said the barrier was a physical reminder that gathering in large groups is not allowed anywhere in the county right now.
But Day admitted that a “flimsy fence” wouldn’t do much if people were set on gathering at the park.
So, the next step, Day said, was to send an enforcement team to the spot Wednesday afternoon, before the drum circle event.
Day said an “interdisciplinary team” – pulled together at the direction of the mayor and city of San Diego – would gather at the park Wednesday. They remained at the park for several hours to let people know that gathering in a large crowd is a violation of the public health order.
The city says it's trying to gain compliance by using what it calls the "Three E's" strategy: Educate, Elevate, and if necessary, Enforce by issuing citations.
Day said the enforcement 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 said.
According to Day and Campbell, San Diego Police Department officers were at the park last Wednesday following up on noise complaints and checking for open containers at the drum circle gathering. 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 added.
NBC 7 spoke with a member of the drum circle who said that if the group can't gather at the OB park, they will move their weekly gathering to another area.
Mark Winkie, president of the Ocean Beach Town Council, said he’s been working with the city regarding the public health order, but the work must continue.
“It’s important to get it right,” he said.
Winkie said he was “disappointed” that the park had been roped off Tuesday but was also disappointed to see the mesh barrier had been torn down.
Winkie said he wants an “education first” approach to the enforcement efforts in OB, including city employees speaking with the drum circle and reminding the group to wear face masks and keep a proper social distance.
Winkie said if he can’t predict if the warning/education approach will 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, 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.
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.
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.