Three San Diego-area comedy clubs were forced to close their doors after a visit Saturday from the San Diego Police Department’s Vice Unit.
The clubs were shut down for violating the Public Health Order, which prohibits live entertainment, leaving one managers who who moved their stages outside shaking their heads.
“It was about 30 minutes before we were going to open the door. So we're just finishing setting everything up and sanitizing the tables like we do before and after every show, and they said they're going to be back later to make sure we're closed down," said Mike Vinn, assistant manager at the Comedy Store in La Jolla.
Vinn's club, The American Comedy Company in the Gaslamp District and The Comedy Palace in Kearny Mesa were all shut down.
According to the State of California’s COVID-19 guidelines, while restaurants are allowed to operate outdoors, "The guidance is not intended for concert, performance or entertainment venues," like comedy clubs.
"We don’t understand why we need to close. We’ve followed every protocol,” said Nathan Donovan, manager at the American Comedy Company.
Donovan admits that, for a time, his club held open mic shows on the street protesting the health order. But now that he's been shut down despite every effort to be safe, he and other managers are wondering what separates them from churches and gyms that are allowed to operate outside, considering comedians, like pastors and workout instructors, are speaking in front of a crowd.
“What park can we use to perform live entertainment and bring laughs to people in a very needed time," wondered Donovan, referring to recent modifications to the public health order allowing gyms and places of worship to operate in city and county parks.
The California State Health Department sent NBC 7 a statement that reads in part:
“On May 25, 2020, in an effort to balance First Amendment interests with public health, the state public health officer created an exception to the prohibition against mass gatherings for faith-based services and cultural ceremonies as well as protests."
Those rules haven't been relaxed in favor of comedy clubs or other live entertainment businesses. The comedy clubs can operate as restaurants, they just can't have live entertainment.
Some in the comedy industry believe their First Amendment rights are being violated. Vinn thinks the San Diego’s enforcement task forces can be used in a better way.
"What they should be doing, because people need to work and they need businesses to survive, is to have that task force show them what they need to do to be open. I think we're going about this backwards," he said.
According to SDPD Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, the Vice Unit did not force the comedy clubs to close and only educated business owners on their responsibility to follow the Public Health Order.
It’s up to the County Public Health Department to issue a cease and desist order, according to Lt. Takeuchi.