San Diego County board hears business complaints, declines to defy state restrictions

Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill
Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill and other businesses received cease and desist orders when the county fell into the most restrictive tier.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego County health department has issued 51 cease-and-desist orders and seven shut-down orders


Despite the urging of a frustrated group of public speakers who questioned the basic fairness of state regulations that now require many businesses to operate outdoors, county supervisors decided against going rogue on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

Supervisor Jim Desmond proposed that the county board simply begin to act as if businesses are still allowed to operate at indoor capacities mirroring what’s allowed in the “red” tier of the state’s reopening system. The region fell into the most-restrictive, “purple” level last week.

Desmond and other critics of the restrictions have noted that contact tracing interviews show that residences and workplaces are the most frequently-visited locations cited by residents who test positive. Restaurants, including those with bars, places of worship, retail locations and museums are not as high on the list.

And there is no accommodation for those businesses and other organizations that follow safe operating guidelines to the letter, Desmond noted. Everyone is lumped together under the state’s COVID risk-ranking system.

“The state is aiming at the wrong targets,” Desmond said. “We should be focused on these private gatherings and on workplace transmission.

“People should telecommute as much as possible and follow (Dr.) Wilma Wooten’s suggestions.”

But Desmond’s proposal to deviate from the state’s proscriptive approach to fighting the pandemic died without a second from his colleagues.

The latest surge in the pandemic continued to unfold Tuesday, Nov. 17, with an additional 718 new cases noted in the county’s daily COVID-19 report. Though it was significantly lower than the 1,087 reported Sunday and the 833 reported Monday, the latest number was still significantly higher than the 400-to-500 daily totals observed a week ago.

An additional seven COVID-related deaths also appeared in the latest report. They included three men and four women ranging in age from 54 to 86. All had other underlying health conditions present in addition to a confirmed coronavirus infection.

Local hospitalizations continued their gradual upward trajectory, reaching a countywide combined census of 387 Monday, including 24 new admissions. The latest number puts the region near the record of 411 reached, according to county records, in early July.

After listening to the comments of nearly 40 speakers — most of whom railed against the state guidelines — Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she could not go along with the idea of defying state rules, which she said would essentially constitute an act of “civil disobedience.”

Some did not call for defiance Tuesday. That included representatives of the San Diego Medical Society, a group that represents more than 5,000 local physicians of all specialties, which supported the current orders. The alternative, having health care facilities overrun with COVID patients, they argued, would be worse.

Jacob said she felt compelled to heed the advice of the medical community. But she noted that it’s not like local law enforcement is roaming around looking to write tickets for health order violations. Thus far, violators have to be pretty blatant — such as going on TV and declaring one’s intent to violate the health orders — to draw a cease-and-desist order from the county health department.

Those who face the choice between watching their businesses go under, or defying the state order, she said, have her understanding if they choose to remain open.

“I don’t blame a business that is willing to take that risk of staying open,” Jacob said. “I can’t responsibly suggest that path, but I understand if a business is willing to take that risk.”

It is clear that the county is taking a light-handed approach to enforcement. Officials reported to the board Tuesday that the county has received 4,703 complaints from the public on its COVID compliance line, an average of 47 per day. To date, though, the county has issued only 51 cease-and-desist orders and seven shut-down orders.

Twenty nine of those orders, officials said, were issued Monday and all are due to be posted on the county’s website soon.

In the bulk of cases, officials said, county representatives work with business owners to modify their operations rather than moving forward with the formal citation process.

Tuesday’s dial-in commentary from the public included some frank admissions of disregard for the current set of public health orders.

None were more in-your-face than those described by Jacqui Verdura, who said she serves drinks at a local “neighborhood sports bar” that has remained open for the past two months despite the fact that it does not serve food. Food service is required to continue operations under current health orders.

Verdura said that the establishment, which she did not name, has been wide open for some time and was allowed to remain so by local law enforcement because “they don’t want to shut down already-struggling businesses.”

“We don’t enforce the guidelines as a bar either when we’ve been open because people don’t want to follow them,” Verdura said. “The whole point of people coming in is for them to meet up with each other and not stick with their own households.”

She said that, so far, the establishment has not received word of infections associated with its flouting of the rules.

“In the two months that we’ve been open, we have not had one case of the virus, and we haven’t been wearing masks,” she said. “We’ve been mingling and hugging each other, and there has not been one case in our bar.”

Regardless of where it occurs, that’s exactly the kind of behavior health officials say is responsible for the current increase in cases seen across San Diego County. Local hospitalization numbers have ticked up in recent weeks even as a single-day record for new cases was logged on Sunday.

— Paul Sisson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


7:25 a.m. Nov. 18, 2020: This article has been updated with the latest COVID-19 numbers from the county.