County makes an example of Pacific Beach bar as Memorial Day weekend arrives

Employees at El Prez move kegs in Pacific Beach ahead of Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, 2020 in San Diego, California. The bar and restaurant was shut down by the county on Friday after images circulated on social media showing a lack of social distancing at the establishment.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County asks for low-key weekend as restaurants and stores reopen under social-distancing orders


Consequences were swift Friday for El Prez, a Pacific Beach bar and restaurant that blew up social media after patrons posted videos featuring crowds of people drinking, often maskless and far closer to each other than the 6-foot standard set for restaurants under newly-approved reopening guidelines.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said that while he knows the “overwhelming majority” of local restaurants and other businesses are doing everything they can to follow reopening rules, the scene inside El Prez, as shown in footage played during the health department’s regular COVID-19 briefing Friday, created “an imminent health and safety risk.”

“We simply cannot tolerate such blatant and intentional violations of the public health order,” Fletcher said, adding that Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, served the business with a closure notice.

It was a very visible and clear signal to the public — one made on the eve of Memorial Day weekend — that the county won’t hesitate to crack down on businesses that flout the region’s public health regulations.

An employee shuts the windows at El Prez shortly after it was ordered shut down ahead of Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This week, restaurants and shopping establishments got green lights to begin serving customers again, provided they take maximum steps to maintain social-distancing norms. And, despite criticism, five county casinos opened to the public.

The fact that these loosened restrictions went into effect just in time for a holiday weekend that is synonymous with the start of summer presents a significant challenge for local law enforcement agencies. Officers and deputies, by and large, have preferred to operate in an “education” mode, issuing few citations when they receive reports of public health order rule breaking.

But San Diego police Chief David Nisleit made it clear Friday that his officers would be on the lookout for scofflaw establishments.

“You’re going to see our vice section working collaboratively with (Alcoholic Beverage Control) and our San Diego code compliance officers making sure that our businesses and dine-in restaurants are following the rules,” Nisleit said.

Officers, as well as lifeguards, will be busy patrolling beaches, as well. San Diego lifeguard Division Chief James Gartland said that while people were welcome to come and walk or jog on the beach or play in the water, sitting and lying on the sand is still banned.

“We need you to come to the beach, get your exercise, keep moving and then go back home,” Gartland said.

Two San Diego Police Department officers patrol along Ocean Beach ahead of Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In cities like Oceanside, senior volunteers and Explorer Scouts will also be helping law enforcement agencies get the word out about beach rules.

Undersheriff Michael Barnett with the county Sheriff’s Department said Friday afternoon that deputies really don’t like the idea of issuing citations for activities that, just a few months ago, were perfectly legal and usually encouraged.

Though the county has issued just 137 citations since stay-at-home orders took effect, and none have been made in the past seven days, Barnett said his deputies are “very concerned” about large gatherings at bars. Headed into the long weekend, he asked the community to move toward a less boisterous celebration.

“Let’s treat Memorial Day weekend as it should be treated, with solemnity,” Barnett said.

Fletcher, a former Marine and combat veteran, echoed that sentiment. He noted the significance of Memorial Day, a time to honor America’s war dead, as he asked people to adhere to the public heath orders that call for people to stay home.

Is a solemn celebration even possible in a beach town known for having a good time whenever possible?

Jeff Rossman, president of the San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association, called on the community to make it so. Too much hangs in the balance if infection starts to spread in social situations, he said.

“If people and businesses aren’t going to adhere to the health orders, we’re definitely going to see a second wave of infections, and it will likely be worse than the first one,” Rossman said.

As many local officials acknowledged on Friday, many businesses are being careful to follow the rules.

Beachgoers walk along the boardwalk in Mission Beach ahead of Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, 2020 in San Diego, California. The boardwalk is currently supposed to be closed to pedestrians except to cross to and from the sand.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Supervisor Jim Desmond, one of the most vocal advocates for reopening, applauded the region’s reopening efforts. He said he had lunch at Nessy Burgers in Fallbrook and visited Hobby Lobby in San Marcos and noted that both stores were following social distancing guidelines, wearing masks and monitoring the number of people who could enter their facilities.

Desmond said these public health regulations aren’t just important in bolstering safety across the county, but also consumer confidence. If people don’t feel safe, then they won’t feel comfortable enough to frequent reopened businesses - no matter how many regulations are loosened.

“Not everyone is going to rush out to a store or restaurant this weekend, but they will over time,” Desmond said. “It’s going to take that consumer confidence. We want to have every business have their customers feel like ‘Hey, they’re being safe. I feel safe here. I am willing to come back here and tell my friends this is a safe environment to be in.’”

For many businesses, safety has been the name of the game from the start.

Bernard Lebel, of the California Sock Company, has spent the last several days preparing for what he hopes will be a busy Memorial Day Weekend. He and his employees have been bleaching surfaces, positioning hand sanitizer and placing blue exes on the ground to promote social distancing.

Lebel has two stores in the county, one in Pacific Beach and one in Fashion Valley mall, which, he learned yesterday, will be allowed to welcome customers on Saturday. The shops continue to offer socks, but Lebel expanded inventory to include 50 styles of face masks during the pandemic.

It’s tough to predict how traffic will be at the Mission Valley mall, but he’s optimistic about the turn out in Pacific Beach.

“I think San Diego is going to come out big, and everybody is going to be partying in red, white and blue,” Lebel said.

A social distancing advisory lays on the sand at Ocean Beach ahead of Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But not every business is so confident. Marco LiMandri, the Little Italy Association’s Chief Executive Administrator, said Memorial Day Weekend is usually incredibly busy. Usually.

“I don’t know, honestly — a lot of it is driven by people in those hotels and they’re not really in hotels (or at conventions) this weekend,” LiMandri said. “So a lot of our base and popularity is going to be the people who live in (and around) Little Italy... people are still pent up and want to get out and interact again.”

He estimates that about 50 percent of the restaurants on India Street and the core area of Little Italy will be open for business this weekend. The neighborhood should be at 100 percent by June.

Lebel, with the California Sock Company, said whether there’s a crowd or not, he doesn’t plan on cutting a single corner.

“I would rather be extremely conservative with my personal reopening and make sure we follow every single procedure, not bending any rules, than be the company that’s going viral online for the wrong reasons.”
It was that sort of viral Internet attention that got El Prez, the Pacific Beach bar and restaurant, in trouble with the county.

A series of videos posted on Instagram Thursday night show patrons drinking and chatting inside the business. Few groups seem to be standing six feet apart, and many individuals were not wearing face masks.

Indoor areas, especially surrounding the main bar, appeared particularly crowded. On an outdoor patio, people could be seen socializing in large groups that spanned multiple tables.

By about 1 p.m. Friday, police offers were at the business’s doors to deliver an order to close.

The restaurant put out a statement soon after saying they are working with county officials and law enforcement on how to best move forward “in the safest manner possible.”

“The re-opening of restaurants is a new territory for us all and with it brings a difficult learning curve,” the statement read. “We learned that yesterday.”

The restaurant also released a number of new safety protocols it would be implementing. They included new signage to better encourage social distancing in lines leading to the restaurant, and the addition of a security guard to remind people of the rules. Customers won’t be allowed to enter if a table isn’t available and masks will be required upon entry.

A cyclist rides a bike past El Prez in Pacific Beach ahead of Memorial Day Weekend on May 22, 2020 in San Diego, California. The bar and restaurant was shut down by the county on Friday after images circulated on social media showing a lack of social distancing at the establishment.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“And if these don’t work, then we’ll continue to pivot as necessary to ensure we’re doing the best we can, putting the safety of our customers, employees and community at the forefront,” the statement read.

Although the county has given the green light, some restaurants are holding off on reopening, despite the traffic Memorial Day weekend often brings.

Amber Johnson, the owner of Sushi on the Rock in La Jolla, said she was shocked when she heard the county had decided to allow restaurants to welcome customers again.

“I feel like it’s too soon,” she said. “I feel like our takeout is safe, and that’s where we are right now. There’s just too much uncertainty — we want to see those (COVID-19) numbers continue to go down.”

The decision has been well-received by her customers, Johnson said.

“I had three phone calls yesterday from regulars who asked if we were planning to open for in-dining,” Johnson said. “When I said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not’ they’re response was, ‘Oh, don’t apologize. If you were, we were considering not ordering from you anymore.’

“They didn’t even want to order take-out if we reopened because that safety barrier is broken.”

As businesses sort out how to handle the weekend, and public agencies prepare themselves for the crowds, one thing hasn’t changed - the counties COVID-19 cases are continuing to grow.

On Friday, county officials announced a 35-year-old with other underlying health conditions passed away last week. The county logged 119 additional COVID cases, as well -- 3 percent of the 4,056 test results received.

Staff writers Sara Butler, Charlie Clark, Morgan Cook and Phil Diehl contributed to this report.