Maskless partying over the weekend prompts public health warning

A crowd congregates in the Gaslamp Quarter Friday evening.
(Abby Hamblin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Maskless partying over the weekend prompted a public health warning Monday as COVID-19 numbers increased in California and elsewhere, although not yet in San Diego County.

County Supervisor Greg Cox said the scene in the Gaslamp Quarter, particularly on Friday night, the first day bars and clubs were allowed to reopen, was “pretty bad.” Many patrons were seen shoulder to shoulder on city sidewalks, waiting — sans masks — for access to downtown bars. Measures will be taken in the Gaslamp starting Thursday, he said, with the San Diego Police Department blocking off streets, allowing more space for revelers to spread out and keep six feet apart.

As to the seemingly large number of people who were out with uncovered faces, there was no immediate action taken, in contrast to the case on May 22 when the county health department very publicly shut down El Prez, a popular bar and restaurant in Pacific Beach. The action came after video surfaced online of people drinking, crowded into the establishment shortly after restaurants were allowed to reopen, a clear violation of the public health order.

Today, the county has a set of “triggers” in place that are designed to gauge whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus is starting to spread more quickly in the community. Cox noted that, if viral activity reaches specified thresholds, public health action will be swift and could result in pausing the reopening process.

“We don’t want to do that. You don’t want us to do that. So let’s not let it happen,” Cox said. “Like they say in boxing, protect yourself at all times.”

Despite the public health department’s directives, it appears unlikely that there will be a crackdown for those not wearing masks in public.

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi of the San Diego Police Department said Monday evening that public drunkenness and violent behavior will remain the priorities for patrolling in the Gaslamp, though officers will ask for voluntary compliance if they see people in crowds without masks.

But, so far, San Diego, despite recent demonstrations, reopening of restaurants and more-liberal beach policies, has remained relatively calm on the COVID front. That is, at least compared with other regions such as neighboring Imperial County, which has the state’s highest per-capita infection rate, and Arizona and Tijuana, which have recently reported much more significant CoV-2 activity.

On Monday, the county announced 170 additional cases, but the percent of local tests coming back positive continued to hover around 3 percent. Only one additional death was announced Monday, bringing the total to 320.

At the moment, the public health community is nervously eyeing states such as Arizona where, according to data published daily by the Arizona Department of Health Services, hospital bed occupancy rates surged from 78 percent to 83 percent in a single day last week. Rates have remained over 80 percent from June 9 through Sunday, suggesting there is an upward trend under way, rather than an up-and-down oscillating pattern that seems to be the general trend.

That up-and-down-pattern of hospitalizations has remained visible in San Diego County’s daily numbers. After falling for three consecutive days, reaching a low of 316 COVID patients in hospital beds across the region, numbers began to build once again, reaching 342 on Saturday and 366 on Sunday.

The challenge of the moment is how to avoid the trends that are building elsewhere. Local leaders must find ways to balance the relaxation of restrictions with the need to prevent the kinds of contact known to help the virus move from person to person.

The activity in the Gaslamp over the weekend has made San Diego’s nightlife hub the center of attention.

Under a plan proposed by the Gaslamp Quarter Association, starting as soon as this week, the city would shut down car traffic on Fifth Avenue between G and K streets three nights a week.

Without vehicles rolling through, restaurants would be able to put tables in the street, creating cordoned-off islands for each eatery. Pedestrians could walk a 20-foot-wide path down the middle of Fifth Avenue, significantly expanding the amount of pedestrian space provided by sidewalks, according to Michael Trimble, the association’s executive director.

Plans call for tables in the street from 5 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays and Fridays, and from noon to midnight on Saturdays through the end of the calendar year or until the state lifts the current set of COVID-related orders.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office said a number of city departments and regional agencies are reviewing the proposal.

It could act as a bit of a preview for a much larger plan that calls for creating an eight-block pedestrian plaza in the Gaslamp Quarter, closing Fifth Avenue to vehicles between Broadway and L Street for much of each day.

Little Italy, the popular downtown district known for its eclectic mix of restaurants and shopping, closed India Street, its main thoroughfare, and several side streets, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday for al fresco dining. According to the website of the Little Italy Association of San Diego, 18 establishments participated, though Marco Li Mandri, the association’s executive director, was unavailable Monday to discuss how the process went.

Similar ideas have been percolating for both Fifth Avenue and for 30th Street in North Park. Elise Lowe, director of San Diego Development Services, told The San Diego Union-Tribune in late May that she was exploring creation of an “accelerated approval process” for the special events permits necessary to close streets that tend to draw significant crowds.

County officials also shared a significant change in restrictions for cultural services. State regulations have limited churches and other houses of worship to no more than 25 percent of their seating capacity, or a maximum of 100 people at a time, for indoor services. Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Monday that a change in regulations now allows services held outside to have an unlimited number of people as long as at least six feet of physical distance between household groups is maintained. The change also applies, he added, to constitutionally-protected activities such as protests and to weddings.

“If it is outdoors, there is no limitation on the number of people, provided that the natural terrain where the event is taking place allows for physical distancing of individuals,” Fletcher said.