San Diego County businesses defy second shutdown order; county strike force mobilizes

People workout at Boulevard Fitness in University Heights Thursday, July 16.
People workout at Boulevard Fitness in University Heights Thursday, July 16.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Officials announced 17 more COVID-19 deaths, 500 hospitalizations on Thursday


Shawn Gilbert is not shutting down. Not again, after losing tens of thousands of dollars during the first government-mandated closure of his University Heights gym, Boulevard Fitness.

Not even after getting a visit Thursday from two San Diego police officers, who were checking out his facility after reports that Gilbert had stayed open against state and county orders.

Gilbert, the son of Irish and Italian immigrants and blue-collar workers in Boston, said he’s been working towards small business ownership since he was a teenager. At 18, he began working in low-level gym jobs, peppering his bosses with questions about how they made their business successful.

Now, with 25 years under his belt in the fitness industry, he’s at his limit with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest order to shut down gyms again, barely a month after he reopened.

“If I closed again, there’s a possibility I’d have to close these doors forever and I’m not going to let that happen,” Gilbert said. “I’ve worked nonstop, taking virtually no sick days, to build something up from nothing. I won’t let it get destroyed.”

Boulevard Fitness remains open Thursday, even though San Diego County ordered all gyms, salons and other personal services to close as of midnight on Tuesday.

He’s not alone in that decision. At least two gyms in North County remained open Thursday: Metroflex Gym in Oceanside and The Gym Vista. The owner of the former, Lou Uridel, is a bit of a local celebrity after he was arrested in May by Oceanside police — with cellphone cameras rolling — for reopening his gym against the county’s health order. Uridel was released the same day and has a court hearing scheduled for September.

Boulevard Fitness remains open on Thursday, July 16.
Boulevard Fitness remains open on Thursday, July 16.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As these businesses and others — from salons to churches — push back against county and state regulations meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, some are questioning whether the county’s education approach to enforcement is working. Although county officials have ordered a handful of businesses to close, they have largely relied on community members and businesses to adhere to a sort of honor system — an honor system some businesses feel is built on faulty regulations that unfairly impact some more than others.

But the county has long stressed that these regulations are what’s needed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Thursday’s COVID-19 report was a study in contrasts. While just 4 percent of the 10,434 test results that the county health department received Wednesday were positive, adding 409 new COVID-19 cases to the regional total, the number of current hospitalizations jumped by 34. The increase pushed the total number of people with the disease currently in hospital beds to 500, just eight fewer than the local pandemic record set on April 1.

It is becoming clear that San Diego County is starting to see more severe consequences after overall case totals spiked a few weeks ago. For the third-straight day, the health department announced COVID-19-related deaths in the double digits. Seventeen were announced Thursday with 12 on Wednesday and 14 on Tuesday.

As of Thursday’s COVID-19 report, there had been 83 COVID-19-related deaths in July. Given that the month is only half over, the current pace appears to be the fastest seen so far. If July continues to see deaths at its current pace, it will pass the 160 mark by the end of the month. County records show there were 147 COVID-19 deaths in May, 128 in April, 91 in June and 16 in March.

With these sorts of numbers as a backdrop, a new picture of enforcement has emerged — one involving state and local “strike teams” that will be tasked with cracking down on rogue businesses.

Shawn Gilbert, owner of Boulevard Fitness, speaks to a new customer.
Shawn Gilbert, owner of Boulevard Fitness, speaks to a new customer. Gilbert has defied Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders to shutter the gym as concerns grow in the state about the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At the beginning of the month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of teams from 10 state agencies that would be tasked with enforcing regulations imposed during the pandemic. On Thursday, county officials confirmed that these teams are actively operating in the region, though they didn’t say what that activity looked like.

County officials also announced this week that it will be creating strike teams of its own. It’s still unclear how those teams will operate, but they would be similarly charged with investigating any complaints about non-compliance involving businesses or other locations, Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, said Monday.

But will those teams be more able to persuade businesses to close their doors, even as some owners dig in their heels?

Uridel reopened his Oceanside gym two days after the arrest, after an anti-shutdown demonstration in his parking lot, and has been open ever since. He’s invested in new cleaning and disinfecting equipment, spaced equipment apart, and limited the number of people who can be in the building at once.

Masks were mandatory briefly until someone passed out and injured himself while wearing a face covering and lifting weights, Uridel said. Now masks are optional. About 20 people could be seen working out inside the gym Thursday morning. Hardly anyone wore a face covering.

Uridel said he has no intention to shut down his business again.

“We’re not light switches,” he said, explaining that his business can’t just be switched off and on. Employees need training, experience and steady work, and when their employer shuts down, they find another job.

A collection of San Diego gyms, including Boulevard Fitness and Metroflex, have banded together to fight what they perceive as an unfair mandate that unreasonably singles out their businesses. Several of the gym owners have consulted the same attorney, and they plan to sue if officials try to shut them down.

“The last thing we want to do is file a lawsuit,” said Gilbert, of Boulevard Fitness. “But this is about protecting what’s ours. We’re not millionaires. That’s the perception people have about small business owners, but it’s completely wrong.”

Gilbert said he was denied help from multiple lenders, not qualifying for a dime of assistance from the government-backed Payroll Protection Program loan, nor the Economic Injury Disaster Loan — two programs meant to keep small business owners alive during closures.

In Vista, The Gym Vista reopened May 7 and was busy Thursday morning. Patrons were not wearing face masks. The manager said there were no plans to close but declined to discuss the situation further.

It’s not just gyms that are fighting the latest wave of shut down orders.

Hair salons — businesses also ordered to shut down this week for the second time — are getting more vocal about their own resistance movement. A federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of hairstylists and salon owners against Newsom in May, alleging the governor had unfairly kept them closed. The lawsuit represented over 500,000 licensees via the Professional Beauty Federation of California.

“There’s a lot of anger in our industry right now,” said Gayle Fulbright, owner of Headlines The Salon in Encinitas.

Fulbright is closing her salon until she can get the green light from state regulators to operate outdoors. But she understands the urgency felt by her peers who feel closure is not an option.

“We already lost three salons up here in North County during the last shut down,” Fulbright said. “I think some will take the risk or don’t care.”

Fulbright said there are rumors that salons and barbershops are papering their windows and continuing to see clients indoors throughout the shutdown. Other stylists are sneaking around independently, doing home visits to see their clients behind closed doors.

Other businesses are being far from surreptitious. In a very public blog post, Jeremy McGarity, a pastor at Skyline Church in Rancho San Diego, explained in no uncertain terms why the church would not be complying with the state’s new mandates.

“We believe those who have concerns will stay home...and those who feel they need to be at church for their own spiritual health and well-being will be here,” McGarity wrote. “We also believe we are contributing positively to the public health, especially the spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical health side by being out of the house and worshipping our Lord.”

The church offers indoor and outdoor services and encourages people to attend the style they are most comfortable with. In his post, McGarity said that other churches have also decided to stay open.

Business owners across San Diego County stress it’s not the safety measures they take issue with, but rather the unequal distribution of the rules. Some businesses, they say, are suffering more than others, and they feel it’s not always logical why certain businesses are deemed more essential than others.

“The government has called cigarettes and alcohol essential while considering a fitness center that builds your mental health and immune system unessential,” Gilbert said. “That makes zero sense to people in California.”

It’s a debate that’s raged among San Diego County businesses for months now, hinging on the interpretation of what exactly is an “essential business,” which is loosely defined by the federal government as falling into one of 16 critical infrastructure sectors. But there’s a lot of gray area in this language, leading to much frustration about who’s staying open and who isn’t. For example, Big 5 Sporting Goods, a national retailer, sells guns and therefore deemed itself essential. But Play It Again Sports in Pacific Beach, a small franchise business in direct competition to Big 5, had to shut down.

Even in the most stringent era of the first shutdown, the lack of clarity led everyone from dog groomers to bike shops and other businesses to decide whether they were exempt and therefore able to remain open. That’s because enforcement, at least for now, is mostly being left up to the universal honor code.

Officials with the San Diego Police Department have long preferred to issue warnings and otherwise educate the public about the rules versus issuing citations and making arrests.

“We will not be able to enforce our way through this pandemic,” said police spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi. “What we are asking for is cooperation from the community and for the community to take responsibility to stop the spread.”

The lieutenant said it was too soon to tell whether the latest round of restrictions would result in a more robust show of defiance from businesses. He also said the department plans to hold back on stricter enforcement unless county officials call for it.

As of Thursday, the department was unclear what roles the various strike teams will play, but Takeuchi said officers will take all the help they can get.

“We would welcome any state entity that can assist us to get community members to comply and ensure the safety of the community,” he said.

Staff writers David Hernandez, Karen Pearlman and Paul Sisson contributed to this report.