County makes it easier for gyms, churches to hold classes, services in parks

Jayson Chabrow works out at San Diego County's Waterfront Park on Wednesday.
Jayson Chabrow works out at San Diego County’s Waterfront Park on Wednesday. The county Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on Wednesday expanding access to its parks for gyms and churches that cannot operate indoors due to restrictions in place related to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Officials also announce plan to set up pilot testing site at U.S.-Mexico border


Churches, gyms and other fitness businesses that have struggled to find space to operate outdoors will soon find it easier to set up classes and services at local parks.

At its meeting Wednesday, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a measure to streamline the application process and waive permit fees to reserve space in county parks for houses of worship and gyms that cannot operate indoors under COVID-19 public health restrictions. Costs associated with day-use parking, equipment rentals and extra utility use will remain.

“We’re being creative in the county, we’re being as innovative as possible and as flexible as possible to help our businesses and our churches, our gyms as much as possible under some very, very understandable strict circumstances,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said during the meeting.

The change comes amid resistance from some gyms and churches to orders forbidding indoor operations — a mandate set by the state for San Diego County and others with COVID-19 case rates above a certain threshold.

Churches throughout the state, including in San Diego County, have sued in federal court challenging the public health restrictions on gatherings.

William J. Becker, Jr., president, CEO and general counsel for Freedom X, a Los Angeles-based organization that fights for freedom of religion and expression, is representing Abiding Place Ministries, a Campo-based congregation of about 100 people, in its federal lawsuit against the county and state.

Becker said Wednesday that even though the county was allowing outdoor services in parks, it was still invading the province of houses of worship, which the U.S. Constitution does not allow.

“The loosening of restrictions on churches by allowing them to hold services in public parks is of course welcome but it ought to be unnecessary,” Becker said. “The government should not be in the business of telling churches how to conduct services, where they can conduct them … that’s clearly violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Bishop Arthur Hodges III of South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, another house of worship that is suing the county and state over public health restrictions, had a similar view.

He said Wednesday that while the news about parks was good and he appreciated the county’s efforts, there weren’t enough parks to serve all the county’s churches, and the public health restrictions on houses of worship are still discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“That is a step in the right direction,” Hodges said. “Will that answer or satisfy the need of the public? No, it won’t.”

Other houses of worship, such as Awaken Church in San Diego, have moved their services to outside areas on their properties. According to the church’s Instagram page, it was planning to hold an outdoor prayer gathering Wednesday evening at its church campus.

Congregants attend an Awaken church service in the parking lot at their church in Kearny Mesa on Wednesday.
(Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Last week, the county served orders to close or cease-and-desist letters to at least three gyms in Pacific Beach, Oceanside and Vista. The gym in Pacific Beach, known as The Gym, reopened its doors in violation of the public health orders and there was a COVID-19 outbreak.

And this week, the county District Attorney’s Office charged Peter San Nicolas, a Ramona gym owner, with five misdemeanors for operating in violation of the public health order. The criminal charges were the first the office had filed against a business owner for violating COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Nicolas on Wednesday applauded the county for trying to think of ways to off-set the burdensome ban on indoor businesses, but added that parks aren’t a substitute for his facility, which is packed with the kind of amenities his clients are looking for.

“If I was just a personal training studio, I could sort of make that work,” San Nicolas said. But it’s not a suitable replacement “when your business is about the equipment and the quality of the atmosphere and the temperature and the variety of workouts people can do.”

Applications by businesses who wish to use San Diego County parks will be vetted to ensure the proposed activities are compatible with other park activities and can take place without violating existing park rules and regulations, according to a staff report on the measure. The proposed activities also can’t require extra infrastructure or damage the landscape or environment.

Cities including Oceanside, Coronado, Escondido, Santee, El Cajon and La Mesa have also expanded access for businesses to operate outdoors in parks, while the cities of San Diego, Del Mar, Carlsbad and Vista have not.

Businesses looking to taking advantage of the new regulations in parks not operated by the county were encouraged to reach out to their local jurisdiction, as rules for access are city-specific.

For example, Encinitas city officials decided on July 22 to waive the traditional fees associated with permits to operate in parks and other public spaces, but the perk is only available to businesses with brick-and-mortar locations in the city.

The supervisors’ decision about expanded park use comes as the region’s case-per-capita rate continues to fall. At the end of July, the region was seeing more than 130 cases per 100,000 people. On Wednesday, the county reported just over 105 cases per 100,000 residents.

Wooten said the state’s decision to ban many indoor business operations was partly responsible for the lower numbers, but residents played an important role, as well.

“It is really thanks to everyone in San Diego who have done their part to change this metric,” Wooten said.

There was more good news to share regarding the county’s contact tracing efforts. Since the beginning of July, local case investigators had been struggling to look into new COVID-19 cases within 24 hours. When case totals spiked in the middle of the month, less than 10 percent of cases were being investigated within a day.

Soon after, the county committed to hiring more than 100 new case investigators and, on Wednesday, officials reported that 70 percent of new cases were being investigated in a day.

Although the region has made progress, officials continue to stress the importance of hand washing, social distancing and face coverings as case totals and deaths continue to climb. On Wednesday, county officials reported 348 new COVID-19 cases and 10 more deaths.

The county also reported five additional community-setting outbreaks: two at businesses, one at a pre-school, one at a restaurant/bar and one at a faith-based organization. The region has investigated 30 such outbreaks in the last week, seriously surpassing the county’s goal of fewer than seven community outbreaks in a week.

The county defines an outbreak as three cases involving non-household members who were in the same place during a 14-day period.

County officials also stated that though they are not responsible for investigating cases or outbreaks linked to casinos, they have identified an unspecified number of cases involving individuals who visited or work at the gaming establishments.

These daily numbers have recently come under more scrutiny. County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Wednesday that the system California uses to disseminate test results from commercial labs to individual counties experienced a technical issue, and some tests were missing from recent totals.

Six local commercial labs were affected by the glitch, but it’s unclear how many actual tests were affected.

“Our team has been in contact with the state to determine how many tests we’re missing and over what time frame,” Fletcher said.

Once the county receives that information, local figures will be adjusted accordingly.

Dr. Eric McDonald, the county’s medical director of epidemiology and immunization services, pointed out that while the region does use commercial labs, much of the testing done locally is handled by the county and regional health care systems. He added that, from now on, commercial labs would report their testing totals directly to the county instead of communicating through the state.

Also Wednesday, San Diego County announced plans to place its first coronavirus testing site at one of the world’s busiest international border crossings.

County Supervisor Greg Cox said they will begin testing in about a week at the PedEast checkpoint at the San Ysidro port of entry, which is exclusively pedestrian and connects the city of Tijuana, Mexico, with San Diego. An estimated 20,000 people enter the United States through that crossing every day, although that number has decreased due to the pandemic and the closing of businesses.