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Crowds gather at San Diego beach, defying public health order, residents’ safety concerns

Nate Endless twirls a fire baton in Ocean Beach on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
(Sandy Huffaker)

Ocean Beach residents, business owners and community leaders say complaints about the Wednesday gatherings have been largely ignored

Dozens of people gathered on a strip of grass known as Veterans Plaza in Ocean Beach Wednesday afternoon and night, bobbing their heads to the rhythm of drums and acoustic music.

Later at night the scene changed, as dozens of people gathered around a drum circle and watched fire dancers perform.

About 10 p.m., with crowds swelling to 100 or so, police cleared the area in response to complaints. Officer Scott Lockwood said one person was cited for carrying an open container of alcohol.

In recent weeks, crowds at Ocean Beach have grown to hundreds of people Wednesdays and many vendors selling jewelry, clothing and food have popped up.

These festivities are less than welcome.

Some Ocean Beach residents, business owners and local group leaders complain that the weekly gatherings are disruptive and dangerous, given the public health crisis. They note the lack of face masks and social distancing among much of the crowd, and they say loud music, trash and unauthorized street vendors are problems.

They say elected officials and police have done little to stop the gatherings, which have been going on since June, residents say.

The gatherings, known as the Ocean Beach Drum Circle and Fire Dancing, coincide with the weekly farmers market, which was organized by the business group Ocean Beach MainStreet Association. But the drum circle events and pop-up booths are separate from the farmers market; the association does not organize them.

The Ocean Beach Town Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the community and creates events, sent a letter Tuesday to county and city elected officials and to police to stop the gatherings.

“Our neighborhood should not be used as a playground for crowds of people who do not take the public health and safety of others seriously and come here to act irresponsibly in our community,” the town council board of directors wrote.

Cameron Reid, a member of the Ocean Beach Town Council, said the Wednesday gatherings historically have been a display of Ocean Beach community spirit — with music, yoga, fire dancing and drum circles— but now the events are putting residents’ health at risk.

Exercisers do acrobatic mauevers in Ocean Beach on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
(Sandy Huffaker)

“This is the sort of thing that, pre-COVID, would have flown under the radar ... but it’s gotten crazy,” Reid said, adding that more people show up every week.

County spokesman Michael Workman said in an email Wednesday that the county is aware of the issue and the county’s new compliance teams will work with the city of San Diego to address the situation.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved $1.8 million in funding for staff members to respond to violations of public health orders, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who represents the neighborhood, said in a statement Wednesday her office will work with the community and she urged the mayor and county to enforce mask wearing and social-distancing rules.

She said the San Diego Police Department has committed to directing additional resources on Wednesday evenings to handle noise complaint issues.

Local artist and drum circle drummer Genesiah Cervantes said she does not think the gatherings should be going on, because of the pandemic.

“I think it shouldn’t even be happening right now, but it is and it’s hard to control,” Cervantes said.

Cervantes, a former Ocean Beach resident who now lives in Imperial Beach, is one of the original members of the drum circle, which came together in 2016 on the same days as the farmers market. She said the group grew from a couple of drummers and fire dancers to a large crowd.

Cervantes created a Facebook page for the gatherings but said people are coming together organically, without the need to organize an actual event.

“It’s a phenomenon I feel in a way ... people have found a place of comfort going there every week,” she said.

Cervantes said the gatherings stopped happening when the city closed the beaches and parks, but they resumed when those areas reopened. She said she has posted on social media, telling people not to go to the gathering and to wear face masks if they do, but that hasn’t helped.

People twirl fire batons in Ocean Beach on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
(Sandy Huffaker)

Genoa Dickson, co-owner of Ocean Beach Hotel, said the gathering has always been an issue for her business, which is across the street from Veterans Plaza. Lately the late-night music has cost the hotel money because guests leave or ask for refunds, she said.

“Right now everybody is just trying to survive, and we don’t need any extra obstacles,” Dickson said.

Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, said businesses in Ocean Beach are “under the gun” to comply with health regulations, yet the gatherings occur every week without any repercussions.

“It seems like there are rules for people who follow the rules, and we can’t make a mistake, but out there it’s a free-for-all,” Knox said.

The association puts together the farmers market, which has been cut down to 50 vendors to allow for social distancing.

Knox said it’s unfair that there are vendors setting up at Veterans Plaza without hand-washing stations or safety protocols, yet the market has to follow those guidelines.

“I just don’t understand why it’s allowed to go on and on,” Knox said.

Milat Laali, who lives in El Cajon, was selling jewelry and clothing on Veterans Plaza on Wednesday. She said her husband is not working because he recently had surgery and the sales she makes are their only source of income at the moment.

She said she understands that residents and businesses don’t like that vendors set up on the plaza, but it’s not illegal.

“We need money,” Laali said.

Less than a block from Veterans Plaza other people shopped at the farmers market. A line to get into the market went around the corner of Cable Street because the market was at capacity.

Updates:

12:42 PM, Aug. 06, 2020: This story was updated with additional information from SDPD.


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