San Diego County sheriff’s deputies will join COVID-19 enforcement as state enacts curfew

Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill
Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill and other businesses received cease and desist orders when the county fell into the most restrictive tier.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego’s sheriff will start sending deputies along on health order investigations


Thursday brought a rush of official action, including a state curfew and a local enforcement crackdown, as COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates continued their stubborn post-Halloween rise.

California unveiled what it called a “limited stay at home order,” designed to clamp down tight on after-hours mixing among those from different households.

Meanwhile, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore announced at a news conference that he will allocate eight full-time deputies to help investigate health order complaints and quickly issue citations in cases where residents refuse to comply.

The state curfew requires any county in the most restrictive, “purple” tier of the state’s reopening system — which includes San Diego — to limit “all gatherings with members of other households and all activities conducted outside the residence, lodging, or temporary accommodation with members of other households.”

Starting Saturday, Nov. 21, all such activity must “cease” between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. the following day. The state curfew lasts through Dec. 21, though it could be extended.

San Diego County already mandates that all restaurants, bars, wineries and breweries be closed from 10 p.m. through 5 a.m.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Nov. 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the unprecedented move is warranted by data, not desire.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge. We are sounding the alarm,” Newsom said. “It is crucial that we act to decrease transmission and slow hospitalizations before the death count surges. We’ve done it before and we must do it again.”

San Diego County’s stepped-up enforcement effort came as the region’s coronavirus test positivity rate continued to rise. The county’s latest COVID-19 report Thursday, Nov. 19, included 899 additional local positive tests — the sixth straight day with a number over 700.

The trend has driven the 14-day average percentage of local coronavirus tests coming back positive to 4.9 percent, after months in which it hovered at or under 3 percent.

Hospitalizations also continue to increase more rapidly than they have recently. On Wednesday, Nov. 18, local hospitals collectively reported a total of 425 COVID-positive patients in beds throughout the county. That is about 100 patients greater than it was just one week ago.

Until recently, the county health department has been sparing with issuing cease-and-desist orders to area businesses and other establishments found to be in violation of COVID rules, and even more stingy with shutdown orders.

But Gore said he believes the current trends in the testing and hospitalization data argue for more direct involvement of his sworn and armed emissaries.

Enforcement of health orders will continue to be based on complaints, he said. And he stressed that deputies will continue to seek voluntary compliance before writing tickets.

“When we can’t mitigate the situation that we’re dealing with, that’s when the deputy sheriffs are there to take enforcement action either through citations or writing case reports to go to the district attorney or in the city of San Diego, the city attorney there,” Gore said.

The sheriff said his department has already obtained cooperation with police departments in cities that do not contract with the county for law enforcement services. Oceanside, Carlsbad, San Diego, Chula Vista and Coronado have, he said, signaled their willingness to cooperate with the county enforcing health rules within their jurisdictions.

However, other jurisdictions — such at El Cajon, which has very publicly declined to write citations when businesses, churches and other establishments remain open at levels not allowed by state and local anti-COVID rules — were not on that list.

Gore said that doesn’t mean his deputies won’t be able to act in some of the region’s 18 cities. He said his department believes it has the legal right to enforce public health orders anywhere in the county.

That may come as a surprise to those who have been told for months that the county could only do so much on the enforcement front.

Just Monday, Nov. 16, for example, county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, asked why $1,000 fines seldom seem to follow cease-and-desist orders, said during a public COVID briefing: “We do need the cooperation of law enforcement in the jurisdictions where the violation has occurred. If you have a situation like El Cajon where the mayor says ‘we’re just not going to do it,’ well, there is very little we can do.”

Gore, though, said his department always understood that it had the power to enforce health orders made during a declared public health emergency. Why, then, haven’t more of the 4,703 health order violation complaints the county recently reported that it has received turned into citations?

Gore said it is the recent surge in cases, which earlier this month pushed San Diego into the most-restrictive tier of the state’s COVID risk-ranking system, that made the difference.

“As we moved into the purple category, which put more restrictions on our businesses, I think that’s driven the necessity to go to some of these cities that we have not been into before,” Gore said.

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells — who has been vocal in directing city police to stand down when businesses defy closure or outdoor-only orders — said in a telephone interview Thursday evening, Nov. 19, there will be no standoff between those wearing city and county badges.

“They have the legal right to do it, so there will be no attempt to get in the way,” Wells said.

But that does not mean, he added, that he agrees with what he sees as an attempt to criminalize behavior that was perfectly legal before the pandemic.

“We’re talking about a virus that has a 99.6 percent survival rate, so it seems to me that this has less to do with health and safety and more to do with control,” Wells said.

It remains to be seen exactly how the new enforcement push will be received.

East County restaurant owner Ben Clevenger, who also serves as president of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, said he thinks the outcome of the county’s stepped-up enforcement effort will depend largely on who and where the complaints are coming from.

“I honestly think everyone’s case will be different,” said Clevenger, who is co-owner of Eastbound Bar and Grill in Lakeside. He has been allowing diners to sit inside adjacent to large, roll-up doors that open up to the outside. “You have parts of the county where people will call and complain and other parts where they’re not trying to rat on their local businesses.”

Clevenger said he is banking on a favorable court ruling Friday on a lawsuit filed by four local restaurants and gyms. Those businesses are seeking a temporary order that would allow them to reopen indoor operations, even in the most restrictive of the state’s four-tier reopening framework.

A Superior Court judge was supposed to hear the case Thursday, Nov. 19, but delayed it for one day to give him time to go over the objections filed Wednesday by the state and county of San Diego, which are the targets of the lawsuit.

“We’re taking it day by day and hoping tomorrow (the court hearing) will put a hold on all this,” Clevenger said. “The real question is why is Gov. Newsom going after our restaurants so viciously. For the rest of the businesses, it’s mostly business as usual, but there is no evidence that restaurants are the main cause of the problem.”

— Paul Sisson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

—Lori Weisberg and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.


11:07 a.m. Nov. 20, 2020: This story has been updated with additional information about local enforcement actions.