Virus death toll grows by 9 as pockets of protests dot the county

A small group of medical professionals demonstrated in front of the San Diego County Administration building on the Embarcadero in downtown San Diego on Saturday. They wanted to remind people to not become complacent with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diegans stepped outside in small gatherings to protest, to thank, to raise money


The county’s stay-home order remains in effect, the beaches still closed, but the desire to fight for a COVID-19-related cause proved too much Saturday, April 25, for some San Diegans, who stepped outside in small gatherings to protest, to thank, to raise money, even to implore as the novel coronavirus counted nine more local deaths.

The pockets of demonstrations — including one that ended in arrests — came as the hours inched closer to sunrise Monday, April 27, the moment when people can get back into the coastal waters or walk on beaches in some cities.

At an early news conference Saturday, April 25, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other officials celebrated the fast-approaching partial reopening of city beaches, but also warned that rule-breakers will be cited.

“My message this morning is very simple: San Diegans, keep doing the right thing,” Faulconer told reporters, including OnScene TV, during an early-morning press conference in front of the South Mission Beach Lifeguard Station.

Saturday also brought several small protests, most focused on the economic side of the crisis — some asking to reopen a swath of shuttered sites, others asking to cancel rents for a few months.

“It’s possible,” protester Juliana Musheyev said of the request to cancel rent at a time when millions are suddenly unemployed. “This is an unprecedented crisis, and this warrants an unprecedented response.”

In Encinitas, at a rally of about 75 to 100 people protesting the beach closures, the Sheriff’s Department arrested three people it said had refused to comply with public health orders.

Up the coast in Carlsbad, about 30 protesters gathered near a state beach for an afternoon rally, waving signs in support of reopening sites, Carlsbad police Lt. Greg White said. ”They were courteous and respectful,” White said. No one was arrested.

A different kind of gathering — focused solely on the health threat of the coronavirus — attracted attention in downtown San Diego. A handful of healthcare workers, including emergency room nurses and a respiratory therapist, walked along Harbor Drive while carrying signs asking for continued vigilance. One read: “Spread kindness, not the virus.”

The colleagues said they gathered on their day off to implore people to stay the course, to follow stay-home orders, wash hands, wear face coverings and socially distance. They fear that successes in slowing the spread have led the public to be complacent.

The plea for vigilance, organizer and nurse Justin Stevens said, was not partisan. COVID-19 “is very real to us.”

San Diego County officials said Saturday that nine more residents, all with underlying medical conditions, have died from the novel coronavirus. That puts region’s current total at 111 deaths.

The newly reported victims, five men and four women between the ages of 49 and 95, died between April 17 and April 24, the county said in its daily update.

Total cases among county residents grew to 2,943, jumping by 117 cases from Friday’s reporting.

More than 43,600 locals have been tested for the virus. About 7 percent of the tests come back positive.

Testing remains in short supply. But on Saturday, April 25, the county noted that two additional drive-thru testing facilities will open Monday, April 27. However, the testing sites, at the North Inland Live Well Center in Escondido and the Public Health Center in Chula Vista, are reserved for residents with doctor referrals.

As the beaches get ready to partially reopen, the county published social distancing and sanitation protocols. Mandatory measures for each open facility include posted signage, employee temperature screenings and restroom cleanings every two hours.

The county has long said the decision to reopen access to the beaches and waterways would be data-driven and with public health as the priority. On Friday, April 24, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher’s office pointed to two metrics used in the decision to reopen: the large number of available hospital beds and the decrease in the percent of positive tests.

A little more than two-thirds of the hospital beds in the county are occupied, officials said, with 7 percent of that number occupied by COVID-19 patients.

In San Diego and several coastal cities in the county, the beach reopening is expected to come in two phases.

The first phase allows for walking and running on the beaches, but not stopping, sitting, hanging out. In the water, surfing, swimming, kayaking and such are also OK. Boardwalks, piers and parking lots will remain closed, as will Fiesta Island.

The plan was developed by San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Chief James Gartland, who noted at the press conference Saturday that while the beaches will be (sort of) back, the stay-at-home order remains in effect.

“So you come to the beach, you get your exercise and then you go back and comply with the stay-at-home order,” Gartland said.

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit noted that beach-goers will see a beefed-up police presence. Those officers will first remind people of the new rules before issuing tickets. Refuse to comply, though, and face a citation.

“What I need is cooperation,” Nisleit said.

Several beaches along the coast will reopen, but not all. In Carlsbad, the city council tied 2-2 at a special meeting Saturday night to discuss reopening. The beach will remain closed there for now. The cities of Del Mar and Solana Beach also announced theirs will stay closed.

While some protested Saturday, others helped raise $100,000 toward coronavirus relief in a separate-but-together bike ride.

The inaugural Bike for Humanity was organized by basketball legend Bill Walton and his long-time friend Tony Finn of as a way to promote health, hope, community and service. About 1,500 participants near and far were encouraged to put on their helmets and bike in their own neighborhoods (or at home on stationary bikes) from 9 to 11 a.m.

“I rode along the waterfront and ... I just kept thinking of how many people have sacrificed for me so that I could have the greatest life ever,” Walton said in a post-ride interview. “And then there’s all these people who are suffering, and struggling so much today with COVID-19. So it was a spectacular day to ride your bike and a spectacular day for sober energy.”

Net proceeds from the event will go to four causes: Feeding America, Father Joe’s Villages, Champions for Health aiding front-line responders and Get Us PPE, which provides heath care providers with personal protection equipment.

North County also saw hundreds participate in an “caravan of appreciation” to honor farm workers, considered essential employees through the coronavirus pandemic. Three separate caravans drove to farms in Carlsbad, Vista and Oceanside.

At times chaotic, some caravan members drove down several roads, in hopes farm workers would hear honking and see posters thanking them. Organizers also collected food and toiletry donations to distribute to the workers.

Paola Ilescas, communications coordinator with the Farm Workers CARE Coalition, said that farm workers not only lack basic necessities, they lack access to healthcare. Many, she said, are worried about being laid off.

“All this time the needs have been there,” Ilescas said, “but this (pandemic) exacerbates it.”

— Teri Figueroa and Jennifer Van Grove are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune

—- Staff writer Andrea Lopez-Villafaña contributed to this report.