County to crack down on businesses violating COVID-19 health order

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SAN DIEGO — County leaders approved a plan Tuesday to crack down on businesses violating the COVID-19 health order.

Daily COVID-19 records continue to fall with regularity in San Diego County as state and local officials work to stem the tide of a surging pandemic.

The county Board of Supervisors approved several measures, including stepped-up enforcement of businesses not complying with restrictions, and a fair and consistent application of policies based on scientific data.

Supervisors voted 4-1, with Jim Desmond opposed to the new enforcement measures. The compliance measures cover inspections responsive to complaints, proactive inspections, and citations for those violating the Safe Reopening Plan.

Based on a proposal from Supervisor Nora Vargas, where legally possible, businesses not in compliance with public health orders will not be eligible to receive county relief funding.

The board also voted in favor of continuing the county’s Great Plates program, which provides thousands of meals to senior citizens on a weekly basis.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said the county is “increasing resources and reaffirming our commitment to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in San Diego County, by expanding the scope and commitment of enforcement by our compliance team. Taking these actions will protect lives and help in the regional effort to beat COVID-19.”

Desmond said he supported other staff recommendations and Great Plates — but not increased enforcement on businesses, some of which have claimed being discriminated against.

“I believe all businesses should be able to operate safely,” Desmond said. “If you treat people like adults, they’ll act like it.”

Supervisor Joel Anderson, who voted in favor of the policy measures, said the big challenge is inconsistency: mom-and-pop shops feel they are more targeted than big box stores when it comes to enforcement.

Tuesday’s vote will add eight new members to the compliance team. Forty people will tour the county to address current compliance complaints and search for unreported violations.

According to Fletcher’s office, 335 cease-and-desist orders have been issued by the county’s Safe Compliance Team. Within a few weeks, two-thirds of violators came into compliance, but one-third remained in violation.

Del Mar’s Seaside Grill Owner Reza Khaksari received one of the cease-and-desist orders. He said he has no choice but to stay open for patio dining.

“I have two restaurants, and I’ve spent a lot of my savings and everything I have to stay open, and follow the rules, follow the order,” he said. “I have no more savings, nothing left to cover my expense, and I have no choice.”

Khaksari said he already closed his other restaurant, Alborz. The hardest part was letting employees go.

“The restaurant employees usually live paycheck by paycheck, and it’s really hard,” he said. “Some of them working for me 20 years, 17 years and it’s hard to send them home. But I said ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a job’ — actually we have a job for them, but the government doesn’t want to.”

The board voted on the new policies after hearing an update on county case numbers and efforts to vaccinate as many residents as possible.

On Monday, county public health officials reported 2,907 new COVID-19 infections, the 42nd consecutive day with more than 1,000 new diagnoses, bringing the cumulative case count to 194,795. No new fatalities from the disease were reported, leaving the death toll at 1,857.

The county has reported 28 confirmed and 13 suspected diagnoses of the more virulent coronavirus variant known as B.1.1.7., first detected in the United Kingdom in December. There have been no confirmed deaths locally connected to the variant.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, said there is no current evidence that the new strain causes more severe illness or death, and that vaccines should be successful against it.

All mitigation measures will be effective against the strain, but if it becomes dominant, “it’s even more important to stay at home,” Wooten told the supervisors.

Nick Macchione, director of the county Health and Human Services Agency, said vaccinations are being distributed throughout the county, based on a tiered system.

Based on a suggestion from Desmond, Macchione said the county is working a website customer portal open to all San Diegans, “telling them where they stand, and notifying them of when the vaccine is available.”

“We’re encouraging all residents to receive the vaccination,” Macchione said. In the meantime, while the vaccine is being rolled out, “we stress people to follow the guidelines of being safe,” he added.

San Diegans who see violations can contact the County of San Diego’s Safe Reopening Compliance Team at 858-694-2900 or send an email to SafeReopeningComplianceTeam@sdcounty.ca.gov.

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