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Officials, police take educational approach to Ocean Beach gatherings

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña

The San Diego Union Tribune

August 12, 2020

SAN DIEGO — The scene at Veterans Plaza in Ocean Beach Wednesday evening provided a stark contrast to previous weeks, when hundreds of people would gather on a strip of grass to drum and dance to acoustic music often late into the night.

This time, by early evening, most people were wearing face masks. Those who weren’t were offered free masks by city employees and police officers walking through the area. And most people were keeping at least a six feet distance from each other.

About 6 p.m. some 75 people were sitting on the grass and sea wall or walking around Veterans Plaza. There were at least 10 vendors lined up along Abbott Street, most positioned several feet apart from each other.

By about 8:30 p.m. at least 200 people had gathered in the area and inside the drum circle to dance. Many were not wearing face masks or practicing social distancing. Police officers watched from a distance and reminded people to wear face masks.

City officials said police would clear the area by 10 p.m. in accordance with the city’s noise ordinance.

Staff from the city of San Diego and the county walked the area Wednesday, offering people KN95 masks and reminding people to practice social distancing.

Joel Day, senior advisor for the City of San Diego’s COVID-19 response and recovery, said city staff handed out at least 300 face masks in an hour about 5 p.m. He said the city was taking an educational approach to the gatherings, giving people warnings, but San Diego Police officers in the area could still issue citations.

“I hope it educates people that coming together without masks and social distancing can put people in danger,” Day said.

Recently, Ocean Beach residents and business owners complained that the crowds at Veterans Plaza were disruptive to the community and dangerous, given the coronavirus pandemic. Some also complained that police and the city had done little to curb it.

On Tuesday the city of San Diego installed an orange plastic fence around Veteran’s Plaza to prevent people from gathering. However it was quickly cut down by several individuals.

Kyra Kapelusznik, an Ocean Beach resident, said she often goes to the weekly circle gathering to work on art or to give tarot card readings. She left shortly after arriving Wednesday evening because, she said, she felt that the connection and sense of community that people go to the circle for was gone, thanks to all the police and media attention.

The gatherings, known to many as the Ocean Beach Drum Circle and Fire Dancing, have evolved from a few people sitting around playing drums and watching fire dancers perform to hundreds of people and vendors selling jewelry, clothing and food.

The drum circle crowd gathers in the afternoon every Wednesday, which coincides with the weekly farmers market organized less than a mile from Veterans Plaza.

The farmers market is put on by the business group Ocean Beach MainStreet Association. Both events are separate, and the association does not organize the drum circle.

The Ocean Beach Town Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the community and hosts events, sent a letter last week calling on county and city elected officials and to police to stop the gatherings.

The San Diego Police Department cleared the area last week in response to complaints from residents, business owners and local group leaders. That crowd had grown to 100 or so about 10 p.m. when police arrived. Most were not wearing masks.

One person was cited last week for carrying an open container of alcohol, police said.

Corey Bruins, treasurer of the Ocean Beach Town Council, said having police and city staff out in the park this week educating the public was the response the nonprofit group was hoping officials would take.

“It’s a huge improvement from last week,” Bruins said.

Read the full story here.

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