With a room full of empty chairs (many watched live online), the City Council started its Special Meeting on March 31 with the Mayor reading the invocation sent in by Floyd Ross. Community members who wished to speak sat ‘socially distanced’ apart outside the Council Chambers waiting their turn to enter and comment. City Attorney Johanna Canlas participated by Zoom. City Manager Blair King laid out the two critical issues to be decided – which were closure of the beach and parks and an emergency leave package for furloughed city employees.
Fire Chief Jim Lydon gave the first presentation and showed photos regarding traffic at the beach. He pointed out the State Public Health Order was issued on March 19, 2020, and Coronado lifeguards began monitoring the next day. Their observations included spotting groups congregating on the beach and not following social distancing guidelines, group workouts on equipment and an increased number of surfers. Lifeguards are working to educate beach goers with the Lifeguard Tower receiving between five and ten calls per day asking about the beach status.
Lifeguards conduct a daily attendance estimate and Lydon showed the estimated attendance on March 20 was 1000, Saturday, March 21 was 10,000 and then decreased on March 26 to 500; March 27 was 2,000, Saturday, March 28 was 10,0000, and Sunday, March 29 was 15,000 and then back to 4000 on March 30. This shows a significant spike on weekends.
Later, Lydon confirmed that they have added an additional lifeguard, bringing the daily total from four to five with approximately 1000 warnings issued. When Councilmembers Sandke and Donovan asked about the impact on staff, he said that having to educate groups is a distraction from their duties of focusing on the water.
Police Chief Chuck Kaye then highlighted that his department has created informational flyers and used social media to educate the public on social distancing. Since March 22, the Call Center set up by the City has received 34 calls regarding the status of the beaches and 33 regarding the boat launch and several about the pier and parks. He said that Police Dispatch has seen an increase of 168 calls related to the beach with many complaints with regards to the beach and parks remaining open.
Kaye provided a historical timeline citing that on Tuesday, March 24 the Port closed Tidelands Park and other beach properties and police began patrolling to ensure compliance on March 25. Police enforcement includes 23 security checks at Dog Beach, 78 checks at Center Beach and seven at Sunset Park for a combined total of 600 warnings issued to date. There have also been 57 security checks at the Boat Ramp and Glorietta Bay Park and three checks on Stingray Park and the Golf Course with 15 warnings. The following areas also need extra patrols: Tidelands, Ferry Landing, 1st and D lot, Harborview Park, and a total of 100 warnings have been given for these locations.
Kaye also confirmed that the Port would be closing the bay to pleasure craft shortly and so far, the boat ramp has remained popular. He noted that Dog Beach area is the most congested area, with the Ocean Blvd. sidewalk and Dog Beach hose bibs heavily utilized, and he has concerns about crowds as the weather warms up.
Councilmember Sandke asked, “Can you adequately maintain the health order of the County Health Department?” Kaye responded that as a risk manager, he has concerns for his employees and residents as the weather gets better and our beach is one of the few open. When asked about the need to add staff, he said that they are shifting personnel to accommodate the needs and have several officers available to daily assist lifeguards on the beach. “We are approaching this as a marathon, not a race and want to keep the cops as healthy as possible,” he commented.
King said that the policy has been to discourage loitering or putting up tents, chairs or playing sports and to only allow walking. Chief Kaye echoed, “We encourage people to walk, run and do your thing, but as soon as you sit down, it becomes a concern.” As of yet, they haven’t given actual citations, but they are authorized to give citations if needed.
King said, “Our message has been to stay at home.” The city has signs advising this. “We have gone way out of our way to keep things open and educate people. But that could be difficult in the future.” We are in a position where all other jurisdictions have closed all their beaches and parks, including San Diego with a million people.
The Mayor asked if the Bayshore Bikeway could be limited to commuters. King thought that might be difficult, but cited other areas doing creative things to keep people safe like the County of Marin which prohibits people to drive to recreation facilities, but they are allowed to walk there.
When Councilmember Benzian in trying to understand asked what authority do we have to limit people driving?, Canlas pointed out the Governor has directed State beaches closed and people can drive to essential locations like grocery stores and doctor appointments. She advised that would be quite a burden on our police to enforce.
Four community members spoke up during Oral Communications with all of them proponents for keeping the beach open. City Clerk Jennifer Ekblad wiped down the podium between speakers and then shared statistics about public comments that had come in via email or voice mail. With a total of 260 comments received, 188 wanted the beaches to remain open, with 68 in favor of closing them. Only one person commented in favor of keeping the parks open with 11 in favor of keeping the Cays Dog Park open and one person wanting to close the tennis courts and golf course. The mayor then had her read a sample cross section of the 2.75 to 1 ratio (rounded to 3 to 1, then upped from 9 to 3 to 9 to 6 to capture a bigger picture of both sides) of total responses with nine in favor of keeping the beaches open and six opposed.
A comprehensive discussion followed with the mayor saying that, “We have an obligation to set policy that mitigates risk to our community and first responders.” He commented that he has walked the beach three times a day since this started has always observed social distancing.
Councilmember Heinze asked the question, “How do we best protect our citizens and enforce country health requirements? I want to believe people want to do the right thing and would like to keep access to the beach as much as possible.” He also pointed out the Navy and State have open beaches that the city doesn’t have control over.
Councilmember Donovan said that they were working together to try to solve the problem of not spreading the virus and voiced he was leaning towards shutting everything down for two weeks and then revisiting the issue. He also said, “I’m not trying to be argumentative, but why do we think we are smarter than every other beach in San Diego County that we can keep our beaches open and not cause a health problem?”
Councilmember Sandke shared thoughts from a book of Psychology of Pandemics and said “I would like us to lead for our residents. I took to heart what the police and fire chiefs said that there are problems. I know how important the beach is. No matter what we do tonight we are going to have some people angry and some people happy with us. I don’t want us to be behind, I want us to lead. If our message boards say stay home and then we create an environment that invites folks to not stay home, then we are creating opportunities that won’t be good for us. We’ve got to do everything we can to flatten the curve. We make decisions well when we make them together.”
Councilmember Benzian commented, “I take this seriously, but I think our mental health and well being are important. We are in our right to do this within the Governor’s order. You can see both sides. We have to think about families with children and be flexible with letting them outside.” He also asked that in the event thousands of people come to the beach, does the city manager or mayor have authority to shut beaches down tomorrow if need be. The answer is yes, under the emergency provision.
The mayor made a motion with Councilmember Benzian seconding it and it passed three to two with Councilmembers Sandke and Donovan voting against it. King clarified the details of the motion and then voiced that if it was his judgement, he would close the beach. This will also be an agenda item at the April 7 Council meeting.
The approved motion includes:
– Keeping the beaches open Monday through Friday.
– Closing all beaches on Saturday and Sunday.
– Prohibit parking on the beach side of Ocean Blvd to give people more room to socially distance from one another along the busy sidewalk seven days a week.
– Placing hand sanitizing stations near all beach entry points.
– The dog washing station at Dog Beach will be closed.
After a much briefer discussion among the council, they agreed on a course of action for city parks, tennis courts and boat ramp, leaving the public restrooms open, which are sanitized three times a day. With a total of 15 parks, the council unanimously voted to allow parks to remain open but close the playgrounds, as well as the bandstand at Spreckels Park. Staff was directed to cordon off the play equipment. The motion also voted to close the tennis courts and Glorietta Bay Boat Launch Ramp when the Harbor Police limits recreational boat access in San Diego Bay.
After a closed session, the council returned and unanimously authorized funds for up to $60,000 for the Emergency Furlough Relief Package for city employees. Councilmember Heinze asked where the funds would come from and King said they would look to allocate unspent funds and tap into reserves if needed.
And the final discussion came when King asked the council to weigh in on citizens’ requests for the bowling green and golf course to be reopened, to which the council agreed to keep both closed.