Politics Report: About the Parks …

Collier Neighborhood Park in Ocean Beach was roped off this week. / Photo by Scott Lewis

It has been only three weeks since San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer banned people from going to parks and beaches. We will long remember that one time San Diego banned surfing.

It was three weeks ago but it was a century ago. Every day, it seems like city workers put up more caution tape and make-shift plastic fences around our favorite parks and public spaces. And, each time, it is another gut-punch. Some popular destinations have near constant police presence.

It feels punitive.

More and more people are politely nudging the mayor to find some way to open them up again. San Diego is one of few places to completely prohibit people from open spaces. New Orleans, notoriously rowdy and a city that faced a major outbreak of the coronavirus, never closed parks. I checked with the city, and it has not had trouble enforcing social distancing. Crime is low and city leaders decided it was vital to allow people to get outside. Boston did not close parks, and it also took the step of opening up some roads so people could walk and bike more easily.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez was the first elected official who represents part of the city to push for some kind of opening, saying it was particularly devastating for poorer families with no way to get outside safely. Friday, City Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who is running for mayor, joined calls to open the parks.

Diana Puetz, a longtime ally of the mayor and local Republican, grew frustrated after seeing a picture of people at a farmers market.

“Why can’t my kids go to a park?” she wrote on Twitter. Francis Barraza, an aide to the mayor, explained that farmers markets have clear policies for social distancing.

“Open parks led to crowded parks. I know it sucks,” Barraza explained. She went on to say the city only has to the enforcement capacity to either close parks or open them completely and could not police groups that may gather in them.

Bry said it was time to come up with a different plan. She said in a press release she hoped they would open by May with requirements that people stay apart and wear masks.

“From parents looking for a safe outing for their now-at-home kids to apartment dwellers itching for more space, these public areas are irreplaceable and are an important component of our physical and mental health,” she wrote.

Dave Rolland, a spokesman for Council President Georgette Gómez, said they tried keeping parks open.

“It didn’t work. People were going to them in groups,” wrote Rolland in the Twitter exchange with Barraza and Puetz. Rolland was talking about that first weekend after the shutdown, when people crowded beaches and boardwalks and parks. The city briefly tried to cut off parking at the hot spots before Faulconer decided to simply close the parks indefinitely.

The most common response to that point about the first weekend is some version of my response: That was the first weekend. People didn’t understand what was happening. Look at how much has changed in our lives since then. Have you been to a grocery store? The grocery stores are creepy. We have gone through a transformation. We are very different people than we were three weeks ago.

Underneath the “we tried that” point, however, is an element of truth: We are an active population. We have built our homes, our daily rhythms and our mental health around being outside, maybe more so than any other community in the country. There will be pent-up demand. The moment the mayor opens parks and beaches, people will go to them. Can we really expect them to not gather or start a quick soccer game? I think we can but I understand why the city is reluctant to ask cops to enforce it.

Also the whole point of all this is to keep this virus from spreading. How much longer are we going to delay our recovery if we don’t just suck it up and take every possible measure we can to get the result we want?

There are more considerations, though: Vitamin D is real. Most people need sun. Being outside absolutely helps our immunity, which is want we’re trying to protect.

When evaluating these tough decisions, let me offer three priorities public officials should have as they manage this.

Fix this: We trust our public health professionals. What do they need, and how’s it going? Get us to a point where we absolutely understand our risks and have either stamped out this virus or quantified its threat and allowed us to move forward with it. Make sure people have equal access to the best care possible.

Allow whatever liberty you can: We need to be able to make our lives as enjoyable and prosperous as possible while respecting the public health requirements. People who are concerned about their lives and livelihoods are not denialist members of a weird cult. Well, maybe some are but not most of us. It’s great to have constant pressure on the government to make clear what’s happening and why continued restrictions are justified.

Our political leaders, from left to right, have been mostly clear-eyed about the threat and we have not seen ugly battles about basic facts. We can be trusted, for now, to continue to evaluate the reasoning for restrictions and endorse it if it’s sound. This also isn’t an option. The government serves the people.

Hundreds of thousands of people in San Diego have sacrificed their livelihoods for this cause. They’ve done their part and are willing to, mostly, conform and wait patiently to rebuild their lives. If there’s something we can rationally give people to make this dark reality easier please, please, please intensely consider it.

Minimize damage: Elected leaders and managers of public agencies are going to have to make some of the most important decisions of their political careers in coming years. Try to do the best for the most people when you make cuts. Think creatively of how services and employees can thrive or adapt.

Good luck!

Mayor, County Supe Form Task Force on Re-opening Businesses

Monday the conservative political group the Lincoln Club of San Diego County put out a press release asking Mayor Kevin Faulconer to form a task force on re-opening the local economy.

“It’s critically important to plan now, while we are still sheltering in place and social distancing, for the time when we are able to get San Diego back to work. It’s unclear when that will be and if it will be in phases, depending on guidance from the State of California and federal government,” wrote Perry Dealy, the group’s chairman.

Friday, the mayor, along with County Supervisor Greg Cox, announced the formation of a “regional advisory group” on re-starting the local economy. It’s bipartisan and binational and the two politicians partnered with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Regional Economic Development Corporation to launch it.

“I can tell you that the city of San Diego and county of San Diego are ready to lead,” Faulconer said Friday. “We will be ready with the policies and procedures to get us back to work.”

So if you’re counting, the president has a task force. The state has a task force and now San Diego has one. All they gotta do now is something.

Not Opening: Comic-Con

Comic-Con is canceled. Pride is canceled. The Fair is canceled. July in San Diego has basically been canceled.

The Convention Center is now a homeless shelter and Comic-Con’s announcement provoked a question: What is the next major event at the Convention Center that has not been canceled?

It’s the Society of Human Resource Management’s annual conference and expo at the end of June. It’s a big one. The event’s website is like a time capsule. It features a surfer in the background. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and once Sen. Ted Cruz’s pick for vice president, is a scheduled speaker.

Tough Week for Tax Increases

It wasn’t a surprise but it was still something to see the announcement this week that the Metropolitan Transit System would not pursue a sales tax increase on the November ballot. It snuffed out what was left of the ElevateSD plan Gómez kicked off when she was newly established as the chairwoman of MTS.

“It’s hard, but it’s the right thing to do,” she told Andy Keatts.

Now we turn to the long-planned housing bond – a property tax increase championed by the Housing Federation that would support thousands of new affordable housing units.

U-T columnist Michael Smolens evaluated that.

Short version: Supporters aren’t giving up yet.

Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this week’s Politics Report. Andy will be back next week and maybe we’ll find more things out for the Politics Report but you could help with your ideas and things you’d like us to look at. Send email to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org and andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.