More than 16,000 complaints have poured in for businesses violating the state’s stay-at-home order. At least 17 of them are leading to fines up to $1,000.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — All of Southern California is locked into a regional stay-at-home order due to crippling ICU capacities stemming from unprecedented levels of death and sickness from coronavirus.

But, if you live in San Diego County, it seems to be business as usual.

Restaurants are serving crowds of people and gyms are reinstating workout routines despite pleas to stay home from top health officials and executive orders from local governments.

Since August 2020, more than 16,000 complaints have poured in for businesses that are disobeying health orders, according to an email from the county.

The showing of blatant defiance to public health order has been an issue among local leaders. 

During a January 6 coronavirus press briefing, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher acknowledged the need for increased compliance on behalf of businesses and called the enforcement efforts so far “frustrating.”

“We’ll keep looking each and every day for ways we can find an increase in compliance and it’s not out of a desire to be punitive in any sense,”  Fletcher said. “We understand folks are just trying to make it.”

How do you get a cease and desist order? 

The main channel of enforcement for those defying health order comes from a complaint-based compliance system run by San Diego County.

Reinforcements from the sheriff’s department and an executive order by San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria also help in some respective areas of enforcement.

Currently, under the stay-at-home order, gatherings of any size are prohibited, 20 percent or less capacity is required at retail locations and no restaurants can have on-site dining, indoor or outdoor.

In order to report businesses violating the state and county health orders, San Diego County has a phone number and an email on its website.

Supervisor Fletcher said once the complaint is received, an investigation is done to assure validity in compliance. More visits are done in the following weeks to ensure businesses are complying.

According to an email from County communications director Michael Workman, 335 Cease and Desist have been issued to defying businesses since August.

Cease and Desists issued are publicly listed on the County’s website and most mention the businesses are in violation of both state and county health orders.

The notices also say a fine of up to $1,000 is possible for repeated offenders. 

Out of all cease and desist orders, Workman said 77 continued to violate the health order, while the rest started to comply or were closed upon further inspection by the county.

17 of those businesses that continued to violate health orders were forwarded to the District Attorney’s office for a potential fine.

How have local businesses responded to enforcement? 

When Chris Kapetanios was issued a cease and desist order on December 23, he wasn’t surprised. He’s been serving indoor dining at Cafe La Maze in National City since a county judge issued a controversial ruling allowing strip clubs and restaurants to temporarily reopen.

“We opened, we closed, we did all the opening and closing they asked us to do,” Kapetanios said. “With the to-go orders… we were making 10 percent of the sales.”

Kapetanios said county officials showed up with law enforcement to tell him that if he doesn’t close, the situation would be escalated to the District Attorney. He said it’s not fair that he’s regulated, while other businesses aren’t.

“You let Costco, Walmart and Home Depot open with thousands of people entering that business every day,” Kapetanios said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Craig Smith is a franchise owner of Rockin’ Jump located in Mira Mesa. He said from October until they were issued a cease and desist order on December 21, they hosted daily classes for children.

“We were open, running camps and we were under the impression that we were allowed to,” Smith said.

Smith said the county visited him twice. On the second visit, he said they told him to close the facility and left behind a law enforcement officer to make sure he and his employees closed up shop.

“Given the state of where things are with small businesses, the city and other issues they have to deal with, I was kind of surprised and shocked they came back and said anything,” Smith said. “I felt singled out I can tell you that.”

Smith said once his financial situation worsens due to being closed, he will reopen despite the risk of a fine.

“If we get fined, we get fined but at least I won’t lose everything I have,” Smith said.

Nadia Gewargis, the owner of Dance Dayz Studio in La Mesa doesn’t know how to proceed with her business after the county issued her a cease and desist order on January 4. 

“We can’t survive as a small business when people aren’t going to come.”

Gewargis tried pivoting to online classes at the start of the pandemic but said her clientele ranges from three to seven years old and wouldn’t focus on an online class.

“I don’t want to be a hotspot or a target so I guess you could just say I’m thinking about it,” Gewargis said. “For me, it’s more about what I’m doing to provide for the community, what I’m providing for these families and the kids.”

News 8 contacted more than 30 businesses that have outstanding cease and desist orders. None of the businesses who commented confirmed they were planning on staying closed for the remainder of the pandemic.

Can the county enforce the health orders more?

Since the COVID-19 compliance team is a complaint-based system, there’s no way for the county to track down every business that violates health orders. 

During the Wednesday press briefing, supervisor Fletcher acknowledged that time and resources are stretching, especially during the worst period of the pandemic our region has seen.

“I think we are doing everything we can as a county recognizing that not everything is within our power or ability particularly with the law enforcement aspect,” Fletcher said.

“I think with the new board we can revisit some of the decisions that were made previously,” he said.

Workman said in his email to News 8 that as other municipalities ramp up enforcements, the load may be shifted in the future.

“Mostly we’ve done the responding but that seems to be changing a little in Carlsbad and [San Diego] and maybe some others,” Workman said in the email. “We have been issuing the [cease and desists] but they may start.”

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