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Column: Tensions heighten among San Diego supervisors over COVID-19 response

07/01/20

Read the full column by Michael Smolens in the San Diego Union-Tribune here.

As coronavirus cases increased at an alarming rate, it only seemed a matter of time before San Diego County would renew some restrictions as states and localities have done elsewhere.

Long before this week’s move to close some bars again, a running battle over whether to continue opening up the economy and public activities amid the pandemic had been raging on the county Board of Supervisors.

For weeks, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who supports a cautious approach in lifting restrictions, has verbally sparred with Supervisors Kristin Gaspar and Jim Desmond, who have been among the loudest voices urging the county and Gov. Gavin Newsom to loosen up regulations more quickly.

Much of the disagreement carried over from their meetings into social media. Prior to the bar restrictions that took effect Wednesday, recent developments refueled their dispute.

The board voted last Tuesday to ask Newsom for guidance to accelerate reopenings, including allowing youth sports competitions to restart — something Gaspar in particular has advocated. Fletcher, the lone Democrat on the board and a close ally of the governor, was on the short end of the 4-1 vote.

Meanwhile, the number of positive cases has been on the rise in the county as have COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Then a handful of states that had rushed to reopen, including Texas and Florida, again banned on-site alcohol consumption at bars, along with other restrictions.

Newsom followed suit on Sunday, issuing similar orders for bars in seven counties, including Los Angeles, while urging another group of counties to take action on their own.

San Diego wasn’t included on either list, but county officials said Monday that the continued coronavirus spread had hit certain “triggers” requiring action. Bars that don’t sell food must close, while increased restrictions were placed on those that sell food and alcohol.

After the board voted last week for appealing to the state on expedited reopenings, Fletcher issued a news release slamming the “Desmond/Gaspar Re-Opening Effort.” He referenced the growing number of cases and said the board was going in the wrong direction.

“Given these facts, it is reckless and irresponsible to propose expedited re-opening of additional indoor close contact group gatherings without any restrictions on the number of attendees,” he said in the release.

He made no mention of Supervisors Greg Cox and Dianne Jacob, who supported the measure this time, but had sided with Fletcher in opposition to speeding up reopenings in the spring.

In seeking to rally support for reopening youth sports Thursday on Twitter, Gaspar singled out Fletcher.

“SPORTS FAMILIES! County Sups voted 4-1 (Fletcher opposed) to ask Gov to return to safe play. Love hearing about your kids’ joy as they play again so visit gameonsandiego.com ... to add ur experience & picks. Will send them to the Gov. July 1,” she tweeted on Thursday.

On Sunday, Fletcher replied to Gaspar’s post.

“This is why we can’t have nice things,” he said on Twitter. “At the same time we see spiking of #COVID19 cases, outbreaks and hospitalizations in SD, this one is demanding expedited re-openings including multiple new indoor, high exposure settings.”

Desmond weighed in on Twitter with a link to his own COVID update Friday on YouTube. He didn’t directly engage Fletcher, who nevertheless reposted Desmond’s video.

“We continue to test more people, while hospitalizations remain low. With a 16% unemployment rate, we must continue to get people back to work, safely!” Desmond said.

It’s true that the county has been testing more people, but the daily rate of positive tests has been steadily increasing. Also, the number of COVID-associated hospitalizations is significantly higher this week than last week.

In a bit of a diversion, Desmond ended the video by mentioning one way he deals with the stress of the coronavirus pressures. He produced a target with images of the coronavirus that he used at a North County gun range.

“This is how I relieve my frustrations,” he said.

This is hardly the first time Fletcher has jousted with Gaspar and Desmond over coronavirus policy.

In mid-March, Gaspar criticized the board’s coronavirus task force on KUSI, saying it was announcing actions before reporting them to the full board.

Then she said this: “I would like to see elected leaders that are looking out for the interests of the community above their own.”

Later, she said it was a general comment, but it seemed targeted at Fletcher, who is on the task force and has led many of its news briefings. Fletcher was the one to respond in a KUSI interview shortly thereafter.

“We’re here to support and implement what (county Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten) suggests and recommends,” he said, “at no single point throughout this crisis has Dr. Wooten’s advice ever been changed, overridden or contradicted.”

In something of a turnabout, Gaspar recently issued a news release defending the appropriateness of last Tuesday’s vote, according to the Voice of San Diego.

“Not once have we stepped ahead of the Public Health Officer or Governor in reopening a business sector. Not once have we ignored our agreed upon health metrics that guide our response,” Gaspar wrote.

Desmond has questioned how severe the pandemic is locally for some time.

In May, he gained national attention when he said San Diego County only had “six pure, solely coronavirus deaths” that did not involve people with underlying health conditions, suggesting the threat was overblown.

At the time, the county had recorded more than 190 deaths stemming from the virus. (As of Tuesday, the local death toll was 365.)

Back then, Fletcher accused Desmond of “the disgusting notion that people who died from Covid with underlying health conditions don’t count.”

Given the county’s move to re-enact restrictions, this sharp-edged debate may not be ending any time soon.