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SLO issues more citations for gatherings, looks to control nightlife

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Trying to enforce COVID-19 health orders on a weekend night in San Luis Obispo isn't the easiest job, according to interim SLO Police Chief Jeff Smith.

But with cases on the rise throughout the community, especially among college students, the city has pledged to double down on its virus-related policing.

CRACKING DOWN San Luis Obispo says it's doing more to enforce public health orders—including policing its downtown nightlife—as cases of COVID-19 surge. - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • CRACKING DOWN San Luis Obispo says it's doing more to enforce public health orders—including policing its downtown nightlife—as cases of COVID-19 surge.

"Where we've probably issued the most citations is the large parties," Smith told New Times on Nov. 10, the same day SLO County hit 500 active infections for the first time. "You see the biggest increase in what could be considered the college crowd. We have issued several citations to individuals who've hosted large parties."

SLO issued its first citation for a large gathering on Sept. 19. In the remaining days of September, it issued nine others. Police have handed out 22 total fines for large gatherings to date. Over the Halloween weekend, Smith said he dispatched a patrol officer specifically to go look for signs of parties.

The recent enforcement push is part of a larger city effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, as case numbers continue to climb and threaten to push SLO County backward on the state's reopening timeline.

According to county public health officials, "at least half" of the active COVID-19 cases in SLO County as of Nov. 10 are in Cal Poly students, who are living on- and off-campus.

On Nov. 6, SLO issued a press release announcing more "targeted outreach" to the Cal Poly community about COVID-19 regulations and more "proactive patrols" to enforce orders. The city is doubling its fines for party-related (noise, gatherings, alcohol, etc.) violations.

"We all have a personal responsibility to family, friends, small businesses, and the medical community to be attentive and to follow public health orders," City Manager Derek Johnson said in the press release. "The community has asked for, and we will be more vigorous in our enforcement, of public health orders. We can do and must do better."

In addition to policing private parties, SLO is also trying to get a grip on its downtown nightlife, which has picked up since the start of the school year.

Chief Smith said there's some confusion among bar and restaurant managers about the number of patrons who are allowed indoors at one time—currently 25 percent of max capacity at restaurants and bars that serve meals (bars that don't are not supposed to be open). He said the city is preparing a comprehensive memo to business owners to spell out the expectations.

"Part of the challenge is just making sure our downtown businesses understand capacity limits and truly what they're allowed," Smith said. "It presents a little bit of a challenge for my officers."

SLO police officers are patrolling downtown streets and documenting instances of large indoor crowds—later "forwarding it to our code enforcement office," Smith said. The Police Department is also in touch with bar and restaurant managers about their responsibility to enforce social distancing and mask wearing in the long lines that form outside.

"My downtown sergeant has been reaching out about some of the concerns, especially when it comes to lines, making sure there's distancing and people are wearing masks. They're responsible for that," Smith said.

But the line gets blurrier in circumstances such as when patrons stop and mingle in large groups around businesses, Smith said.

"You'll have those individuals not intending to go into bars stopping and talking to people in line," he said. "Where does the liability align then?" Δ

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