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A surfer and jogger walk the shore at Tourmaline in Pacific Beach on Saturday. / Photo by Jesse Marx

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced Monday the immediate closure of all city parks, trails and beaches. Outdoor spaces have become a place of increased scrutiny and frustration for the state and local officials who are trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Last week, government agencies sounded confident that so long as people gave each other the recommended six feet of space and followed good hygiene practices, there wasn’t much of a problem with going outdoors.

This weekend tested that resolve — as groups continued to congregate in ways that could spread the virus — and officials responded by showing how serious they are about social distancing.

The Cleveland National Forest shut down a pair of trails after receiving a record number of users. Several people had to be airlifted out. At a press conference Saturday, Gov. Gavin Newsom told young people especially to stop partying and “grow up.” San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief James Gartland was nearly as blunt when he told KUSI that the disregard of social distancing by some was ruining the outdoors for everyone else.

On Sunday, Faulconer closed all city-owned parking lots to discourage people from gathering in large groups. On Monday, the city’s parks, trails and beaches were deemed off limits.

Leading up to that moment, first responders were practically begging people to stay inside.

“Enforcement is something we can do, it’s just not something we are doing,” said Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for SDPD, on Monday morning. Within hours, police had to re-evaluate that position.

Photographs surfaced this weekend in the Union-Tribune and elsewhere showing clusters of people at beaches and other places outdoors. The city experienced a high volume of complaints about people gathering on beaches, Takeuchi said, and officers responded by advising groups to keep a distance.

Going forward, police could use a couple state laws to cite people who continue to gather in parks and on beaches. Both are misdemeanors and carry a maximum fine of $1,000.

Takeuchi said that until the mayor’s orders came down Monday afternoon to close all parks, trails and beaches, police officers had been caught in a nebulous position. Faulconer’s announcement gives them legal teeth.

Even so, SDPD is not likely to begin issuing tickets for several weeks, Takeuchi said, while the news trickles out and the public is educated on where they can no longer go.

“We don’t have a playbook for this,” he said. “No one has faced a pandemic before. No one has faced a shelter at home situation. The message in the short term is ‘We need compliance.’”

Regional officials also expressed support for San Diego’s increased interest in keeping people out of open spaces and for stepping up enforcement.

“If local cities and municipalities cannot enforce order, we are amending our order to say they can close city parks or beaches,” Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s chief public health officer, said at a press conference.

The county Department of Parks and Recreation has begun closing some outdoors spaces as well, including parks, to include pavilions, gazebos and group picnic areas, including campgrounds and pavilions. In a statement, Sheriff Bill Gore said it was imperative the public follow the rules.

“While law enforcement has been given the tools to enforce these orders, we hope that citizens will cooperate and self-regulate,” he said.

State beaches could be the next to go on lockdown. A spokesperson for the California Parks and Recreation Department told us to expect an announcement within the next day.

It’s still an open question how the mayor’s order will affect ongoing policing of homeless San Diegans who rely on parks for restrooms and more. Takeuchi said it was too soon to say.

Capt. Scott Wahl, who leads the city’s Neighborhood Policing Division, sidestepped a question on whether the city would halt its enforcement of certain citations typically doled out to homeless residents, namely encroachment and illegal lodging.

“We are trying to get people into help is what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We are taking people to shelters to get help. We’re very happy when they take it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising that local officials should not clear homeless encampments unless individual housing units are available. Otherwise, dispersing people throughout the community could break their connections with service providers and risk spreading disease.

Lisa Halverstadt contributed to this report.

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