Residents enjoy the view of the ocean in Carlsbad amid beach closures. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Before the coronavirus pandemic, “a walk in the park” was an idiom meant to signal ease and leisure. Now, a walk — or a sit — in the park, and whether you’re allowed to do either, is a source of misunderstanding and tension.

As officials navigate an unprecedented public health crisis and an ever-changing set of directives, they’ve struggled to communicate what precisely is allowed. Different officials have offered different guidance — sometimes in ways that directly contradict one another, or their own earlier explanations.

That’s caused confusion over pretty basic things, like whether one can sit down in a park and what the rules are surrounding face coverings.

Over the last week, the city has released a series of press releases and graphics intended to show what the public can and can’t do at parks, beaches and in the bay. One of the graphics says walking, jogging and individual “passive activities” are allowed, whereas “active sports” are not.

That, in and of itself, caused confusion, given that running is about as active as a person can get. But the city’s “passive” and “active” terminology comes from planning and permitting jargon that doesn’t necessarily jibe with the public’s understanding of those same words.

As the confusion was spilling onto social media, Francis Barraza, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for community engagement, confirmed that sitting is allowed, because it’s considered a passive act. “You can sit in a park with your household or by yourself,” she tweeted Saturday.

The mayor’s press secretary, Gustavo Portelo, also confirmed that was the case via email Wednesday.

On Monday, though, the public heard the opposite from the county.

At a press conference, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher highlighted the fact that while cities maintained some authority on the opening and closing of beaches and parks, the county had established a few overriding rules. When it comes specifically to parks, he said, “You can walk or run or bike, but you can’t sit or stop.”

The county’s website backs him up. It notes that starting Friday, regionwide public health officials are hoping to “relax more restrictions on parks,” including: “Allow park visitors to sit, lie down, picnic if they practice social distancing.”

Pressed to clarify Wednesday, Fletcher said the aim of the county’s latest public health order was to move people along in the outdoors.

“If the city of San Diego has done something differently and they have the ability to ensure physical distancing, given we are right on the cusp of changing the entire approach, I don’t think there is a great conflict there, because we’re in the process of kinda resolving that,” he said.

It was more important, he said, to ensure local jurisdictions are facilitating physical distancing.

“I don’t think there is inherently a tremendous conflict,” he said. “To the extent there may be some miscommunication, I think that we’ll be able to resolve that.”

County officials have said they plan to lift some of their own restrictions on the outdoors by the end of the week to bring more consistency to how jurisdictions are slowing the spread of COVID-19. While highlighting some of those changes Thursday, Fletcher reminded the public that cities have the ability to be more restrictive than the county, but not less restrictive.

His update came about two hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom praised San Diego County for its handling of the coronavirus while also closing state beaches in Orange County for failing to keep people separated.

Even when public health directives are easier to understand, confusion can still linger. The city, for instance, says gatherings are not cool on beaches, but passive gatherings at parks appear to be OK as long as one is with their housemate or housemates.

In other words, sitting might be OK in one public recreation space and not OK in another public recreation space. As for enforcement, Portela said police and park rangers were taking an “education first approach” and could help verify who is and isn’t a housemate by requesting people’s IDs.

Some of the confusion must also stem from a general atmosphere of exceptions to rules. There are enough caveats to the restrictions that after a while the restrictions sound like mere requests.

The county’s website, for instance, notes that you should stay at home unless you have essential needs or work an essential job or require medical care. (What’s an essential need? Basically: going to the grocery store, the food bank, convenience store, pharmacy, bank, laundromat, hardware store, airport, day care center and so on.) You should also stay six feet away from other people unless those people are part of your household. But at the same time, you should also avoid gatherings of any size.

It goes well beyond parks.

Earlier this month, inewsource documented nine other examples of confusing or contradictory statements made by county officials. That included rules about who needed to comply with stay-at-home orders. Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s top public health officer, repeatedly suggested in March that businesses and residents didn’t have to be perfect in complying with those rules. After the third time she said it, the county’s top epidemiologist stepped in to request otherwise. He urged everyone to get on board.

Earlier this week, the county started teasing its new mandatory rules requiring that everyone have a face covering handy when they go outside and pull it up when coming six feet from another person who isn’t a housemate. At a press conference, Dr. Nick Yphantides, the county medical director, prepped the public on what to expect and signaled that there might already be confusion over this point, too.

Although he didn’t name names, he wagged a figurative finger at anyone — especially other medical professionals — who would suggest that masks aren’t very effective and therefore not necessary. There’s evidence that masks help stop the spread of transmission, he said, and they are, in any case, a benign way for people to do their part, so there’s no harm.

“At this point, something is better than nothing,” he said.

But in bringing attention to this point, Yphantides seemed to be acknowledging that the information coming at the public was not always consistent or easy to navigate.

“We have more than one pandemic happening right now. I strongly feel we also have a pandemic of opinions,” he said, which are “occurring in the absence and the vacuum because all of this is so new. And there is a hunger for objectivity.”

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