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The San Diego County Administration Building / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

San Diego County is digging in on keeping COVID-19 data private.

County officials made moves in two separate lawsuits this week in which Voice of San Diego is seeking to compel them to release information under the California Records Act related to its handling of the public health crisis.

VOSD contributor Jared Whitlock requested death certificates in April to see where the virus was moving and to better understand how the county was managing the public health crisis. We sued after the county denied the request, and last week a judge took our side.

But county supervisors have now voted to appeal that ruling.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher was the lone vote against an appeal, and told VOSD he believes the county “should err on the side of transparency unless there’s a compelling reason that releasing something would impede our ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Two outgoing supervisors, on the other hand, cited privacy concerns for their decision to keep the case going.

A second lawsuit we filed in July — which has been joined by KPBS and the Union-Tribune — sought epidemiological reports detailing the county’s contact tracing efforts. In response, the county made two arguments: the data is confidential and releasing it would do more harm than good. 

A Superior Court has tentatively sided with the county in that case, but the judge then sought more information from both parties.

Outgoing County Supervisor Dianne Jacob revealed to VOSD that she believes the outbreak data being sought should in fact be public.

Jacob said Wednesday she believes the public “has a right to know where these cases are.”

Telemarketer Formally Hit With Fine Over Robocalls

The Federal Communications Commission formally fined Kenneth Moser, a San Diego telemarketer, nearly $10 million on Wednesday, more than two years after he spoofed a robocall that upended the 2018 76th Assembly District race.

Moser sent a pre-recorded message to voters claiming that Republican Phil Graham, the stepson of former Gov. Pete Wilson, had assaulted a woman in a bar, even though the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had already cleared Graham of the allegation. After his unmasking, Moser told the commission that he’d been working for the family of another Republican candidate. He was merely a messenger, he argued.

But in the process, Moser made it look like the robocalls were coming from a 619 number belonging to a rival telemarketer, with whom he has a long and litigious history. Moser made the case that because the Ensenada-based business he spoofed was technically defunct, he didn’t intend to cause harm. He also argued that his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

The FCC disagreed with both lines of reasoning. Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a statement Wednesday that “one would have to be rather naïve to think that this was not done with the intent to cause harm,” and pointed to angry complaints the actual owner of the phone number received.

Moser, meanwhile, said he won’t lose any sleep over the fine because he intends to bring his case to an administrative judge. He noted that one of the commissioners, Michael O’Rielly, partially dissented to the fine because there was no evidence Moser had intended to harm voters

O’Rielly also wrote, approvingly, that the truth or falsity of the robocalls was irrelevant to the FCC’s analysis.

San Diego Delegation: We’re Not in Hawaii

Gov. Gavin Newsom has come under fire for attending a party in Napa Valley. Lawmakers, meanwhile, headed to Maui as part of a conference. Cases of COVID-19 have spiked in recent weeks and most of the state was hit with new restrictions. 

“In both cases,” writes John Myers of the Los Angeles Times, “the personal decisions of the elected officials involved gave the impression that their privilege led them to believe they were immune to the pandemic, ignoring the safety precautions they have asked Californians to take.”

Politico also reported that the event was put together by the San Diego-based Independent Voter Project and intended to bring together lobbyists and politicians from several states. 

Representatives for the San Diego delegation — Assemblyman Todd Gloria, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, Assemblyman Randy Voepel, Sen. Toni Atkins, Sen. Brian Jones, Sen. Ben Hueso, Sen. Pat Bates — said they’re not in Hawaii this week. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez tweeted a photo of herself in her district office.

Everyone’s Bracing for COVID to Get Even Worse

Local hospitals are preparing for an increase in patients with COVID-19 cases rising in San Diego and the holidays approaching, KPBS reports. Scripps Health has already started to see such an increase.

The increase in cases in the past few weeks has also led the county to start issuing cease and desist orders to businesses and organizations that violate public health regulations, KPBS reports. Chula Vista also plans to ramp up enforcement of individuals and businesses who violate public health orders, the U-T reports.

San Diego State University will pause the majority of its in-person instruction for the rest of the fall semester beginning Thanksgiving week, the U-T reports. University officials are encouraging students who are taking in-person classes or conducting research on campus to not travel for the holiday.

The San Diego International Airport plans to provide COVID-19 testing to people traveling through the airport starting in early 2021, NBC 7 reports.

Supervisors Approve Otay Ranch Development

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors approved Otay Ranch Village 13, a large development project northeast of Chula Vista, the Union-Tribune reports, and activists are threatening lawsuits.

Last week, the state attorney general’s office cautioned the board against approving the roughly 1,900-acre mixed-use development project because it said the wildfire risk the development would pose wasn’t adequately addressed in its environmental impact report.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher was the sole “no” vote, and expressed concern over the county’s use of carbon offsets to mitigate the project’s environmental impact and ongoing issues with the county’s Climate Action Plan.

“San Diego County officials apparently learned no lessons from the disastrous fires that burned millions of acres in California this summer,” said Peter Broderick, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the project, in a statement. “Approving new developments in highly wildfire-prone areas not only puts new residents at risk, it also endangers nearby communities. Everybody living in the area will face increased fire risk, and thousands more cars will clog the roads when the inevitable evacuation call comes.” 

In Other News

  • Therapists and veterans are concerned about how the San Diego VA has made accessing mental health care harder for local veterans during the pandemic. (inewsource)
  • School districts across the county are ramping up COVID-19 testing as they continue their initial phases of reopening campuses in person. San Diego Unified School District and some North County districts have contracted with UC San Diego to provide regular testing of staff and students. (San Diego Union-Tribune)
  • Our pal Katy Stegall wrote about the backlash to San Diego’s smart streetlights and the new surveillance ordinance championed by community groups. She gave us several shoutouts in this piece for Vice.
  • Carlsbad is drafting an ordinance that would protect the rights of the city’s hotel workers who have been furloughed or laid off during the pandemic to return to their jobs when things improve. San Diego passed a similar measure in September. (Union-Tribune)

The Morning Report was written by Maya Srikrishnan and Jesse Marx, and edited by Sara Libby.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said Newsom was part of the conference in Maui. He was not.

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