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Orange County debates closing beaches as hot weather raises fears of out-of-town crowds

Kylie Wortham, who was laid off when her company closed due to the pandemic, relaxes in a hammock in Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County officials have been debating whether to close beaches and trailheads during an upcoming heat wave after coastal residents raised concerns about out-of-towners descending on their communities in droves.

The county — and several Orange County cities — previously closed parking lots, parks, piers and trailheads adjacent to their beaches in an effort to curb access amid the coronavirus pandemic. Seal Beach and Laguna Beach closed their beaches entirely.

Still, Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen expressed concern this week in a letter to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents a swath of south Orange County, that leaving the county beaches adjacent to Laguna Beach open would put the health of residents at risk.

Temperatures are expected to climb into the high 80s and mid-90s across Southern California by the weekend. Public officials worry this will prompt thousands to head to the sand to cool off, as is typical when temperatures spike.

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“We have all seen the video from the beaches in Florida that recently reopened,” Whalen wrote, “and there is no reason to expect a different outcome here with the first warm weather coming.”

Parking closures at most beaches will mean crowds will park in neighborhoods in South Laguna, putting residents there at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, he argued.

In response, Bartlett on Tuesday at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting proposed closing county beaches for two weeks during the hot spell. Since surrounding counties completely shuttered their beaches, Orange County has been inundated with people from Los Angeles and San Diego counties and the Inland Empire, she said.

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“When you take a look at the folks that are coming down, they’re not only not adhering to Safer at Home policies in their own communities, they’re not even staying in their own counties. Especially with the warm weather I think it’s going to be problematic,” she said. “It’s not like we can say our beaches, parks and trails are open just to our residents. The Coastal Commission won’t allow for that, so it’s an all-or-nothing thing.”

Bartlett, however, failed to rally the support of her colleagues. Supervisor Don Wagner pointed out that Bartlett had earlier proposal to allow golf courses to operate in the county to give people some recreation.

“We’re opening up to a certain extent the golf courses because people need to recreate, but when the weather’s good we’re not going to let them recreate on our beaches and our trails,” Wagner said. “There is no consistency. There is no rhyme or reason here, and the idea this is something we need to do now because we’re going to have nice weather, well, that’s precisely the time we should have more people out.”

The Ventura County city of Port Hueneme, experimenting with a “soft reopening,” has reopened its beach to walking, running, biking and solo surfing and paddle-boarding. Its parking lot is open as well, although the pier, restrooms, playground and street parking remain closed.

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The city says that it is “highly discouraging” people from sunbathing, sitting or bringing “any item that promotes a stationary presence.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County’s tennis courts, beaches, piers, beach bike paths, beach access points, public trails and trailheads are closed through May 15 under the county’s current Safer at Home order. That order covers beaches in every coastal city and unincorporated area of the county.


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