California has been a model in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus as residents have largely followed orders to stay home except for essential trips.
The state has seen far fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths than hot spots such as New York and New Jersey. And polls have shown wide support for the restrictions.
Then last weekend, a heat wave hit Southern California, and thousands flocked to beaches in Orange County, which — unlike beaches in Los Angeles County — were open to the public. Although there is debate about how many people hit the sand, photos of the scene made national headlines and sparked outrage from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off,” Newsom said Monday. “The only thing that will set us back is people [not practicing] physical distancing. ... That’s the only thing that’s going to slow down our ability to reopen this economy.”
What do we know about Newsom’s plan?
A memo sent Wednesday evening to California police chiefs said the governor intended to make an announcement on Thursday about closing beaches. A law enforcement source confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that authorities were briefed on the plans, which might also include the closure of some parks.
The governor’s office declined to comment Wednesday night. But earlier in the day, Newsom said he was mulling more action on beaches.
“I’m working with state parks and others, and a lot of our other partners — Coastal Commission, State Lands [Commission] and others — to really figure out what our next steps are,” he said. “And I can assure you that ... clarity will come in a very short period of time.”
Why are some beaches open and some closed?
Some counties, including Los Angeles, have ordered all beaches closed, an expansion of Newsom’s sweeping stay-at-home rules.
But others, such as Ventura and Orange, have allowed them to remain open. Social distancing has been required, and some parking lots have been closed in an effort to keep out-of-town visitors away. In advance of last weekend, Orange County officials urged outsiders to stay away.
Widely circulated photos appeared to show crowded conditions at Orange County’s beaches over the weekend, drawing a rebuke from Newsom.
“We can’t see the images like we saw, particularly on Saturday, in Newport Beach and elsewhere in the state of California,” he said Monday.
Some Orange County officials, though, said such images painted a distorted picture of what conditions were actually like.
“Despite what’s being reported, the majority of our beachgoers are complying [with] social distancing,” Huntington Beach officials wrote on Facebook on Sunday.
Public safety officials there were “on the beach patrolling and educating visitors and have found the majority of people staying in their own unit; if not they are educated and have complied,” the statement added. “There are hourly social distancing reminders from the loudspeaker on the pier, and we also have public works for any crowd-related issues with barriers and signage that needs to be put into place if needed.”
In neighboring Newport Beach, Police Chief Jon Lewis and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said in a joint statement Thursday that there were some clusters of people who were crowded too closely together but that “it was our personal observation, and that of our officers, that the overwhelming majority of Newport Beach residents and visitors were families or practicing social distancing.”
The departments also shared aerial photos captured Saturday afternoon that showed sparse crowds on the city’s sandy stretches.
But after complaints of crowds, some Orange County beach cities mulled what to do next.
City leaders in Newport Beach, during a meeting Tuesday night, debated closing their beaches. But after hours of discussion, the council decided against it. Laguna Beach plans to reopen city beaches for several hours on weekday mornings beginning Monday, allowing water activities and walking or jogging along the shore.
Impassioned residents sent hundreds of emails to Newport Beach officials, urging them either to keep beaches open or to close them. “PLEASE do the right thing and close the damn beach,” wrote Linda Poole.
“We need the beach. It’s why I live here,” Garrett Hall wrote. “I got laid off and I’m struggling, but I at least know I can put my feet in the sand and watch the sunset. Please don’t close them!”
Of the emails the council received before Tuesday’s meeting, 391 were pro-closure and 664 were pro-access. Some were lengthy, others succinct. Frustration and anxiety were palpable. A few were profane. But other urged caution. “No reason for any of our beaches to be opened. May I remind you there is a pandemic happening,” Christine Brown wrote.
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner fired back at Newsom’s suggestion that the beaches should be closed, calling it an “overreaction.”
“Orange County citizens have been cooperative with California state and county restrictions thus far,” Wagner said in a statement. “I fear that this overreaction from the state will undermine that cooperative attitude.”
Until now, the tricky decision has been left to cities and counties, which must try to balance public health risks with providing equitable access to the outdoors. Many counties, such as Santa Cruz and Monterey, have ordered partial closures but have struggled with overcrowding.
Communities in the Bay Area have cracked down on those who violate the rules. San Mateo County officials ordered 275 people off Linda Mar Beach and threatened arrests and citations if people continued to violate the order.
Local officials decided this week to close Lovers Point Beach along Monterey Bay due to overcrowding.
The California Coastal Commission, usually the gatekeeper of the state’s beach access law, has been granting emergency waivers to local officials to make the decision whether to close their beaches.
Beaches have been a point of political debate in the coronavirus crisis. Some surfers and other beach lovers say they don’t see the danger of being allowed back in the water and have been pressing their case to officials and in online polls.
Were beachgoers following rules?
Lifeguards at beaches that were open said people tried to practice social distancing over the weekend and that there were no incidents.
Angie Bennett, spokeswoman for the Huntington Beach Police Department, said beaches appeared somewhat busy, and no one was cited for violating social-distancing guidelines.
“What the patrol officers are seeing is that people are staying within their own groups and appropriate distances apart,” she said Saturday. “It’s been a nice, warm day, and it sounds like people are complying and doing what we are asking of them.”
Ashley Bautista, public information officer for Ventura County, said there was a law enforcement presence at all of the county’s beaches, and officers were informing visitors that they were only supposed to walk, run, swim or surf. Beachgoers were complying, and the shores were not packed, she said.
Ventura County officials said their residents did a good job following the rules.
“We appreciate the coordinated effort by law enforcement and that our community followed the guidelines,” officials wrote in a message to residents Thursday. “There may be decisions coming from the state to close beaches throughout California, and we want to make sure you know you did good job and our beaches were well-managed.”
Why do health officials want beaches closed?
Health officials in Los Angeles County, which has been the hotbed of the pandemic in California, say staying at home now is essential to slowing the spread of the illness.
Los Angeles has recorded more than 1,000 death and an outsize share of cases and hospitalizations.
Others counties — especially those in rural areas — have been much less affected.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, has said repeatedly that the beaches must remain closed to prevent an overflow of visitors who might be ill or become infected.
Officials initially feared that, even with strong social distancing, coronavirus could spread deep into L.A. communities.
Officials now predict roughly two in 20 Angelenos, or 11% of the county, could contract the virus by Aug. 1 under the current level of physical distancing. That’s a substantial reduction from the model’s original estimate that 30% of county residents could be infected.
Times staff writer Alex Wigglesworth and Times Community News reporter Hillary Davis contributed to this report.