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Orange County officials push back after Gov. Newsom closes beaches

Orange County leaders are pushing back against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision Thursday to temporarily close all beaches in the county in response to the crowds that gathered along the shore last weekend.

Photos of crowded Orange County beaches went viral over the weekend, prompting Newsom to note that beachgoers who ignored the state’s restrictions could prolong the spread of the coronavirus in California and put the well-being of others at risk.

During his daily COVID-19 briefing in Sacramento on Thursday, Newsom commended other counties, including Los Angeles and San Diego counties, for their leadership in keeping people off their beaches during last weekend’s heat wave. However, he said the images circulating of Orange County beaches were “disturbing.”

“I just think we could tighten that up a little bit, and so we’re going to have a temporary pause on the beaches down there, state, local beaches,” Newsom said. “We want to work very closely with local elected officials, and we’re committed to doing that and if we can get some framework and guidelines to get this right, we can reopen very, very quickly. But we’ve got to, we’ve got to make sure we get this right.”

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A memo sent Wednesday evening to California police chiefs indicated that the governor had planned to go further, closing all state and local beaches and parks. In response to that memo, Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner released a statement hammering the plan and saying the idea of closing the beaches was unwise.

“Medical professionals tell us the importance of fresh air and sunlight in fighting infectious diseases, including mental health benefits,” he said. “Orange County citizens have been cooperative with California state and county restrictions thus far. I fear that this overreaction from the state will undermine that cooperative attitude and our collective efforts to fight the disease, based on the best available medical information.”

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel called the governor’s decision an overreaction and an abuse of power. She said she would be “looking into an appropriate response” to the situation.

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“I trust our Orange County residents to make good choices — wearing face masks, staying six feet apart and staying home when they don’t feel well,” she said in a statement. “We have here an opportunity to embrace personal responsibility while also taking care of our neighbors. Gov. Newsom clearly doesn’t share that faith.”

It is not clear at this point when the closures will go into effect or how long they will last. County officials say they have not received specifics from Sacramento about the closures.

It is also unclear how individual cities will handle enforcement. Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said he intends to direct deputies in his department, which has jurisdiction over county beaches and certain cities, to seek voluntary compliance from residents.

“We have been able to accomplish that and educate the public where necessary,” he said. “To date, we have not had to take any enforcement action on any components of the governor’s orders.”

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Southern California had its first big heat wave over the weekend, but L.A. County beaches are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Beaches in nearby counties were open, however. Here are a few scenes from the weekend.

Some Orange County officials said images circulated last weekend painted a distorted picture of what conditions were actually like at the beaches.

In an interview Thursday, Wagner said the telephoto lens apparently used to capture last weekend’s photographs has a shortening effect that made it appear as though people were sitting closer together. Aerial photographs of the region that showed sparse crowds on the city’s sandy stretches painted a more accurate picture, he said.

“The governor is making policy based on photographs instead of what the locals are saying is really happening in our communities,” he said. “I would hate for the spirit of cooperation he’s received from the county to be compromised by a decision that is an overreaction to a couple of photos.”

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Huntington Beach police spokeswoman Angela Bennett said officers did not issue any citations last weekend related to social distancing. Authorities were on the beach patrolling and educating visitors all weekend and found that the majority of people were staying in their own groups, officials said.

“The vast majority of people were social distancing at our beaches,” Bennett said.

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.”

Newport Beach City Councilwoman Diane Dixon called the beach closures “a clear abuse” of the governor’s power. She added that the decisions made by cities across Southern California were “prudent, carefully thought out and in the public interest.”

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Newport Beach officials had put in place plans to increase public safety staffing and enforce social distancing and other public health measures in an effort to allow people to enjoy the beach while still stemming the spread of the virus.

To fend off coronavirus, Los Angeles County has kept beaches closed. Most abide, but some stir-crazy surfers, Manhattan Beach locals and others are ready to get back to the ocean.

“The governor reportedly was angered by misleading telephoto pictures in the news, and reacted hastily without consulting local officials on the ground,” Dixon said. “It is painfully clear that the governor is making decisions based on politics and personal pique instead of fact. The state’s role should now be coordinating the process rather than dictating it.”

San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson contacted the city manager and city attorney Wednesday night after she heard about Newsom’s proposed directive to suggest that they review what legal authority the governor has to close city beaches.

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“I’m hoping the governor can cite some valid reason under case law to be doing this to cities because, in my opinion, it appears to be government overreach. Local beaches are under the control of the cities, not the state,” she said.

After a roughly two-week closure, San Clemente reopened its beaches last weekend with the stipulation that visitors would be permitted only to run, walk, swim, surf or partake in other activities along the coast. Sunbathing or sitting on the sand was not permitted. City leaders are expected to take up reopening the beaches entirely in the next few weeks.

In nearby Laguna Beach, officials on Tuesday moved to reopen their coastline for limited hours during weekdays, beginning Monday. Now it appears this will not come to pass, officials say.

Laguna Beach City Councilman Peter Blake said that, while he understands Newsom’s action, the move “comes at a point when it seemed like we were on a trajectory to move forward and this now moves us back.”

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Blake said he was supportive of closing the beaches when COVID-19 was beginning to take hold in California. However, he said, the latest effort by the governor appears to be a power move more than a reasonable step toward reopening the state and restarting the economy.

“There are people that, rightfully so, feel Newsom has gone beyond the scope of his authority and has taken on power that is not outlined in the [California] Constitution,” he said.

Business groups, nonprofits, healthcare associations and some legislators are criticizing some moves the California governor made in response to coronavirus outbreak.

Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow supports reopening beaches on a limited basis. But he said that crowds like the ones seen in neighboring cities last weekend were exactly what prompted the city to shutter its beaches roughly six weeks ago.

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“This is not a time for politicizing things. This is not a time for divisiveness,” Dicterow said. “If the governor believes this is the best thing to do for the state of California, then we need to follow that.”

Times staff writers Luke Money and Phil Willon contributed to this report.


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