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Raucous protest in Huntington Beach demands beaches open, end of stay-at-home order

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More than 500 protesters converged on Huntington Beach again Friday to demand stay-at-home rules in California be lifted and to express their displeasure with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directive closing local beaches to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The crowd that descended on the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street was significantly larger than a demonstration at the same site near the Huntington Beach Pier two weeks ago. The raucous protest included people carrying banners that read “All jobs are essential” and “Freedom: We the people.” One person had a sign that said “Recall Gavin Newsom.”

Parents walked hand-in-hand with children to the now-closed beach, while protesters, some bringing their dogs, arrived on bikes, skateboards and scooters. Several shared their grievances through chants, signs and occasional songs.

While some protesters wore face coverings, most neither wore masks nor followed social distancing guidelines of six feet of separation. Police officers on horseback monitored protesters while others ushered attendees across Pacific Coast Highway in an effort to keep traffic moving.

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The governor ordered Orange County beaches closed Thursday despite opposition from local leaders who argue they should decide whether it’s safe to hit the sand. Many beaches in Orange County had remained open even weeks after Los Angeles County blocked access to their coastline.

Newsom said the decision was necessary after thousands flocked to the county’s beaches last weekend. The move has placed the beach communities at the center of an ongoing debate over the scope of closures in California.

Mike Murray, a longtime Huntington Beach resident, said he believes the governor did not have correct information when he decided to target Orange County’s beaches. He said the number of confirmed cases countywide — which surpassed 2,500 on Friday — does not justify the closure.

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“I was down here last week when they said there were 40,000 people on the beach,” Murray said. “I didn’t see 40,000 there and the people who were down there were all spaced out, so I think [the governor] is nuts.”

“It’s ridiculous that the governor has the power to close down the whole beach,” he said.

Newsom, at his Friday news conference, said he understood the concerns of protesters but urged them to continue to obey the stay-at-home order and emphasized that some easing of the rules was days away. Newsom added that the “only thing that is assured to advance the spread of the virus is thousands of people congregating together, not practicing social distancing or physical distancing.”

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“If we can avoid that, then we’re going to get to the other side of this with modifications a lot quicker,” he said. “And I just hope people will consider that.”

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said his department would focus on education and voluntary compliance and didn’t plan to make arrests at the beaches in his jurisdiction, which includes Dana Point and San Clemente. In a statement, he said that most beachgoers have acted responsibly and that they should not fear criminal charges.

“As long as people are social distancing and doing what they’re expected to do, the sheriff does not have interest in criminalizing people enjoying the beach,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.

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Huntington Beach and Newport Beach police say they are emphasizing voluntary compliance with the closure.

Mounted police line up to keep protesters on the sidewalk as thousands of people ters rally at the intersection of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

When asked Friday whether he has any concerns regarding enforcement of the beach-closure order, Newsom said he has “incredible confidence” in local law enforcement agencies, but also stressed that “it’s not just an enforcement mindset, it’s also an encouragement mindset.”

“We’ll see what happens over the course of this weekend and, look, if we have the kind of weekend that I hope and expect we will where we don’t see those huge crowds descend, then we’re going to be in a position — as early as Monday, Tuesday, I hope — to make some announcements of new strategies and partnerships that we’re working on in real time to address these large crowds,” he said.

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Officials said the few people who arrived in Newport Beach early Friday to surf were receptive when officials asked them to leave. In Huntington Beach, just steps away from the protest, beachgoers lounged in the sand and frolicked in the waves without issue.

Andrew Norman — clad in board shorts, a black ball cap, sandals and no mask — equated his participation in Friday’s protest with his past time in the military.

Thousands of protesters rally at the intersection of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.
Thousands of protesters rally at the intersection of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“I served in the Army and fought tyrants and dictators overseas and this has gone too far,” he said of Newsom’s stay-at-home order. “I didn’t do that to come back here and live under a tyrant in my own country.”

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The Hesperia resident became aware of the protest through a Facebook campaign, #reopencalifornia, and made the 90-minute drive with his wife and three children, ages 7 to 11.

“This should be a family experience and show that we’re normal people,” he said.

Tami Avants, 60, of Rancho Cucamonga said she lost her job as a hair dresser and is looking to get back to work.

She likened the recent $1,200 checks from the government as “welfare” and said she wants to earn her own money again.

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“[An] executive order does not trump our constitutional rights,” added 60-year-old Sheila Ferguson of Huntington Beach, who managed to protest despite a broken back.

Huntington Beach and Dana Point have voted to seek injunctions, and the Orange County sheriff has said he doesn’t plan to arrest beachgoers.

Some leaders in Orange County have vowed to push back against the closure.

Officials in Huntington Beach and Dana Point voted during emergency meetings Thursday night to ask a judge to block Newsom’s directive. Newport Beach also plans to consider legal action in the coming days.

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Seal Beach Police Chief Philip Gonshak, however, asked “for citywide patience and advocacy, rather than contentiousness and adversarial banter back and forth.”

“We are still working on a plan to start things up sooner than later,” he wrote in a community message Thursday. “I promise, once the governor lifts this order, we will be rolling out a multi-phased approach that will address our beach plan moving forward.”

Protesters have said it’s time to ease the stay-at-home rules and reopen the economy. But many medical experts and state officials warn there could be grave repercussions from reopening businesses too early.

An Associated Press poll found an overwhelming majority of Americans support the stay-at-home orders, seeing them as helpful in combating the coronavirus outbreak. Another survey conducted by Politico/Morning Consult showed that 81% supported continuing restrictions for as long as needed. Only 10% wanted to end social distancing to stimulate the economy.

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California’s relatively quick action to close businesses and order residents to stay home has helped to curb the spread of the virus and left many hospitals largely empty, waiting for a surge that has yet to come.

The initial success of the unprecedented shutdown of schools, businesses and other institutions has pleased experts and public health officials, prompting calls to keep the restrictions in place to help cement the progress.

Times staff writer Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.


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