A legal showdown over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order closing Orange County beaches was shaping up Friday after two cities voted to seek a temporary injunction to block the move and the county sheriff said his department didn’t plan to make arrests for people simply getting out for beach exercise.
The governor ordered Orange County beaches closed on Thursday despite opposition from local leaders who argue they should decide whether it’s safe to hit the sand. Over the weekend, thousands flocked to some Orange County beaches, which remained open even though Los Angeles County’s shoreline was closed.
Newsom said the images circulating of people congregating on Orange County’s shores were “disturbing.” He said beaches would be reopened soon if the situation improves, but he didn’t provide a specific timeline.
“My job as governor is to keep you safe,” he said Thursday. “And when our health folks tell me they can’t promise that if we promote another weekend like what we had, then I have to make this adjustment. I hope it’s only a very short-term adjustment.”
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said his department will focus on education and voluntary compliance and didn’t plan to make arrests at the beaches in their jurisdiction, which includes Dana Point and San Clemente. He said during a news conference Thursday that most beachgoers have acted responsibly and that they should not fear criminal charges.
“From an enforcement component, I have no desire to enforce any aspect of that through arrest,” he said at a news conference. “My intent … is to seek voluntary compliance.”
City leaders in Dana Point and Huntington Beach voted during emergency meetings Thursday night to approve filing for an injunction to block Newsom’s directive.
Earlier in the day, Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta said the city invested considerable effort and expense to discourage overcrowding at the beaches and worked hard to ensure the public had safe access to the beach for exercise and mental well-being.
“Our experience here locally has been that most people are being responsible and complying with social distancing, and given that Orange County has among the lowest per capita COVID-19 death rates in California, the state’s action today seems to prioritize politics over data,” Semeta said in a written statement.
The Huntington Beach Police Department wrote in a statement Friday morning that the beaches were closed and officers were seeking “voluntary compliance” from the public. Police officials have not outlined how they plan to enforce the beach closures.
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Officials in nearby Newport Beach said in a statement Friday that they “will strive to educate the public about the governor’s directive and are hopeful citations will be unnecessary.” The City Council plans to meet over the weekend to discuss legal options to challenge the closure.
In the meantime, the city is increasing its police presence on the beach and rolling out barricades and signs to make sure people are aware of the closure. Electronic message boards located on major roads throughout Newport Beach will let potential beachgoers know that the city’s coastline will not be accessible.
“We want to do everything possible to emphasize education and ensure compliance with the state order without citing people,” said John Pope, city spokesman. “That would be the very last resort.”
“Medical professionals tell us the importance of fresh air and sunlight in fighting infectious diseases, including mental health benefits,” Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said.
Until now, the decision of whether to keep California beaches open has been left to cities and counties, which must balance public health risks with providing equitable access to the outdoors.
Courtney Chen, who shares an apartment with friends in Huntington Beach, said she is “completely against this crazy closure.” The retail store assistant, who is temporarily out of work amid the pandemic, said the beach provides an outlet for her.
“The whole reason we live near the water is to be able to go in the water. We’re already grounded at home, and now we can’t go for a swim,” she said.
Los Angeles County — the center of the coronavirus crisis in California with more than 1,000 deaths — closed all 72 miles of its coastline weeks ago. One fear about keeping Orange County beaches open is that residents from harder-hit counties would flock there, potentially spreading the virus.
“Specific issues on some of those beaches have raised alarm bells,” Newsom said. “People that are congregating there, that weren’t practicing physical distancing, that may go back to their community outside of Orange County and may not even know that they contracted the disease and now they put other people at risk, put our hospital system at risk.”
Lifelong surfer Alex Carvalho, 23, said he talked to friends who drove to Orange County from Marina del Rey to catch some waves after officials closed beach access in Los Angeles County.
He said Huntington Beach has a simple allure.
“I don’t think you can find a sunset as beautiful in the winter when the sky turns pink. It’s just stunning — and you can watch it from the middle of the ocean. Surfing, you get a front-row seat to everything that’s going on in the water. It’s just this amazing feeling when you’re out there,” he said.
He was out on the water three times last weekend, trying to stay fit during the quarantine.
“I’m definitely sad when things shut down, but whatever happens, I will respect and follow the rules,” he said. “People need to stay healthy.”