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Beaches close across California for Fourth of July weekend as coronavirus cases surge

A bicyclist rides near the closed pier in Manhattan Beach on Friday, July 3, 2020.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

As beach closures went into effect to stem the spread of the coronavirus over the Fourth of July weekend, authorities said Southern Californians mostly followed the rules on Friday.

“No one is at the beach, which is weird,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department ocean lifeguard specialist Pono Barnes. The few who remained simply weren’t aware of the closures, Barnes said. “It seems like something is opening and closing every day. It can be hard to keep track.”

The beach closures come as coronavirus cases surge in California and the statewide death toll has topped 6,300. The state has seen a 58% increase in hospitalizations in the last two weeks.

Though the sandy stretches up and down the coast were mostly empty Friday, there was one exception. A swell attracted surfers to the waves of northwest L.A. County in violation of the beach closure, county officials said.

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 very few people defied  counties order to go to Santa Monica Beach.
In what would have been the start of a crowded beach weekend, only a few people defied the counties order to go to Santa Monica Beach on Friday.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

“We’re seeing compliance in terms of beachgoers but not so much from the surfers,” said Nicole Mooradian, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County Department of Beaches & Harbors. As of Friday morning, Mooradian said many surfers were on the water at Venice, Topanga and Surfrider beaches.

The beach closures will be largely enforced through reminders this holiday weekend. In L.A. County, officials are relying on local law enforcement to enforce the shutdown of the coastline. The county is also dispatching nearly 40 workers known as “goodwill ambassadors” to the popular beaches of Dockweiler, Zuma and Will Rogers to remind people that the area is closed.

In Santa Monica, teams of police officers are patrolling the beaches handing out masks and telling beachgoers to head elsewhere, according to city spokesperson Constance Farrell. Santa Monica on Thursday announced it would start issuing fines of $100 or more for failing to wear masks, but officials say they hope to bring about safe behavior through public education instead of policing.

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Bicyclists and a runner wear masks as they enjoy the boardwalk at Santa Monica Beach
Bicyclists and a runner wear masks as they enjoy the boardwalk at Santa Monica Beach on Friday as all beaches in L.A. County are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

“We can issue citations. But that’s not our focus,” Farrell said. “We really need everyone to take this moment seriously and to wear a face covering. We really need everyone to not head to the beach. We really need everyone to stay at home or with members of their household.”

A stretch of sand in the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach, which has also closed its shoreline, was sparse but not deserted Friday morning.

The Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier was gated and locked, though the beach bike and pedestrian path had a steady flow of joggers, cyclists and inline skaters. The sand was dotted with sunbathers who had spread out blankets and others strolling and playing in the waves, few of them wearing masks.

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A Long Beach city lifeguard, who would not give his name, walked along the shore advising beachgoers that they were breaking the rules and could be ticketed, but said they were only educating the public rather than enforcing the health orders. Despite the noncompliance, he said attendance was drastically lower than normal for a sunny Friday before the Fourth of July, which typically would have already had thousands packed onto the sand.

Caitlin Johnson and Harriet McDonald didn’t know about the closure and went to the beach at Belmont Shore on Friday morning because it was one of the only ways they could think to get out of the house while still social distancing.

The two friends spread out a blanket and enjoyed about 15 minutes on the sand before a lifeguard walked up and gave them a friendly warning that they were in violation of the closure. They packed up their stuff and began reformulating holiday weekend plans that involved a lot of time at the beach.

“It sucks because there’s not a lot of other places to go with more things indoors being closed,” said Johnson, 31, of Long Beach.

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Johnson said she was keeping track of the rising number of infections and understood the need for the beach closure. But she wanted to know how it comports with the crowds and lack of social distancing she’s seen in recent days at restaurants next to the beach and the nearby Second Street shopping district.

Closing the beaches but keeping outdoor restaurants open is a logic that baffles many. Coronavirus droplets can easily spread while eating and talking.

As Johnson and her friend left the beach, a nearby coffee shop was busy with diners having French toast, coffee, orange juice and breakfast burritos in the open air. Servers wore face masks and shields. The unmasked customers sat enjoying their food under umbrella-covered tables that were spaced more closely together than many of the sunbathers at the closed beach.

The beach scene was more bustling down the coast in Orange County, where the closure does not take effect until July Fourth.

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In Newport Beach, chain-link fences were being installed as beachgoers enjoyed the sun and sand. Crowds were heavier than usual, Newport Beach spokesperson John Pope said. “People know it’s closing tomorrow, and they’re getting in their beach time.”

In Huntington Beach, parking lots were mostly full as people streamed in from across the region to set up towels, umbrellas and shade canopies, taking advantage of one more day of open beaches. Lifeguards wore face masks, but few visitors did.

“I’d rather be outside than cooped up,” said Kelly Patten, 44, of Anthem, Ariz., as she relaxed on a towel next to her cousin from Whittier she was in town visiting. They were squeezing in a trip to Huntington Beach knowing it was their last chance before it closes for the Fourth of July.

Mike Haith, 20, a baseball player and gym trainer from Lancaster, traveled to Huntington Beach to escape the scorching heat of the High Desert. He arrived with six friends Friday afternoon after checking websites to learn that while L.A. County beaches were closed, Orange County’s remained open.

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“If this beach wasn’t open I’d be back in the dirt, in the desert in Lancaster,” he said. “That was my next option.”

Haith said it’s a good idea to close the beaches for July Fourth; a friend who is popular on TikTok recently contracted the coronavirus, and he knows it’s a serious threat. He said he would try to remain at a distance from people outside his group. “But my goal is to have fun.”

Judith Castle, 58, of Paramount, a mental health nurse on her day off, brought her husband and two grandchildren, ages 3 and 6, to Huntington Beach for a few hours to let them play and tire themselves out.

“I woke up and I said, ‘We’ve gotta go let the kids have fun,’” Castle said.

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Castle knew L.A. County beaches were closed and was pleasantly surprised to find lighter crowds than she expected and available parking when they arrived in Huntington Beach.

Castle knows the risks of the coronavirus, and sees families dealing with COVID-19 illness in her work. So they chose a spot far back on the beach near the pier with no one else nearby to set out their folding chairs and towels, in order to keep their distance from the crowds closer to the surf.

“This is joy,” she said. “It’s worth it just to breathe in and breathe out.”


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