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Editorial: Sorry Orange County, no beach weekend for you

Beachgoers enjoy a partly sunny, warm day near the pier in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
Beachgoers enjoy a partly sunny, warm day near the pier in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
(Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom surprised many Thursday when he declined to order all state beaches and parks to close, contrary to a plan laid out in a widely circulated memo. Instead, he said the order would apply only to Orange County, where some beaches were crowded during last weekend’s heatwave. They will remain closed until local officials figure out how to safely manage beachgoers.

Was this a walk-back of a politically unpopular proposal, or is it what Newsom intended all along? The governor claims the latter, but who knows? In any case, it’s surely a relief to officials in counties such as San Diego and Ventura who have, so far, responsibly managed beach access and don’t have to pass on bad news to their residents on the brink of another warm spring weekend.

Although this action may feel punitive to people in Orange County, the crowded conditions in some of its oceanside towns (cough, Newport Beach, cough) last weekend were concerning enough to warrant gubernatorial action. We hope that this will spur Orange County elected officials to come up with strategies quickly to allow people to enjoy the beaches in the future without risking an outbreak of COVID-19.

While we weren’t thrilled about the prospect of a statewide beach and parks closure, at least it was a comprehensive and uniform approach that could be easily understood (and complained about) by all Californians. As it is now, there’s a confusing mishmash of rules in different counties. Los Angeles County beaches, for example, have yet to reopen. Perhaps that’s one reason that Orange County was overrun.

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The best available science tells us that stay-at-home restrictions need to continue for the moment and that social distancing measures will have to continue for months. Californians for the most part have agreed too, even though it has come at considerable personal cost. So far, this compliance has paid off. COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in California are lower than in other states that were slower to adopt social distancing measures. But after six weeks (or seven in the Bay Area), Californians need a little relief.

Some epidemiologists believe the risk of COVID-19 spreading through outside activities is lower than the risk of not allowing people an outlet for recreation and exercise. To that end, can beach access be rationed as was done for gasoline fill-ups during the energy crisis in the 1970s, alternating days by, say, ZIP Codes or license plates? Can park and mountain trails be permitted by lottery, the way access to popular sites such as Mt. Whitney is limited? Should cities open up streets in dense and park-deprived areas to let residents walk more safely in their own neighborhoods? (We think so.)

We shouldn’t squander all the months of sacrifice that allowed us to start “flattening the curve,” and public health must guide all polices. But as we near the two-month mark for pandemic restrictions at a time of year when people naturally flock outside, state and local officials must give Californians more options for doing so — safely.


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