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Column: Plenty of sunbathers are violating coronavirus beach rules. Why aren’t they getting tickets?

I’ve been paying close attention to the way Angelenos are responding to changes in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Safer at Home order. Last week, after he opened beaches to active recreation like swimming, surfing and walking, I wandered down to the sand and found that people were flouting the no-sunbathing edict. I questioned in my last column whether the rule even made sense.

But then came the weekend, and with it spectacular weather. Hordes of people descended on the beach, and traffic was a nightmare because the public parking lots are still closed.

I strapped on my cotton mask, got on my bike, and rode over to the mostly empty Venice Pier parking lot to see how things were going. At the south end of the lot, three mounted Los Angeles police officers sat on their horses, looking toward the Palos Verdes Peninsula, at dozens and dozens of Angelenos lolling on the sand, picnicking and sunbathing, in clear violation of the mayor’s latest order, which bans passive beach recreation.

I rode up next to the officers and asked whether they’d given any citations. The officer closest to me gave me a look that made me think I’d asked a very silly question.

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“No,” he said, “that would be unconstitutional. Like forcing people to wear masks.”

I rode home and tweeted about the encounter.

One of the first people to respond to my tweet was Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, a former head of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, who teaches political governance. She was disturbed by the officer’s assertion that ordering people to wear masks didn’t pass constitutional muster. “This is neither encouraging nor correct,” she wrote. “Shall I send over a quick handout on state police powers?”

My feed soon became a battle zone between people who support stay-at-home orders and those who passionately believe they are an infringement on our rights. Lots of people seemed to think that I was urging the police to arrest innocent sunbathers. Many called me “Karen,” the insult du jour lobbed at entitled, middle-aged white women who seem to feel rules shouldn’t apply to them. Many of my critics went even further.

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“Do you realize how similar you sound to a legitimate Nazi during the Holocaust?” one guy asked.

Others chastised me for trying to get a hard-working cop in trouble. Many wanted the police officer’s name so they could thank him, or send him money.

In truth, all I was trying to do was point out that there is a rather dramatic disconnect between the law and how it is being enforced.

“I understand our mayor prefers to have a consensus model, and he talks about coming from a place of love and compassion, but if it’s important enough to be mandatory, it would have to have some teeth,” Levinson told me Monday. “It raises an existential question: Why have a law if you don’t enforce it?”

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By Tuesday, my tweet had been liked 11,000 times and retweeted nearly 4,000 times.

I turned for answers to the two Los Angeles officials who could explain what’s actually going on: the mayor and the chief of police.

“I’m disappointed to hear that the officer gave you that account,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told me Monday evening. Beach and mask rules aren’t unconstitutional, he said, and the reason police were sent to the beach was to tell those men and women who were on the beach sunbathing that they have to leave, and stand by until they leave.”

Generally, he said, “If you ask some people to go, and they see people leave, others will follow. They don’t want an encounter with law enforcement.”

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Police are deliberately not meting out punishments, however, because this is only the first week of the newly relaxed rules, because they understand that people are going stir crazy at home and because they don’t want a public relations fiasco on their hands.

“If we take a strong, more enforcement-oriented position,” said Moore, “we jeopardize the public’s trust.”

He ticked off what the critiques would almost certainly be: “You guys are being heavy-handed. Is this necessary? You are endangering the officers. It’s just a money grab by the state.” (Violating the mayor’s order is a misdemeanor, and carries the possibility of a six-month jail sentence, a $1,000 fine or both.)

Garcetti, for his part, acknowledged that enforcement of his order is essentially on hold as the public grows accustomed to the new normal.

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“As I’ve said from the beginning,” he said Monday in a Zoom meeting with the Times editorial board, “we are not going to turn this into a police state, or turn to enforcement as our first move.”

The mayor and the chief talk frequently about how to encourage people to abide by the Safer at Home order. Both told me that no citations have been written, and both hope that none will have to be.

But they also believe that just having the law on the books is important symbolically.

“My first priority is getting a culture of accepting that this [coronavirus] is there, and I don’t think you build a culture by starting wars over enforcement,” Garcetti said.

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However, he said, if it appears that people aren’t taking the mandated precautions and coronavirus infections are spiking in the city, police will probably have to get more strict. Lives, after all, are in the balance.

“Decisions I made are going to cause this percentage of more people to get infected, and some percentage of them probably to die. That’s a heavy responsibility to have. I don’t want people being handcuffed, you know, on Venice Boardwalk because there’s not a mask, and I don’t want them completely ignoring it.”

He and Moore have considered the idea of giving officers masks to hand out. “And if they have somebody who says FU and all that, like, whatever. We’ll train, we’ll learn ... maybe we will [give tickets] sometimes. But a week into this that’s not the right move.”

For black-and-white thinkers, this approach may seem unacceptable.

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For those of us who see the many shades of gray in this pandemic moment, it seems exactly right.

@AbcarianLAT


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