In an escalated effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the city of Laguna Beach directed staff to close city beaches Monday evening.
“The beach closure will go into effect at 5 p.m.,” Kai Bond, Laguna’s marine safety captain, said in a text message to the Daily Pilot on Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Huntington Beach announced Monday that is closing its iconic pier beginning Tuesday until further notice and is shutting down many recreational amenities, though the beaches remain open.
Newport Beach also has closed many recreational amenities but kept beaches open.
On Monday night, Costa Mesa announced that it would close all city parks and the Costa Mesa Country Club, the city-owned public golf course, effective at midnight until further notice. The closures include parking lots, restrooms, playgrounds, athletic facilities and walking trails, the city said.
In Laguna Beach, closure notices already were going up at city beaches Monday morning. “We had to start early ... because it is difficult to close large areas in a short period of time,” Bond said.
The City Council also directed staff to take necessary actions to close local trail access to county wilderness parks and to ask the county to close its beaches in Laguna Beach or allow the city to do so.
Closure of the city’s beaches also is to include adjacent parks including Main Beach, Heisler and Treasure Island parks.
“The safety of the public is our utmost concern, and this decision was not taken lightly by the City Council. We were unanimous that these steps must be taken now in our city to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said in a statement Sunday night.
The city indicated in a statement that an emergency closed meeting Sunday night was prompted by an uptick in visitors to the city that it said crowded beachfront parks and trails over the weekend, even as a sweeping statewide order by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday called for Californians to stay home. The order permitted people to go outside as long as they maintain the recommended six feet apart.
The city said many of its residents are self-regulating and complying with social distancing but that the increased number of people visiting Laguna Beach trails, beaches and parks created opportunity for the virus to spread.
“These public parks contain benches, railings and structures that are high-touch areas and could potentially be a source of spread of COVID-19,” the city said. “The council determined that closing these areas is prudent to reduce the potential spread of the virus and protect the public.”
Local governments have the authority to close their shorelines but usually need to first notify the California Coastal Commission, which protects and regulates public access to beaches.
State law includes an emergency provision to waive certain requirements “to protect life and property in cases of emergency,” said commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz.
“This provision allows us to work with local governments who are taking immediate action, like closing beaches or parking lots, if necessary to respond to emergency situations like we have with the COVID-19 crisis,” Schwartz said.
Laguna Beach did not contact the Coastal Commission before its decision but has three days afterward to do so, Schwartz said.
Whalen issued a letter to Newsom on Sunday requesting that the stay-at-home directive be revised to say that people should remain in their own communities unless on essential business. Though it’s common sense to permit people to go outside for walks, “it does not mean that people have to travel miles to a beach or a park to get outside,” Whalen said.
“As a small coastal city in a heavily populated county, we are finding that many people from inland cities are coming to our beaches and parks when the weather is good,” Whalen said. “We lack the resources among our first responders to enforce social distancing with these crowds.”
The city currently has a population of just over 23,000 and boasts of a summer tourist population of over 6 million people, with the majority being day-trippers.
By comparison, other coastal cities such as Newport Beach and Huntington Beach have estimated populations of 86,000 and 201,000, respectively.
The closures come on the heels of reports across the state of beaches, parks and hiking trails being overcrowded on the first weekend since the state order was issued. Several other cities and civic agencies issued new restrictions on residents’ mobility.
On Sunday, Huntington Beach emphasized in a statement that Newsom’s stay-at-home order did not close public beaches or parks.
“The city believes it is important for Huntington Beach to keep our beaches, parks and other public areas open to provide the public with an opportunity to get fresh air and maintain one’s mental and physical health during this challenging time,” the city said. “However, this requires that every individual take personal responsibility to ensure compliance with social distancing measures when leaving your home.”
Still, the city said some people aren’t taking social distancing measures seriously enough. Police have stepped up patrols of the downtown area, beaches and parks, and signage has been added to remind people to stay at least six feet apart.
The city said Monday that “given the challenges associated with social distancing at certain amenities,” it had decided to close the pier along with playground equipment, picnic areas, all sports fields and courts and the dog park in Central Park.
“The closures identified are being coordinated to discourage public gatherings and to restrict access to certain community amenities at locations like our pier, where the physical infrastructure makes social distancing challenging,” according to a statement.
The city of Newport Beach said Monday that its beaches and parks remain open, though officials are monitoring their use and have already closed some of their amenities.
“Newport Beach experienced high levels of visitors to our beaches and boardwalks this past weekend and social distancing seemed to be ignored by many and followed by many others,” said Councilwoman Diane Dixon, whose Balboa Peninsula district contains about five unbroken miles of ocean shoreline.
The City Council “will be reviewing the situation with our city staff, police, lifeguards and first responders” when it meets Tuesday night, Dixon said.
Newport has closed some recreational amenities. On Monday, the city blocked access to public playgrounds, fitness equipment, the dog park and sports courts and fields. Vehicle traffic has been closed on Back Bay Drive, but other users can use the multipurpose scenic road.
The city plans to post more educational signs and police officers in high-profile areas to remind people of social distancing protocols.
Lifeguards also have taken up the task of reminding people to keep their distance, said chief lifeguard Mike Halphide.
“Our approach is similar to what neighboring cities are doing and, more importantly, it is in line with Gov. Newsom’s expectations,” the city said in a statement Monday. “He has not called for enforcement of the social distancing directive. Rather, he is asking Californians to self-regulate, use common sense and change our behaviors to conform with the stay-at-home order and social distancing directive.”
“The governor was right to note that ‘time outdoors can lead to a number of overall health and wellness benefits,’” Mayor Will O’Neill said. “Over the weekend, the vast majority of people at the beaches were following social distancing. But not everyone, and we are confronting that problem and will continue to do so while balancing our residents’ needs.”