‘No time for tourism’: Newport Beach to close peninsula boardwalk this weekend as a coronavirus restriction

Signs remind visitors near the Newport Pier to keep their distance to help prevent spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The Newport Pier and the Balboa Pier two miles down the shore were closed Wednesday in an effort to keep people from coming in close contact with one another.
(Hillary Davis)

Newport Beach will block off the oceanfront boardwalk on the Balboa Peninsula on Friday afternoon and keep it closed to the public until Monday morning as the city hardens local coronavirus-related restrictions in the wake of a surge of beach visitors last weekend.

Some limits also will take effect on Balboa Island.

The moves come after the city closed its two ocean piers and all beach parking lots on Wednesday until further notice to try to discourage crowds of visitors eager for some relief from being cooped up amid directives to stay at home.

This weekend’s boardwalk closure, announced Thursday evening, won’t include paved paths that cross the boardwalk onto the sand, since the beaches themselves will remain open.

City Councilwoman Diane Dixon asked at a council meeting Tuesday night how officials could get residents and visitors to stay home in light of a March 19 order by Gov. Gavin Newsom calling for Californians to go out only for essential needs. The sweeping directive capped days of similar locally and federally driven shutdowns aimed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“It’s a gubernatorial order and people are still on our beaches and on our boardwalks, in our parking lots and in our neighborhood streets looking for places to park,” Dixon said.

“The city cannot be welcoming to everybody who wants to violate the governor’s order,” she said.

Message boards will be posted around town this weekend as reminders that Newport has closed its beach parking lots.

Mayor Will O’Neill suggested some creativity for the signs, with phrases like “No time for tourism: beach parking closed.”

“It really is not the time for tourism by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

The Newport Pier and the surrounding beach were nearly empty Tuesday, the day before Newport Beach closed both its ocean piers and all beach parking lots to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
(Hillary Davis)

For Newport Beach, it’s a real contradiction: trying to keep people away from the leisure opportunities that it builds its identity and coffers on.

Tourism is a pillar of Newport’s economy. According to local tourism bureau Newport Beach & Co., leisure travel generates $43 million a year in city tax revenue as 7.3 million people from around the globe are drawn annually to the city’s harbor and miles of unbroken shorelines set against a backdrop of high-end shopping, dining and lodging.

Most of the shopping, dining and lodging has been crippled under the stay-at-home directive, but the beaches and fresh air remain and have become all the more appealing to people cloistered in their homes, with schools and many businesses closed.

The city has taken several other actions in recent days to prevent people from coming in close contact with one another and breaching the state’s 6-foot social distancing recommendation. It has closed public libraries, community centers, playgrounds, fitness equipment, the dog park, sports courts and fields and vehicle access to Back Bay Drive, a scenic loop popular among motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Parks otherwise remain open.

Crowds like on this past Fourth of July in Newport Beach are the sort of thing the city wants to avoid on its beaches and boardwalks as it joins efforts statewide to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
(File Photo | Los Angeles Times)

City Manager Grace Leung called last weekend’s beach activity “troubling” and said Newport doesn’t want to see it repeat this weekend. The city also wants to work with Orange County and neighboring cities such as Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach, which have enacted similar restrictions. Laguna has gone the furthest, closing its beaches and adjacent parks. Huntington Beach closed its pier.

Dixon said she wants to keep Newport’s beaches open and that she saw people spread out appropriately on the sand last weekend. But the boardwalks facing the ocean and ringing Balboa Island presented bottlenecks that pushed people well short of the social distancing standard.

“It was like a normal day,” she said. “The boardwalk was bumper-to-bumper people.”

Mayor Pro Tem Brad Avery said closing more shoreline amenities seems like “heresy,” but he supports it.

“You can feel the breath of the joggers” on the Balboa Island boardwalk, which is tighter than the oceanfront promenade, he said.

Dixon also was concerned that some people will be undeterred by the lack of parking in the lots and look for spaces on residential streets.

Councilwoman Joy Brenner had similar concerns about Corona del Mar. She suggested residents block curbside parking with their own cars to keep visitors out.

Public Works Director Dave Webb said he expects visitors to return this weekend and added that he can deploy mobile, changeable message boards stating there is no beach parking.

But he said he’s unsure how far the city can go. His department doesn’t have the authority to close highways and physically block entry to the city, he said.

“Can we say on those messagings, ‘Please go home to your community?’” Dixon asked. “‘Follow the governor’s orders, stay home’? I’m serious — stay home.”

Leung said “they’ll definitely have the message that there’s no parking.”

She said the city will monitor the effectiveness of the messages this weekend and respond to illegal parking as it happens. She said the city needs to manage its resources wisely.

Councilman Jeff Herdman, who lives on Balboa Island, said streets there were full last weekend and that residents want the island closed this weekend to people who don’t live there.

“When you take into consideration that none of our businesses are open, there’s really no reason for someone to come onto the island other than to get home,” Herdman said.

The city will tighten access some. On Friday and until further notice, Balboa Island’s wraparound boardwalk will become one-way to try to ensure 6-foot buffers, and the southbound Jamboree Road through lane at Bayside Drive will be closed to help reduce the island’s traffic congestion.

Local governments have the authority to close their shorelines but usually need to first notify the California Coastal Commission, the state agency that regulates and protects public access to the coast. State law includes an emergency provision to waive certain requirements in cases of emergency, with a three-day grace period to seek permission retroactively.

Newport will do that with its closures, O’Neill said.

Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said in a memo Tuesday that he is prepared to grant minimal emergency restrictions while the stay-at-home order is in effect.

A seabird at the Newport Pier finds little human company on the nearby sand Tuesday.
(Hillary Davis)

“At the same time, and because recreational beach and coastal access also play important roles in maintaining mental and emotional health, especially during times of stress, public agencies and local governments should strongly consider maintaining access to such public spaces where recreational users are practicing safe social distancing and there is no obvious increased risk to public health, or if other measures are deemed sufficient in a given area,” Ainsworth said. “We recognize there is an inequity in coastal access and we strongly encourage local governments to consider approaches that balance public health order requirements and equitable public access. The coast belongs to all.”

O’Neill said the city already has significant restrictions and that “given how high a bar some of that language is ... we probably need to see how some of that goes before we can apply for more restrictions.”

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7:58 PM, Mar. 26, 2020: This article was originally published at 11:35 a.m. and has been updated with new information.