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Despite coronavirus, many flock to Huntington and Newport beaches to beat the heat

On the first warm weekend of spring, the beach in Santa Monica was deserted — an apocalyptic emptiness unimaginable just a few months ago.

Down the coast in Huntington Beach, the novel coronavirus pandemic seemed far away. Colorful umbrellas and bikini-clad sunbathers dotted the sand.

As temperatures soared into the upper 80s in some parts of the region on Saturday, crossing county lines was like entering different worlds. Some beaches in Orange and Ventura counties were open even as the coronavirus crisis continued, with scores of new cases and fatalities daily.

Despite orders from state and local officials to stay home except for necessary errands and to exercise in one’s own neighborhood, people flocked to the beaches.

For many, the confluence of a heat wave and more than a month sheltering at home made a visit to the sand irresistible, prompting beach tableaux that looked more like a peak summer day in normal times than an April Saturday with a respiratory disease circulating among the population.

“After being cooped up, we understand people want to enjoy the outside,” said Ventura Police Cmdr. Tom Higgins, who described Saturday’s beach crowds as unseasonably large.

For the most part, beachgoers kept at least six feet apart from one another, officials said.

Heather Rangel, press information officer for the Newport Beach Police Department, said Saturday there had been no arrests or citations related to the stay-at-home orders.

“The beaches are crowded and look like a summer day in Newport Beach,” she said in an email.

Huntington Beach elected to keep its coastline open, though the pier, beach parking lots and some metered parking remained closed.

Angie Bennett, spokeswoman for the Huntington Beach Police Department, said Saturday the beaches appeared somewhat busy, but there were no significant incidents, and no one was cited for violating social distancing guidelines.

“What the patrol officers are seeing is that people are staying within their own groups and appropriate distances apart,” she said. “It’s been a nice, warm day, and it sounds like people are complying and doing what we are asking of them.”

Enthusiasm for beachgoing during the pandemic is far from universal. Some Orange County cities, including Laguna Beach and Seal Beach, have closed their beaches. The Wedge, a popular Newport Beach surfing destination, is closed.

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett noted that the region had been inundated with people from L.A. and San Diego counties and the Inland Empire.

“When you take a look at the folks that are coming down, they’re not only not adhering to safer-at-home policies in their own communities — they’re not even staying in their own counties,” she said earlier this week.

On Saturday, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore tweeted photos of unbroken expanses of sand, shot from a helicopter.

“My compliments to our community for staying away from the beaches in LA,” he wrote. “From Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice, to Dockweiler - All Clear!!”

Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, has said repeatedly that beaches should remain closed to prevent an overflow of visitors who might be carrying the coronavirus. She has asked L.A. residents not to crowd the coast in neighboring counties.

On Saturday, as L.A. County reported 48 new deaths and 607 additional cases of COVID-19, Ferrer renewed her call for people to stay home.

Of the new deaths, 37 victims were older than 65, and nine were ages 41 to 65. Thirty-eight had underlying health conditions.

Long Beach, which has its own health department, reported 26 new cases, bringing the county total to 896 deaths and more than 19,100 cases.

The number of deaths in L.A. County doubled in the last week, and more than 7,000 new cases were diagnosed. The total number of cases stands at more than 19,000.

Ferrer urged people craving fresh air to limit themselves to walking in their neighborhoods.

“Public pools and all beaches remain closed for your well-being and the health of those most vulnerable for serious illness and death from COVID-19,” Ferrer said in a statement. “Continue to do your part and save lives. This is how we get to the other side of the outbreak and begin our recovery.”

Orange County health officials on Saturday announced 124 new COVID-19 cases, the highest one-day increase since the start of the pandemic. Health officials also reported two additional deaths, bringing county totals to 1,969 cases and 38 deaths.

Ventura County has reported a total of 476 cases and 16 deaths.

Last week, the city of Ventura eased a hard closure on parks and beaches. Beaches, the promenade and parks are open to visitors, who must keep their distance from one another and remain on the move. Police can indefinitely close an area if visitors ignore the rules.

On the beach in Ventura on Saturday, families played in the sand, and surfers plied the waves. Dogs wandered freely as a solitary lifeguard stood outside her tower scanning the turquoise water with binoculars. Few people wore masks, but most observed social distancing rules.

Ventura Police Sgt. Mike Anselmo could not bring himself to enforce the rules against lingering on the beach. Umbrellas, however, had to come down; perhaps the lack of shade would encourage people to move on.

“Technically, you’re not supposed to sit down. But they’re with kids,” Anselmo said. “I’m not going to ask some 50-year-old parents to run around with kids all day.”

Temperatures are expected to cool slightly but to stay on the warm side next week.

One sunbather from the San Fernando Valley, who declined to give her name, said she had driven north to do what Southern Californians often do when the mercury rises.

“It’s hot,” the Canoga Park resident said. “It’s the go-to thing to do if you live in California.”

Kevin Baxter, Alex Wigglesworth and Cindy Chang are staff writers with the Los Angeles Times.

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