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Too crowded or just fine? Perceptions of weekend beach visitors vary in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach

After being on lockdown for over a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, people begin to congregate at Huntington Beach on Sunday.
After being on lockdown for over a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, people begin to congregate at Huntington Beach on Sunday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

If it were business as usual, Huntington Beach High School junior Evan Bain would be working out with his school wrestling team.

But students were sent home in mid-March as part of sweeping stay-at-home measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, so he had to take a different approach to fitness.

Bain, who also enjoys surfing, started going to the beach about a mile from his home three or four times per week. Although he reports the waves have not cooperated, he has been doing solo workouts on the sand, predominantly sprints.

He was out for his usual workout Saturday when he saw the crowds of people itching to get out of the house as temperatures climbed and statewide stay-at-home orders stretched past a month.

“You could barely see the sand towards the water, there were so many people,” Bain said. “Everyone’s been inside, right? They’re all so cooped up, and the weather hit the 90s over the weekend. Everyone, I guess, just put quarantine on pause, got on their swimsuits and ran to the beach.

“They closed the parking here at Huntington, so I’m assuming a lot of the people are local, but if they weren’t, they’d have to walk further. Maybe to some of those people, it’s worth it to walk half a mile just to get parking because they closed all of the parking garages, the parking lots, even the parking on the street.”

California is a shifting patchwork of locally controlled beach closures — notably, Los Angeles County beaches are closed but several in Orange County have stayed open. That includes Newport Beach — which closed its large beach parking lots, piers, boardwalks and other coastal amenities starting in March but never closed its sand except for a stretch at the Wedge surfing spot — and Huntington Beach, which also closed its pier and parking but not its municipal beaches.

Now, local officials may revisit that access after seeing how many people answered the call of summery temperatures this weekend.

“There are lots of discussions right now at City Hall,” Huntington Beach Councilwoman Kim Carr said Monday afternoon, saying the city is looking to get on the same page as the county and state.

As temperatures soared into the upper 80s in some parts of the region on Saturday, crossing county lines was like entering different worlds.

“We will continue to evaluate the situation moving forward,” Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta in a written statement, indicating that as long as the beaches surrounding Huntington City Beach remain open, the city will follow suit.

“Changes in accessibility at any of those beaches could impact the situation.”

An aerial view of beachgoers on Saturday in Newport Beach.
An aerial view of beachgoers on Saturday in Newport Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Newport Beach City Council agreed Tuesday to keep the beaches open, rejecting the possibilities of closing the sand over the next three weekends, or, alternatively, closing roads leading to popular spots on the Balboa Peninsula and in Corona del Mar to control large gatherings during the continuing pandemic.

Newport Beach will consider targeted beach closures in response to the turnout during this weekend’s heat wave.

Leading up to that, not everyone was happy about the beach remaining open.

“They all have cabin fever and they want to get out [to the beach],” Balboa Peninsula resident Fred Levine said of the visitors. “Now’s just not the right time. This weekend, with the amount of people that were down here … it was pretty tough on the police. They did a great job, and the lifeguards did a great job, but there’s only so much you can do when 15 people show up. You think, ‘Please social distance, please social distance,’ but when it’s 85 degrees and there’s a lot of crowds, it just didn’t happen.”

The grass, boardwalk and sand remain empty as only a lifeguard occupied Main Beach on Sunday as Laguna Beach city beaches remained closed due the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grass, boardwalk and sand remain empty as only a lifeguard occupied Main Beach on Sunday as Laguna Beach city beaches remained closed due the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

On the flip side, Laguna Beach residents are ready to reopen.

The Laguna Beach City Council, which shut down its beaches, adjacent parks and trailheads on March 23, will tell city staff Tuesday if any adjustments should be made to the closures.

This does not affect county beaches such as Aliso Beach, which remains open though its parking lots were closed by the county.

Marine Safety Capt. Kai Bond said that there were still people attempting to go to the beach this weekend, the majority were aware that city beaches were closed and were passing them and heading to county beaches.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said he’s received emails from residents regarding the closure of Laguna’s beaches since March, but the warm weather led to a surge in his inbox. Residents wrote Dicterow upset that people are parking in their neighborhoods in order to walk to Aliso Beach.

“It’s very unfortunate that the supervisors chose not to close” Aliso Beach and other county-owned beaches,” he said. “It’s making enforcement for us that much harder.”

He said he’s received support from constituents to keep beaches closed, but they are also concerned about the way the city enforces closures.

“Right now, [emails are] running about 10 to one saying that even though we’ve closed the beaches, we’re not monitoring it enough,” he said.

“All you have to do is look at the statistics for New York City and compare them to Orange County,” Dicterow added. “You can see that when you get involved early and enforce it well the numbers are much lower. We want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, some people are having trouble sucking it up for a few weeks and don’t seem to be considerate of other people’s health.”

Beachgoers watch a skim boarder ride a wave at Aliso Beach Park in Laguna Beach on Friday.
Beachgoers watch a skim boarder ride a wave at Aliso Beach Park in Laguna Beach on Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Brent Ranek, a retired Newport Beach lifeguard captain, lives in the Newport Shores neighborhood. That was one of the main Newport communities affected by the lack of beach parking over the weekend.

“A lot of people are upset, because you can’t park by your house and you can’t leave your house because of all the tourist parking,” Ranek said. “They need to reopen the parking lots. People come to the beach no matter what; you’re never going to stop it.”

The rise in beach traffic was also noticed by nearby restaurants. Chronic Tacos, which has locations in the beach cities, reported “a definite spike in sales” over the weekend — especially at the Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Corona del Mar stores, where stickers on the floor keep customers six feet apart while standing in line.

“It’s kind of in line with a good summer day,” said Dave Mohammed, the chain’s director of marketing.

Jim Kalatschan of TK Burgers, which has locations in Huntington, Newport and Costa Mesa, said he was still getting numbers from the weekend but he anticipated an uptick in sales.

“It’s just hard to tell because we’re zero-contact,” he added. “No one can come inside. People are in quarantine, so it feels busy, but when you look at the sales, they’re not the same as they would be on a hot summer day, unfortunately.

“Our DoorDash is through the moon, for sure. It’s crazy.”

More than 200 new COVID-19 cases were reported over the weekend by the OC Health Care Agency, bringing the Monday total to 2,126.

Newport Beach restaurant owner Mario Marovic said most of his popular local restaurants are closed, although Dory Deli, near Newport Pier, is offering take-out.

“Objectively speaking, the beaches probably should stay open,” said Marovic, adding that he went to Blackies on Saturday with his wife and two daughters. “Beaches are healthy for the mind and the body. Quite frankly, my daughters were getting a little stir-crazy sitting in the house.

“I think it got a little bit overhyped that [the beaches] were so crowded. I feel that a lot of the residents are unhappy that there’s a lot of parking going on in their neighborhoods, and I don’t blame them. I would be unhappy too. Most of the public beach parking is closed … so they’re going to overflow into the neighborhoods.”

Beachgoers enjoy a warm, sunny Saturday in Newport Beach amid state-mandated stay-at-home orders.
Beachgoers enjoy a warm, sunny Saturday in Newport Beach amid state-mandated stay-at-home orders.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

If Newport Beach was to close its beaches and would-be visitors were diverted to Huntington Beach, Huntington speculates that it would be overwhelmed by the crowd.

Over the weekend, the north side of the Huntington Beach pier saw increased lifeguard staffing on the beach — more than a typical weekend in April, said city spokesman Eric McCoy.

“We realize that we are at our max capacity level, givens social distancing and parking closures,” he said Monday.

“Yes, the beach was crowded, but for the most part, people were keeping a safe distance,” McCoy said, acknowledging some bottlenecking at crosswalks, stairways and around the pier.

Huntington Beach Fire Department took to social media to “give a perspective of what’s really going on at the beach,” it said late Sunday on Facebook.

The department said that police and marine safety personnel were patrolling the beach over the weekend and gave hourly “social distancing reminders” via loudspeaker. Most beachgoers were adhering to the precautionary distancing measures, and those that weren’t were given instruction, the department said. Public works employees were also on hand to mitigate crowds with barriers and signage.

Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill said he looked at aerial pictures posted on the Huntington Beach Police Department’s Facebook page, which said visitors were complying with distancing guidelines. He said he asked Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis, who was in the police helicopter on Saturday, and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles whether they agreed with those statements.

They both said that they agreed that the statement applied to Newport Beach as well, O’Neill said.

“The aerial photographs look very different from the side-angle lens photographs,” he said.

An aerial view of beachgoers enjoying a warm, sunny Saturday in Newport Beach.
An aerial view of beachgoers enjoying a warm, sunny Saturday in Newport Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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