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Gov. Gavin Newsom targets Orange County for beach closures

Beachgoers enjoy a warm day north of the Newport Beach Pier on Thursday as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a "hard close" of state and local beaches in Orange County.
Beachgoers enjoy a warm day north of the Newport Beach Pier on Thursday as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a “hard close” of state and local beaches in Orange County.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has targeted Orange County beaches for a “hard close” after last weekend’s bump in visitation, which he said threatened continuing efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Huntington Beach reacted within hours with a vow to take legal action. Newport Beach is considering it.

The closure starts Friday but it’s unclear when it will end. It will include all state and locally controlled beaches countywide. Although some coastal counties, such as Los Angeles County, were already under local beach closure orders, no other county is affected by the governor’s latest directive.

Newsom didn’t call out Newport Beach or Huntington Beach by name when he made his announcement Thursday. But tens of thousands of people were well-documented in those cities Friday and Saturday, seeking out the central Orange County shores for relief from both a heat wave and more than a month of sweeping stay-at-home orders statewide.

The images were “disturbing” and sounded “alarm bells,” Newsom said.

“People that are congregating there that weren’t practicing physical distancing ... may go back to their community outside of Orange County and may not even know that they contracted the disease, and now they’ve put other people at risk,” he said.

The city of Newport Beach said it intends to honor the governor’s directive. But council leaders aren’t happy about it.

“Without speaking to a single local official in Newport Beach, Gov. Newsom has put politics over data, and substituted his will for our judgment from 428 miles away in Sacramento,” Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill said.

A crowd of people gather to cross the street on their way to the beach at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Goldenwest Street in Huntington Beach on Thursday.
A crowd of people gather to cross the street on their way to the beach at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Goldenwest Street in Huntington Beach on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Both cities had already agreed to some crowd control measures like boardwalk and pier closures and parking restrictions.

“The city has put careful thought and invested considerable effort and expense in order to discourage overcrowding and facilitate effective social distancing at our beaches,” Huntington Mayor Lyn Semeta said in a written statement. “In fact, we’ve taken Gov. Newsom’s words to heart in Huntington Beach, to provide public access — in a safe way — so that our residents can experience physical and mental health benefits from accessing the Pacific Ocean.”

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

In an emergency meeting Thursday night, the Huntington Beach City Council voted 5-2, with Councilwoman Barbara Delglieze and Councilwoman Kim Carr dissenting, to direct the city attorney’s office to take legal action against the state in light of the order.

“When you have lawyers as part of the conversation, the conversation stops and my goal is to open up the beaches as quickly as possible,” Carr said in an interview.

“To me this is a public safety issue. This is becoming a political issue. And I think that we all have the objective of we want our beaches open ... I don’t believe suing the state is the most efficient and quickest way to resolve the issue.”

A family arrives for a day at Huntington City Beach in Huntington Beach on Thursday, the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all state and local beaches in Orange County closed.
A family arrives for a day at Huntington City Beach in Huntington Beach on Thursday, the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all state and local beaches in Orange County closed.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

In Newport Beach, which also held an emergency council meeting Thursday night, Councilman Kevin Muldoon called for another meeting in the near future to discuss joining Huntington and “seek all legal means available to fight the arbitrary and unconstitutional exercise of power by the governor that would take away control of our local beaches.”

If a majority of the council contacts the Newport city attorney’s office in support of the discussion, they could reconvene as soon as Friday.

And in Laguna Beach, the governor’s order cut off a soft beach reopening before it even started.

The Laguna Beach City Council, which closed its beaches March 23, decided Tuesday to open for active use only on weekday mornings starting May 4. City Manager John Pietig, who tested positive for the virus several weeks ago and has since recovered, said Laguna plans to comply with Newsom’s order but will send the council-approved plan to his office in hopes of an OK.

“We’ve been out in front of this for a long time here and I think our step the other night to do a limited re-opening, 6 to 10 in the morning, was really an appropriate step and one that was not going to create large crowds and put people at risk,” Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen told KX FM radio. “We’re going to be speaking with the governor’s office, saying, ‘Hey, we think we had a limited, focused plan to reopen our beaches in a thoughtful way that you should support’ and hopefully, we will get their support to let us implement that plan, but we’ll have to see.”

Beachgoer takes a nap on the grass at Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach on Thursday.
Beachgoer takes a nap on the grass at Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

‘Abuse of power’

Newsom’s order also cuts off a commitment the Newport Beach City Council made Tuesday — this one to keep its never-closed beaches open, reached after four hours of discussion and hundreds of resident comments.

The city had been stirred to action by complaints of throngs of visitors ignoring physical distancing guidelines, jamming residential streets to park their cars and engaging in boorish behavior last weekend. Many exasperated neighbors included a widely circulated photo first published in the Orange County Register that appeared to show people packed in on the sand. Others offered photos of their own.

After four hours of discussion, the council — though split 5-2 — backed away from potential road or beach closures over the next three weekends. They instead held to existing crowd management measures with more police and lifeguard presence.

Of the emails the council received before Tuesday’s meeting, 391 were pro-closure and 664 were pro-access. Some were lengthy, others succinct. Frustration and anxiety were palpable. A few were profane. Here are a few.

Councilwoman Diane Dixon bristled that Newsom appeared to be angered by the “misleading” Register photo, which was taken with a telephoto lens, “and reacted hastily, punishing Orange County citizens without consulting local officials on the ground.”

Dixon, who is running for state Assembly, excoriated Newsom’s order as “a clear abuse of his power.”

“It is painfully clear that the governor is making decisions based on politics and personal pique instead of fact,” she said. “The state’s role should now be coordinating the process rather than dictating it.”

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel had a similar outlook.

She maintained law enforcement officers monitoring county beaches last weekend had very little policing to do, as most beachgoers complied with state and local protocols.

“We should be rewarding our communities for practicing social distancing, not punishing them by closing down only Orange County beaches,” she said during a Thursday news conference.

Steel said residents have worked hard to flatten the curve, as the rate of hospitalizations for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, remain stable and testing capacity continues to increase. She called the closure arbitrary, capricious and an “act of retribution” against Orange County.

“I trust our Orange County residents to make good choices — wearing face masks, staying six feet apart and staying home when they don’t feel well,” she said. “Gov. Newsom clearly doesn’t share that faith, and I will be looking into the right response to the governor’s overreach and abuse of power.”

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported one new death due to the respiratory disease. It’s the fourth day in the last six with at least 100 new cases reported.

Supervisor Don Wagner said healthcare professionals say that beach attendance is not only safe but benefits physical and mental health as it offers residents the means to exercise and access fresh air and sunlight.

“Let’s not shut down this one avenue of opportunity to exercise, an opportunity to maybe take a mental health break from all of the shut-in tensions that we’ve all been feeling for the last six weeks,” he said. “Listen to the locals and to the healthcare professionals and to realize that what we are doing here in Orange County is, in fact, working.”

Frank Aronoff, who has served as statistician and record-keeper for athletics at Laguna Beach High School for the past 25 years, felt particularly bad for the young and the healthy who are losing an outlet with the impending closure of the local beaches.

He said that the existing closure of the beach parking lots led to people congregating in the same neighborhoods.

“If all the parking lots had been open, if everything had been open, then the crowds would have been dispersed, and there wouldn’t have been clusters,” Aronoff said.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom orders all state and local beaches in Orange County closed.

Online community forums are split about keeping Huntington’s beaches open.

Huntington resident Melissa Castle, a former Western Medical Center nurse, created a Change.org petition asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to keep California beaches open.

“If people are not comfortable with being at the beach, it is still absolutely OK to continue to stay home and quarantine yourself. That is absolutely our right to choose,” she wrote on the petition page, which had garnered 4,279 signatures as of Thursday evening. “Just please don’t take away our freedom to choose if we want to enjoy our public beaches or not.”

Some residents from the Huntington Beach Community Facebook forum agreed with the governor’s decision, though.

“How about we worry about safely opening businesses instead of beaches?! Come on, people! You do not need the beach, go for a walk in your neighborhood,” commented Laura Delgado on Facebook in response to the petition.

Cities offer aerial photos

Newport lifeguards estimated 40,000 people came to the beach on Friday and again on Saturday — on the high end of average for a balmy April weekend, but nowhere close to the typical Fourth of July crush.

Newport’s public safety chiefs said Thursday that “the overwhelming majority of Newport Beach residents and visitors were families or practicing social distancing.”

“What we observed from land and by air was the vast majority of beachgoers practicing social distancing,” said Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles. “There were, in places, some clusters of people that were not social distancing. Throughout the day, our police officers and lifeguards patrolled the entire beach area to educate and remind those individuals of the necessity of physical distancing.”

They acknowledged that some photos showed people not leaving adequate buffers but said their own photos, taken from a police helicopter on Saturday afternoon, showed loosely spaced sunseekers over Newport’s seven miles of oceanfront.

Huntington police posted a similar account and accompanying aerial photos Sunday on social media.

The city supplied Newsom’s office with these photos to demonstrate that mass gatherings had not been an issue on Huntington’s shores, Semeta said.

“We wanted to make sure the governor had all the correct information in hand,” Semeta said in an interview.

Newsom, however, said his decision was guided by common sense.

“Same reason we are not reopening arenas [with] tens of thousands of people, we don’t want to have beaches with tens of thousands of people mixing,” he said. “That doesn’t keep people healthy.”

Kristina Hehl, left, of Huntington Beach, and Christine August from Costa Rica make their way to the waves at Huntington City Beach in Huntington Beach on Thursday.
Kristina Hehl, left, of Huntington Beach, and Christine August from Costa Rica make their way to the waves at Huntington City Beach in Huntington Beach on Thursday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Setting up

Groups of people — sitting at least six feet apart — dotted the beach near Newport Pier shortly after the governor’s admonishing order. Some exchanged hugs while others stood at a safe distance; almost no one wore a mask. Cars searching for parking circled the surrounding neighborhoods like seagulls beneath a thinly hazy sky.

And like clockwork, duly masked city workers unloaded trucks of orange cones and “road closed” signs to the beaches’ edge on 28th Street while a small plane towing a banner reading “Recall Gruesome Newsom” puttered over the beach.

“This doesn’t take effect until tomorrow, right?” asked one woman. “It’s a super, super bummer. All right, I guess this is another thing — history in the making. ... all of our freedom taken away.”

“We’re just setting it up,” a worker responded.

Kites floated on the easy breeze. Surfers strode to catch some waves. Hula hoopers practiced their rhythm. Aside from the neon orange stretched across beach openings, it was just another day at the beach.

Daily Pilot staff writers Andrew Turner and Vera Castaneda contributed to this report.

Newport Beach public works employees set up fencing near the 28th Street beach in Newport Beach on Thursday.
Newport Beach public works employees set up fencing near the 28th Street beach in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Photo by Faith E. Pinho)

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