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Newport supports Huntington and fellow plaintiffs in beach closure fight

It was almost empty on the beach next to the closed Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on Saturday.
It was almost empty on the beach next to the closed Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on Saturday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Newport Beach will file a court brief in support of neighboring Huntington Beach’s lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom over his targeted Orange County beach closures.

The City Council voted to support the suit, which also includes the city of Dana Point and several companies in the Huntington and Newport hospitality industries, during an emergency meeting Saturday.

“To our residents: these are your beaches and we’re going to be working very hard to get you back on them,” Mayor Will O’Neill said.

Newsom ordered all beaches closed indefinitely in Orange County starting Friday after seeing photos and accounts of high turnout, especially in Newport and Huntington, during last weekend’s heat wave. 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.

His office did not seek Newport’s perspective first, the city said.

On Tuesday, only two days prior to Newsom’s directive, the Newport council agreed after extensive debate not to clamp down further with potential road or beach closures over the next three weekends to control crowds. The city instead held to existing crowd management measures with more police and lifeguard presence.

Newport had already agreed to some crowd control measures in recent weeks like boardwalk and pier closures and parking restrictions.

Councilman Kevin Muldoon, who led council efforts to back the suit, said beach access gives hope to the hopeless during stressful, uncertain times weeks into the stay-at-home orders and resulting economic stoppage to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

“Today we are fighting for our right to free movement and to peaceably assemble,” he said Saturday.

Muldoon said Californians consented to mitigate the pandemic “but we do not consent to the use of a government mandate to keep us in our homes and from enjoying our God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“So many of us look out into our ocean’s horizon and think about our lives, future and the heavens,” he said. “That is something we should continue to do without government infringement.”

The 26-page filing includes declarations from Newport’s city manager, police chief, fire chief and an official from the Recreation & Senior Services department.

“A virus, no matter how serious, cannot be an excuse to disregard the operation of law and trample the rights of citizens of the County of Orange and the rights of the residents of the city of Newport Beach,” the brief reads.

The vote to file the brief was split 5-2, with Councilman Jeff Herdman and Councilwoman Joy Brenner dissenting. Both had also voted against keeping the beaches open on Tuesday during a council meeting held in response to the weekend crowds.

Brenner said elected officials’ first responsibility is to the health and safety of residents. She said all Orange County leaders should support the governor’s orders to stay close to home and practice social distancing, and cooperate with the state to get lives back to normal as soon as possible.

“Whether we agree or disagree with policy decisions made at a higher level, it’s our responsibility to follow those directions and encourage our citizens to do so,” said Brenner, whose district includes the popular, wide-open Corona del Mar State Beach. “Certainly within that code of conduct is our personal freedom as individuals to help citizens understand how to peaceably disagree, without endangering the safety of themselves or other citizens or encouraging damage to property.”

Councilwoman Diane Dixon said Newport’s public safety departments are used to protecting throngs of beachgoers in even bigger crowds than seen last weekend, such as on the Fourth of July.

Dixon, who represents the Balboa Peninsula and its miles of ocean and harbor shoreline, said she doesn’t think Newsom fully appreciates how a hard beach closure impacts the local economy, especially small businesses.

“I don’t think he really understands the desperate financial, economic, emotional, mental situation of businesses all over the country but especially with his forced closure of our beaches [and] the ramifications it has on individual lives,” she said.

Pasea Hotel in Huntington Beach, Newport’s Balboa Bay Resort and Lido House hotel, and the Lounge Group, which has several restaurants in Newport Beach, are co-plaintiffs in the suit.

Huntington’s City Council moved quickly to file the suit, agreeing to it within hours of Newsom’s Thursday announcement of the closures. Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates said the directive is “vague and squishy” and a “completely arbitrary and capricious,” unconstitutional move that violates the city’s rights to self-govern.

An Orange County Superior Court judge dealt the city a setback Friday when he rejected a temporary injunction blocking the closures, tilting toward protecting public safety.

But the fight is not over. The case is back in court for a full briefing May 11 to again consider an injunction.

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