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Orange County beach cities make plans for Fourth of July amid pandemic

Children jump into the waves at Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
Children jump into the waves at Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach City Council members voted to close city beaches Tuesday night, as Huntington Beach officials opted to keep them open, and Newport Beach officials waited to decide if they will follow Los Angeles County’s lead in shutting down for the Fourth of July weekend because of a spike in coronavirus cases.

A day after Los Angeles County announced it would be closing its beaches for the upcoming weekend because of spiking coronavirus spread, officials in Huntington Beach said the city would be “deploying an enhanced public safety presence at the beaches, while also proactively enforcing regulations against illegal fireworks during the holiday weekend.”

Additionally, the city will engage in “public outreach efforts to promote public health and safety to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” according to a press release from Huntington Beach released Tuesday night.

Still, Huntington resident Amanda Olson said she would likely be staying home for the holiday.

She said she has been more cautious since filming a Black Lives Matter protest downtown on June 20, though she has yet to be tested for the coronavirus. She is also concerned because her 8-year old daughter, Isabella, has asthma.

“Now I’m getting a lot more nervous,” Olson said. “The [coronavirus] rates in Orange County and in Huntington are going up. I kind of got a little lax with the social distancing, but my plan is that I’m avoiding downtown indefinitely. As for the beaches, I probably will avoid them this weekend. I’m sure it’s going to be crowded. In general, my plan is to lay low this weekend. I’m just resetting back to a couple of months ago, how strict I was being.”

Only a day after California recorded its highest single-day count of coronavirus cases — more than 8,000 infections — the state’s death toll surpassed 6,000.

Neighboring Newport Beach has given no indication that it will follow Los Angeles County’s lead, although it won’t have professional fireworks shows or street parades. Only the American Legion Old Glory boat parade is set for Saturday in Newport Harbor.

Hundreds of beachgoers play in the shore break at Corona del Mar State Beach on Tuesday.
Hundreds of beachgoers play in the shore break at Corona del Mar State Beach on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

But Newport lifeguards are prepared for an influx beyond even the typical Fourth of July crush as displaced L.A. beachgoers look for the next-closest sand and surf.

Brian O’Rourke, a Newport lifeguard battalion chief, said the ocean beaches will be staffed similarly to last year, with about 60 people on duty between 35 towers, 10 vehicles, three rescue boats and the headquarters on Newport Pier, with the flexibility to call in reinforcements if the turnout demands it.

With a forecast heat wave, the holiday and expected swells of 5 to 7 feet, this weekend will be “legendary,” O’Rourke said. And by that he means busy.

Guards will start their patrols earlier and hold down their towers later, until about 8 p.m., plus add a dispatcher and bring more personnel into the headquarters.

“We’re prepared to go,” O’Rourke said.

Brett Shafer, left, from Sacramento, throws a ball for his chocolate Labrador, Bernadette, center.
Brett Shafer, left, from Sacramento, throws a ball for his chocolate Labrador, Bernadette, center, and her dog friends at Huntington Dog Beach in Huntington Beach on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Turnout on the Huntington and Newport shores made news earlier in the pandemic, when a heatwave and waning patience beckoned Californians weary from more than a month of stay-at-home orders. Although local public safety officials said the crowds were more safely distancing than some photos may have let on — and in Newport, about as heavy as any warm spring weekend — Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Orange County beaches closed on April 30.

They were reopened for “active use” about a week later, and officially reopened fully earlier this month.

In between, local leaders and residents took umbrage, firing off a spurt of lawsuits claiming the closure was unconstitutional. Huntington Beach sued the state with Newport’s support, and Newport City Councilman Kevin Muldoon filed a federal lawsuit against the state. Neither suit was successful.

In addition to heavy lifeguard presence, Newport Beach said it will maintain a strong police presence on the beaches, managing traffic flow in West Newport and Corona del Mar and enforcing parking rules, the city’s fireworks ban and the 10 p.m. beach curfew. The “safety enhancement zone” in West Newport will return with fines for violations such as loud music, unruly parties and drinking in public as much as triple the usual amount.

“While we are expecting to see a lot of visitors to our beaches over the Fourth of July weekend, our community can be confident that our police officers are prepared to keep our community safe and maintain an environment where everyone can enjoy the holiday,” said City Councilwoman Diane Dixon, who represents Balboa Peninsula, one of the city’s most impacted visitor spots.

Certain local streets will be closed from 10:30 a.m. Friday to about 3 a.m. Sunday to maintain traffic flow:

  • Southbound Orange Street at West Coast Highway
  • Via Oporto from Via Lido to 32nd Street
  • Via Malaga from Via Oporto to Via Lido

“Each member of the Newport Beach community and even larger area is first and foremost personally responsible for their own health and well-being,” said City Councilman Jeff Herdman, whose Balboa Island district is also a visitor magnet. “As such, you should always use good judgment in any and every activity you undertake. This is a personal responsibility which is assumed of everyone in our community, and of those who visit our community, as well.”

Beachgoers walk across the sand looking for a spot to post their chairs on a warm afternoon in Laguna Beach on Tuesday.
Beachgoers walk across the sand looking for a spot to post their chairs on a warm afternoon at Main Beach in Laguna Beach on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Laguna Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to close city beaches July 4. The Laguna Beach City Council also directed City Manager John Pietig and city staff to close the beaches on July 3 and July 5 should other circumstances present themselves between Tuesday and the weekend. Council members made the decisions unanimously Tuesday night.

Unlike its northerly neighbors, Laguna Beach initially closed its beaches in an effort to curb coronavirus cases in March. It reopened in May after marine safety and police officers reported good behavior and compliance from beachgoers.

Casey Parlette, a Laguna Beach resident, said it was complicated to say “yes” or “no” on whether beaches should remain open or closed in the city ahead of the Fourth of July weekend.

Unlike the first surge of coronavirus cases in California, a second wave of cases is spread across the state, leaving medical providers frustrated and on edge.

“I hear both sides of the argument. I understand why [the city] might want to be closed, but it’s a tough thing when everything is closed. When the beaches, trailheads, parks were closed, the only thing that was open was maybe your backyard, if you have one, and the middle of the street and that was pretty much it,” Parlette said. “We were trying to figure out creative ways to get my 3-year-old son out and doing things, but I think that there’s a certain amount of implicit responsibility that individuals need to take to not be part of the problem.”

“I think if people do that then I think it’s a lot easier for things to remain open. A lot of people live down here in [Southern California]. Everybody wants to go somewhere. It’s a tough one,” Parlette said.

James Pribram, on the other hand, said that he felt that the city needed to close its beaches, describing south Laguna Beach as “the wild, wild west” compared to what he said he saw when city beaches first reopened.

“My concern is that ... the 2½ months we quarantined went out the window and my worry is that we’re going to have to do it again,” Pribram said. “If we have to close our beaches over the Fourth of July or another two weeks or a month, so be it. That’s better than being closed down the rest of the year. I think that’s where we’re going.”

A group of beachgoers play tug of war with a piece of kelp at Main Beach in Laguna Beach on Tuesday.
A group of beachgoers play tug of war with a piece of kelp at Main Beach in Laguna Beach on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Newsom added Orange County to his 19-county watch list Monday, putting the area on notice that its reopening could be reversed as the county health department posted concerning metrics of accelerated COVID-19 spread. On Tuesday, Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau said that he is considering closing bars, as Los Angeles has.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, several Southern and Western states are seeing surging new case numbers, prompting some to put reopening plans on hold.

Orange County reported a record 779 new cases of the coronavirus and 10 new related deaths from COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the total case count to 13,843 known infections, 233,281 tests and 340 deaths over the last four months. Hospitals reported 510 inpatients, with 176 in intensive care.

Testing positivity was at 9.9% and the change in the three-day average of hospitalized patients was up 9.7%. The state has thresholds of 8% testing positivity and 10% for hospitalization increases before stepping in to monitor the situation.

Here are the latest cumulative case counts and deaths for select cities:

  • Santa Ana: 2,850 cases; 89 deaths
  • Anaheim: 2,591 cases; 84 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 637 cases; 38 deaths
  • Irvine: 387 cases; 5 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 342 cases; 2 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 295 cases; 2 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 120 cases; 6 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 61 cases; 0 deaths
Declan Morrison, 6, from Claremont, rides a wave during a surf camp at Huntington Dog Beach on Tuesday.
Declan Morrison, 6, from Claremont, rides a wave during a surf camp at Huntington Dog Beach on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach resident Gina Clayton-Tarvin, who is president of the Ocean View School District Board of Trustees, said it is important for the city to follow the state’s directives on the beaches.

That can include free access.

“Orange County has seen fewer cases in relation to L.A. County or San Diego County per capita, but I don’t know if that’s a function of fewer cases or if it’s a function of lack of testing,” she said. “For this weekend, I think we should look to the California Department of Health. If they’re not saying that our beaches need to be closed … then we should enjoy the holiday weekend. Independence Day is something to be celebrated in our nation, but we have to celebrate responsibly. Being an American means that you’re free, but freedom comes with great responsibility.”

“I have always been fairly conservative in my opinions on how to deal with the outbreak,” Clayton-Tarvin said, calling the COVID-19 growth statewide “alarming.” “[Earlier in the pandemic], I can tell you from the Ocean View School District’s point of view, at that time we had actually shut all of our school grounds down. We are the biggest provider of open space in the city of Huntington Beach. We operate 312 acres of space … and the majority of it is in Huntington Beach.”

“We have reopened our fields, we are saying that the public should come and recreate again, because we understand that it’s very hard to be inside all of the time.”

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