Column: A retired teacher leads the masked resistance in Newport Beach

Lynn Lorenz, a retired school teacher, advocates for greater mask use and social distancing.
Lynn Lorenz, a retired teacher and prolific writer of letters to the editor, advocates for greater mask use and social distancing in Newport Beach.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Lynn Lorenz, a retired teacher who lives on a bluff above the Newport Beach harbor, emerged from her home Thursday morning wearing a mask.

Nobody turned and stared, as if she were wearing a lampshade over her head. But Lorenz definitely stood out. On the first 15 minutes of her daily stroll, we saw more than a dozen people, and nobody was wearing a face covering.

Not walkers, not runners, not dog owners, not a woman headed to the park with three kids.

Lorenz said she’s gotten dirty looks from people for being masked. As if she’s the one who’s a bad neighbor.

“They’re thinking either that I’m a liberal, or that in Newport Beach, having to wear a mask is an infringement on their rights,” Lorenz said.

Jumping into the fray is nothing new for Lorenz. I met the former French and history teacher several years ago when she was one of the activists campaigning against a proposal to turn the open spaces of Newport Banning Ranch into a massive development.

Officials are hoping public behavior changed toward the end of June and early July, but they won’t know how that plays out for several more weeks.

She was drawn into the coronavirus culture wars from the beginning, fearing that residents would pay with their lives for a refusal to heed the warnings from experts about masking and distancing.

Lorenz told me that recently, in the post office near her house, she confronted two women for ignoring signs directing customers to mask up.

“They kind of looked at me, stared at me, and I got out of there real fast,” Lorenz said.

But in what feels at times like a lonely crusade, she does manage to exact a small measure of revenge. Lorenz fires off scalding emails to public officials, and she is a prolific writer of letters to the editor.

“As I look around our city and see the lack of social distancing and lack of serious concern for the coronavirus, I have become very fearful for our future,” said a Lorenz letter to the Newport Beach Independent.

When the Orange County public health director resigned after county supervisors rejected her call for people to wear masks in public, Lorenz went to her keyboard and blasted the supervisors.

“I am outraged,” she said in a letter published by Stu News Newport, adding that she was taking her business from Ralphs in Newport Beach to the Ralphs in Costa Mesa because of a stricter mask policy at the latter supermarket. “I, for one, regrettably will not be doing business with any indoor environment that does not require masks and I urge others to do the same for their protection.”

I called Tom Johnson, publisher of Stu News Newport, and told him I wanted to inquire about one of his more prolific letter writers.

“Lynn Lorenz,” Johnson said before I could say her name.

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported 1,133 new coronavirus cases in Friday’s numbers, bringing the total number of cases to 22,650.

Lorenz submits at least one letter a week to him, Johnson said, and she’s a good writer, though he sometimes has to trim a few words. In Newport Beach, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 2-1. (Lorenz is a “D.”) Johnson said he tries to publish different views and appreciates Lorenz’s contributions.

Lorenz and I — masked, and keeping six feet between us — walked down the hill and past a park to a little shopping center across the street from the Rusty Pelican. The mask wearing count was close to 50-50 in the shopping center, but at one restaurant with outdoor seating, tables and customers were far too close together, in my opinion.

In one storefront, a clerk told us she gets three or so customers a day who ignore posted signs and refuse to wear masks. Sometimes, she said, masked and unmasked patrons air their grievances with each other.

In one case, said the clerk, a customer argued that she refused to cover her face because she wanted to build up her immunity. That strategy, by the way, hasn’t worked too well in Sweden.

But everyone seems to be an epidemiologist these days. As I read various letters to editors published in Orange County, I came upon one that reminded me of readers who have pushed back against columns in which I’ve suggested we’ll all get back to normal much sooner if we play it smart.

“What’s worse than an infection?” asked a letter to the editor published June 9 in the Orange County Register. “Government intervention.”

Newport Beach will shut down its City Hall to the public for the second time in four months as COVID-19 cases pick up throughout the state and region.

Hmm. I thought the problem was the scandalous lack thereof, beginning at the top. But for some people, it’s all about rights rather than responsibilities. And for some, the right to resist trumps the right of others to not be needlessly infected.

Orange County isn’t the only place in California where there’s resistance to masks and distancing, even as the number of COVID-19 cases statewide has exploded following attempts to partially reopen for business. But after weeks of going after her local public officials for underplaying the threat, Lorenz is looking like both a scold and a sage.

Orange County public health officials said Thursday that hospitalizations had spiked 97% in three weeks, and they predicted the impact on the healthcare system will get worse in the coming days and weeks. The number of confirmed cases is now doubling every 13 days, according to a Times analysis.

In Newport Beach Thursday, I wandered beaches and the commercial strip near the pier, where some people wore masks and distanced while others did neither. One young woman, visiting from Redlands with friends, told me she’ll wear a mask where it’s required. But she doesn’t think they work, though she couldn’t explain how she arrived at that conclusion.

Lorenz blames some of the resistance on President Trump, who refuses to wear a mask and has hosted massive public gatherings where they’re not required. But in her published letters, she goes after closer targets.

She did get attacked by another letter writer a while back for lauding Gov. Gavin Newsom’s early attempts to corral the virus. Her critic accused Lorenz of having fawned over Newsom while ignoring his failings.

After the long holiday weekend, beaches reopen in L.A., Ventura, Santa Barbara and Orange counties.

Lorenz, undeterred, has kept her pen sharp, saving her sharpest critiques for Newport Beach city officials and county supervisors.

“In this jabberwocky world of Orange County politics, where down is up and up is often down, don’t be surprised if our local leaders try to start blaming someone else for the upsurge in coronavirus cases. They will undoubtedly shift the blame for opening the economy too soon,” Lorenz wrote in a letter published Sunday by the Daily Pilot.

“Let’s not forget their failure to support science and health leaders and their continuous rebellious nature against those who are working to do the right thing,” Lorenz wrote. “Let’s not let them get away with it.”

I don’t know if, in the end, enough people will heed her warnings.

But Lorenz, the masked crusader, said she intends to keep writing.

Steve Lopez is a columnist with the Los Angeles Times.

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