Despite indications he might close the coastline statewide, Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday instead ordered a temporary “hard close” only of beaches in Orange County, where crowds gathered on the sand during last weekend’s heat wave amid social-distancing mandates due to the coronavirus.

“We’re guided by health. We’re guided by your health and the health of others,” Newsom said in announcing the closure.

On Monday, Newsom lamented images of crowds that gathered on some beaches in Orange County — particularly in Newport Beach — last weekend, saying such masses of people are a feeding ground for COVID-19 and could reverse the progress the state has made in “flattening the curve” of the illness.

He repeated those concerns Thursday, while noting the “vast majority” of the state did not have issues with large crowds gathering.

“But in areas where we didn’t see that, you have to acknowledge that, you have to own that. And you have to figure that out,” Newsom said. “I’ve been led by my health directors … that feel we need to address that a little more specifically in a targeted way — the volume of people in a concentrated space, particularly in … a few coastal cities, off and around the Orange County area. Those were the point of particular concerns. So today we want to make some clarifications. We’re going to do a hard close in that part of the state, just in the Orange County area.

“… We’re going to have a temporary pause on the beaches down there, state and local beaches,” he said. “We want to work very closely with local elected officials and we’re committed to doing that. And if we can get some framework and guidelines to get this right, we can reopen very, very quickly. But we’ve got to make sure we can get this right.”

Newsom had expressed optimism earlier this week that local Orange County officials would take action to prevent a recurrence of last weekend’s beach gatherings. But on Tuesday, the Newport Beach City Council rejected a proposal to shutter beaches for the next three weekends and Laguna Beach councilmembers noted to allow “”active use” of the beaches from 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays beginning Monday.

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel said there was “no rational basis” for Newsom’s “arbitrary and capricious” order and that law enforcement did a “fantastic job” this past weekend encouraging social distancing on the beaches.

“We should be rewarding our communities for practicing safe social distancing, not punishing them by only shutting down Orange County beaches,” Steel said.

Steel has insisted that hospitalization rates have shown the county has been flattening the curve. On Thursday, the county’s Health Care Agency reported 145 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, with 63 in intensive care, and one additional death.

Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, who supports the governor’s order, said Steel’s remarks were dangerous.

“How could she possibly say the curve is being flattened when the hospital rates are higher than ever?” Umberg said. “The trajectory is higher than ever.”

He said Steel is “creating a false sense of security,” which encourages residents to head to the beaches.

“I don’t hear any public health professionals clamoring to open the beaches,” Umberg said.

Steel and Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner argued Newsom decided to close the beaches based on a couple of newspaper photographs. They said the depth of field was collapsed by a telephoto lens, making it appear Newport Beach was more congested.

But Newport Beach City Councilman Jeff Herdman, who represents Balboa Island, said there were large crowds on the beaches this past weekend. He said about 40,000 people from outside the area descended on the city without practicing social distancing such as wearing masks.

“They have no business being here and once they get here, they’re trying to find a parking place, filling up our neighborhoods with cars, getting out of their cars, converging on the beach, not wearing masks and not observing social distancing as they lug their coolers, chairs and beach towels to the beach,” Herdman said. That prevents residents from using their own city to get exercise, he said.

City spokesman John Pope said “Newport Beach intends to honor the governor’s directive to close Orange County beaches.”

Wagner urged Newsom to work with county officials, saying they heard about the order 15 minutes before the governor’s daily briefing. Wagner said it was unlikely county officials would want to sue the state since they would largely be in a position of suing themselves.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, whose deputies patrol about 16% of the shoreline, said he would try to seek “voluntary compliance” from beachgoers, which has been his policy since the pandemic began. He said the policy has been effective so far.

Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, condemned the governor’s order.

“Gov. Newsom just doesn’t seem to get it,” he said. “Orange County residents have been responsible. They’ve followed healthcare officials’ prudent recommendations and respected the science. The county hasn’t seen the `surge’ in its hospitals, and six weeks into this shelter-in-place order, the beach may be the best medicine.”

Moorlach added, “We need to trust people. If our citizens exercise proper social distancing, then we should allow access to the beaches. If you’re part of a vulnerable group, shame on you for going to the beach. Indeed, we allow shoppers to go to the grocery store with proper social distancing. Why not the beaches?”

Orange County GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker said he was “greatly angered” by the closure of the beaches.

“It is a complete slap in the face to local control and has nothing to do with health,” he said. “His (Newsom’s) actions are arrogant and unnecessary. A pandemic does not cancel our constitution, our branches of government or our right to be governed by those we elected in our local communities.”

Late Wednesday, a memo from the California Police Chiefs Association was circulated to law enforcement agencies across the state, indicating that the governor was planning to order the closure of all beaches in the state. Newsom, however, denied Thursday that he ever intended to make such a sweeping order.

Wagner said Newsom has the power to close beaches in Orange County, but does not believe it is a wise decision.

“Medical professionals tell us the importance of fresh air and sunlight in fighting infectious diseases, including mental health benefits,” he said. “Moreover, Orange County citizens have been cooperative with California state and county restrictions thus far.”

Wagner called the governor’s decision an “overreaction from the state (that) will undermine that cooperative attitude and our collective efforts to fight the disease, based on the best available medical information.”

Newport Beach police Chief Jon Lewis and fire Chief Jeff Boyles issued a joint statement Thursday morning stating that when crowds gathered at the city’s beach last weekend, “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,” they said in the statement. “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.”

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Newport Beach, said the state needs a “common-sense plan that prioritizes local residents’ physical and mental health — not indefinitely shut down our beaches. The sacrifice and service of Orange County residents cannot continue endlessly; we must find safe and sustainable ways to adjust to a `new normal’ in the weeks and months to come.”

Rouda said opening the beaches without protocols during a heat wave was “reckless,” but added “this discussion has become political and polarizing with two extremes defining the debate — reopen everything immediately or continue the lockdown without an end in sight… I firmly believe there is a way to use common sense to find common ground.”

Rouda said he wants Orange County leadership to “emulate cities like Laguna Beach, whose rational and thoughtful plans have centered on providing its residents access to distanced recreation spaces.”

Newsom has been insistent that residents continue adhering to social-distancing requirements, saying in recent days that the state could begin lifting some restrictions in “weeks, not months” if people continue to stay at home. But he said that could change quickly if people get complacent.

He noted that the state recorded a near-record number of deaths from coronavirus on Wednesday, saying, “It’s just another reminder, this disease has not gone away.”

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