Authorities were keeping a close eye on Orange County beaches Saturday, which remain officially closed after a judge rejected bids by Dana Point and Huntington Beach officials to lift Gov. Gavin Newsom’s temporary closure.
Some scattered surfers were seen in the water in the early morning sun on Saturday, but the beaches were mostly empty, according to footage from overhead news crews.
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.
After hearing arguments from attorneys Friday afternoon, Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott ruled that “maintaining the status quo … favors a conservative response … and in this case the status quo appears to be the governor’s order.”
Attorneys for the two cities argued Newsom upended the status quo when he issued the order Thursday, which they claimed violated the state’s constitution for a variety of reasons, ranging from the right to travel to the authority of a charter city such as Huntington Beach.
One lawsuit was filed by residents Joseph Muller, Laura Ferguson and Gregory Raths, and another lawsuit was filed by the cities.
Scott set a hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction for May 11, but it may become moot as plans are in the works for a compromise that would allow for active use only on the beaches, County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told City News Service.
“Hopefully we’ll have everything ironed out over the weekend,” Bartlett said of the county’s negotiations with state officials.
The plan would be “very similar” to what is allowed on the beaches in Ventura and San Diego counties.
“It allows them to recreate outdoors and to ensure that we maintain the highest level of public health and safety,” Bartlett said.
“It strikes that right balance” between encouraging physical activity while discouraging mass gatherings because beachgoers would not be allowed to sunbathe or linger on the beaches, Bartlett said.
Laguna Beach City Council members voted this week to reopen its beaches from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays for active use only, so that may be the plan implemented in that city, including the county’s beaches there, Bartlett said.
Chad Nelsen, the CEO of Surfrider Foundation, said an active use plan for Orange County was the best compromise.
Officials in Ventura and San Diego counties “were able to find a manageable solution that allowed people to walk, surf, swim and jog and not congregate in groups and hang out in the sand and it worked,” said Nelsen, whose nonprofit organization seeks to protect the world’s oceans and beaches.
“The fastest and most efficient way to get beach access back is to develop a plan, and these plans are just two-pagers,” Nelsen said. “If the goal is to really get people back to the beach then filing lawsuits doesn’t seem to be the way to get there. Developing a plan is the way to go.”
Newsom, in his daily coronavirus briefing early Friday afternoon, said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuits, but reiterated his fear that mass gatherings at beaches could undo the progress the state has made in fighting the virus.
The Newport Beach City Council was expected to discuss joining the litigation Saturday.
In San Clemente, City Council members met Friday to consider joining other Orange County cities in the legal challenge to the governor’s order, but took no action.
The non-action prompted some councilmembers to question why the special meeting was held.
“At this point, I’m not sure what’s more of a joke; Gavin Newsom’s order or this meeting?” Councilman Chris Hamm said, according to the Voice of OC news website. “Other than costing the citizens of San Clemente, probably a couple thousand dollars, we’ve really done nothing here this evening.”
Dana Point officials issued a statement saying they are hopeful the state will accept the plan. Bartlett said she spoke with a San Clemente City Council member who was supportive of the plan as well, and added Newport Beach officials also seem to be on board.
Newsom cited crowds that gathered on some Orange County beaches during last weekend’s heat wave for issuing the “hard close” order for the Orange County coastline.
In response, thousands of people staged a protest at the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier on Friday, demanding the loosening of stay-at-home and business-closure orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Newsom hinted that announcements could come as early as next week relaxing stay-at-home orders, but added, “We can screw all that up. We can set all that back by making bad decisions.”
“All of that works because people have done an incredible job in their physical distancing. But we change that and we see the images we saw last weekend and concentration of thousands of people, we could start to see a spread again,” Newsom said.
“That’s the only thing that could set us back.”
Huntington Beach police estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 people took part in the Friday protest at the Huntington Beach Pier, many of them without face coverings. Police on horseback kept them out of the streets.
One protester, Monica Beilhart of Tustin, said “only a few” of the demonstrators wore masks and some of the local stores opened for business.
A plane flew overhead with a banner referring to the governor as “gruesome Newsom” as it called on him to “open California,” Beilhart said.
“People are out here with their shirts off, sunlight, enjoying the weather,” Beilhart said. “They’re chanting USA, chanting about the Constitution, and just trying to get their voices heard.”
Referring to earlier, smaller protests, Beilhart said Friday saw a larger gathering because of Newsom’s beach closure order.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Beilhart said. “It was uncalled for, unnecessary and people out here are making that known.
“And we’re also very much saying enough is enough, we have the right to work, people have the right to work and that it’s time for the governor to allow the healthy to be able to get back to business.”
No arrests were reported.
Huntington Beach officials said they believe being a charter city gives it more authority to self-governance that prevents Newsom from shutting down its beaches.
“We’re not simply a component of the state,” Gates said. “The city has some level of autonomy and independence.”
“Yesterday Governor Newsom directed the hard closure of all beaches in Orange County with little warning and no collaboration with local governments. It was a sudden decision that prioritized politics over data,” Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta said in a video statement Friday night. “…we believe it’s unconstitutional and do not believe it’s warranted, as Orange County has among the lowest per capita COVID-19 mortality rates in the entire state.”
Semeta said the city made the “difficult” decision to close its beach Friday out of fear that theirs might be the only county beach open and therefore would draw enormous crowds that would make social distancing impossible.
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 Thursday.
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 coronavirus patients hospitalized, with 63 in intensive care, and one additional death. Five more deaths were reported Friday, raising the county’s death toll to 50.
Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, who supports Newsom’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.”
Umberg 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.
However, Newport Beach City Councilman Jeff Herdman, who represents Balboa Island, said there were large crowds on the beaches last 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, Herdman said.
Wagner urged Newsom to work with county officials, saying they heard about the order 15 minutes before Newsom’s daily briefing Thursday. Wagner said it was unlikely county officials would want to sue the state since they would largely be in a position of suing themselves.
At the state level, Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, condemned Newsom’s order.
“Gov. Newsom just doesn’t seem to get it,” Moorlach 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.”
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