How'd Orange County Deal With a Weekend of "Closed" Beaches?

Many surfed. Some didn't. And we have suggestions on ways to help reopen 'em.

When California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that Orange County beaches were to close Friday, most residents, surfers and local officials were shocked — and many were not very happy with the decision, including mayors and council-people from the cities of San Clemente, Dana Point, Newport and Huntington Beach, all of whom expressed their stance in various posts.

In fact, the sentiment was most pointedly summarized on a Facebook post by San Clemente Mayor Gene James. “I will no longer cooperate… I will no longer be complicit with the tyranny of Sacramento,” he wrote. “[I will] instruct the SC Chief of Police Services not to cite any citizen for Trespassing or any order from any government agency other than the San Clemente City Council. [I will] instruct the Chief of Police Services not to restrict the lawful access to San Clemente beaches.”

Thing is, San Clemente had just reopened its beaches with an “active-use-only” policy, while Dana Point, Newport and HB had been open the whole time, albeit with parking restrictions. The decision by the Governor to close OC beaches was made after large numbers of people had congregated the previous weekend in Newport and HB.

San Diego County, Ventura County and Santa Cruz County reopened their beaches the week before — also with “active-use-only” policies. (Los Angeles County, meanwhile, closed its beaches March 27 and they will remain closed until at least May 15th. SD state beaches also remain closed.)

Until Thursday, with the exception of state parks, state officials had allowed regional municipalities to manage their own beaches how they saw fit, based on County Health guidelines. Orange County was the first state-mandated closure in California.

Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates told the OC Register: “A hammer was dropped on the city and the city was placed in a very difficult position literally overnight to try and deal with this change and direction.”

Friday morning saw minimal signs of enforcement — due to the fact that the county had only 12 hours to prepare — and much lighter crowds than normal. But many surfers were still riding many waves at many spots up and down the 40-mile stretch of coast.

“It seemed like the lifeguards didn’t really wanna enforce it,” said HB local Brett Simpson, who surfed three hours Friday morning. “They wanna stay open. But our governor is trying to penalize us. At around 11:30 am they brought the boats in. Most people obeyed the orders and paddled in, but some stayed out. It’s just a crappy situation all around. We aren’t doing anything wrong… I’m obviously not fond of his decision.”

Friday also saw a 2500-person protest in downtown HB — which, it should be noted, had been organized well before the beach closure announcement and was originally focused on reopening the entire state. But it was seen by much of the media as a direct response to the state’s closure of OC beaches.

Surfers did organize a couple protests on Saturday — one at noon in Huntington and one at noon in Seal Beach, but the water at Huntington was cleared by 11:00 am, and the event never gained momentum, while in Seal Beach, according to one local, “Everyone showed up at the Pier and they marched out onto the sand — then were threatened with fines and walked off.”

Around 50 protestors returned to the HB Pier Saturday, while similar-sized protests happened in Laguna and Newport. Some of those involved were surfers, many were not. Friday and Saturday morning, surfers continued to ride waves in many parts of HB, Newport, Salt Creek and San Clemente. In most areas, surfing was allowed until around 11:00 am, then lifeguard boats came in to clear the water. Though it should be noted that there were many places throughout Orange County where people surfed all day, all weekend long.

On Sunday, one Newport local who surfed in the morning said, “They started kicking people out around 10:00 am. Everyone was nice. No arrests. Just asked us to leave. But nobody got out till the boat pulled up and swept the beach from south to north.”

Meanwhile, in San Clemente on Sunday, lifeguards were present, but not issuing citations. “We’re just here to let people know the beaches are closed,” one said when asked.

In a statement, OC Sheriff Don Barnes stated, “The governor’s decision to single out Orange County by closing our beaches is wrong and fails to recognize the sacrifices made by our three-million residents who have complied throughout the pandemic with the state directive to help flatten the curve, oftentimes at the expense of their livelihood and quality of life. I implore the governor to reconsider his action and work with local authorities, allowing us to address the few while not penalizing the majority.”

On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom said, “If we have the kind of weekend I hope and expect we will, where we don’t see those crowds descend, we’re going to be in a position, as early as Monday or Tuesday, I hope, to announce new partnerships and strategies we’re working on in real time to address these large crowds.”

How does that work?

Right now, based on information received by a number of sources, the Orange County Board of Supervisors must submit a set of guidelines to the state for reopening its beaches. Some cities have already submitted guidelines, and there’s a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday morning where the matter will be discussed — and hopefully a set of guidelines delivered that will allow for county beaches to be reopened.

Surfline and the Surfrider Foundation each sent separate letters Friday morning to the Orange County Board of Supervisors urging them to move quickly to come up with a viable plan to reopen all beaches across the county. Additionally, Surfline believes the state should focus on opening up access for surfers and other ocean enthusiasts at beaches everywhere in California.

Surfline’s official stance on the matter is that officials should distinguish between essential exercise — surfing — and casual beachgoing: sunbathing, picnicking, etc. We support “keep it moving” policies along with effective social distancing. In other words: no butts on the beach. Given that the matter at hand is reopening OC beaches, we believe the Board of Supervisors should come up with a plan that gives the state confidence beachgoers won’t congregate en masse.

Surfline’s review of other regions where this distinction has been made — Hawaii, Florida, the Carolinas — highlights how beach access can be managed without compromising efforts to keep the curve flattened and preserve healthcare-system capacity. It does require adherence to non-essential travel and social distancing requirements, but other states, counties and municipalities seem to have successfully managed that.

Surfers who support Surfline’s position, or have other ideas on how to effectively open OC beaches, are encouraged to email the OC Board of Supervisors: Michelle Steel, Andrew Do, Donald Wagner, [email protected] and Lisa Bartlett — especially before Tuesday’s meeting.

To make your feelings known to Governor Gavin Newsome and the State of California, go here.

Stay tuned as things develop.