Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday ordered the temporary “hard close” of state and local beaches in Orange County after thousands of Californians flocked to the shoreline there over the weekend in defiance of a statewide stay-at-home order enacted to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The news comes after a memo sent Wednesday evening to California police chiefs said the governor would go further, closing all state and local beaches and parks, a plan Newsom appeared to abandon.
The action marks Newsom’s most symbolic response to the pandemic so far as tensions rise over when and how to reopen the state and allow Californians return to their normal, everyday lives.
After photos of crowded Orange County beaches went viral last weekend, Newsom chastised beachgoers who ignored the state’s restrictions, saying they could prolong the spread of the coronavirus in California and put the health and safety of others at risk.
“I just think we could tighten that up a little bit and so we’re going to have a temporary pause on the beaches down there — state, local beaches,” Newsom said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in Sacramento. “We want to work very closely with local elected officials, and we’re committed to doing that if we can get some framework and guidelines to get this right. We can reopen very, very quickly but we’ve got to, we’ve got to make sure we get this right.”
Newsom on Wednesday hinted that he was mulling a crackdown on California’s beaches, saying he was consulting with the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission, both of which have jurisdiction over the state shoreline.
“What this shows is that the threat of coronavirus spreading remains very real and that Governor Newsom is as serious as ever about keeping Californians safe,” Steve Padilla, chair of the California Coastal Commission, said in a written statement. “I had COVID-19, was hospitalized for three weeks and in ICU on a ventilator for eleven days fighting for my life, so take it from me — we need to listen to the Governor and stay home until it’s safe.”
Newsom’s announcement Thursday followed reports that he would take broader action. On Wednesday evening, a memo sent to California police chiefs said the governor intended to make an announcement on Thursday about closures of all state and local beaches. A law enforcement source confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that authorities were briefed on the plans, which they were told might also include the closure of some parks.
Some counties, including Los Angeles, have ordered all beaches closed, an expansion of Newsom’s sweeping stay-at-home rules.
But others, such as and Orange, have allowed them to remain open. Social distancing has been required, and some parking lots have been closed in an effort to keep out-of-town visitors out. In advance of last weekend, Orange County officials urged outsiders to stay away.
Some Orange County officials, though, said the images of crowded beaches painted a distorted picture of what conditions were actually like.
“Despite what’s being reported, the majority of our beachgoers are complying [with] social distancing,” Huntington Beach officials wrote on Facebook on Sunday.
Public safety officials there were “on the beach patrolling and educating visitors and have found the majority of people staying in their own unit; if not they are educated and have complied,” the statement added. “There are hourly social distancing reminders from the loudspeaker on the pier, and we also have public works for any crowd-related issues with barriers and signage that needs to be put into place if needed.”
San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson reached out to the city manager and city attorney Wednesday night after she heard about the proposed order to suggest that they review what legal authority the governor had to close city beaches.
“I’m hoping the governor can cite some valid reason under case law to be doing this to cities because, in my opinion, it appears to be government overreach. Local beaches are under the control of the cities, not the state.”
After a roughly two-week closure imposed at San Clemente beaches to prevent overcrowding and slow the spread of the coronavirus, the city reopened their sandy stretches last weekend with the caveat that visitors would only be permitted to run, walk, swim, surf or partake in other activities while along the coast. Sunbathing or sitting on the sand was not permitted.
In nearby Laguna Beach, officials on Tuesday also moved to reopen their coastline for limited hours during weekdays, beginning Monday.
Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake said while he understands Newsom’s action given the photographs of the crowds descending on other city beaches over the weekend, the move “comes at a point when it seemed like we were on a trajectory to move forward and this now moves us back.”
He opposes the latest effort by the governor, saying that it appears to be more of a power move than a reasonable step toward reopening the state and restarting the economy.
“There are people that rightfully so feel Newsom has gone beyond the scope of his authority and has taken on power that is not outlined in the constitution,” he said.
In neighboring Newport Beach, Police Chief Jon Lewis and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said in a joint statement Thursday that there were some clusters of people who were crowded too closely together on the beach last weekend, but that “it was our personal observation, and that of our officers, that the overwhelming majority of Newport Beach residents and visitors were families or practicing social distancing.”
The departments also shared afternoon that showed sparse crowds on the city’s sandy stretches.
Health officials in Los Angeles County, which has been the in California, say staying at home now is essential to slowing the spread of the illness.
Los Angeles has recorded and an outsize share of cases and hospitalizations.
Others counties, especially those in rural areas, have been much less affected.
By Phil Willon, Richard Winton, Rosanna Xia, John Myers, Hannah Fry, Los Angeles Times