Southern California city votes to keep beaches open

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Newport Beach won’t close its beaches, officials voted Tuesday, despite criticism by California’s governor that weekend crowds threatened efforts to slow the coronavirus and reopen the state’s economy.

The City Council voted 5-2 to reject a motion to close the beaches for the next three weekends, although city piers and the famous Wedge surfing spot are shut down. There will be additional enforcement of social distancing rules, officials said.

The vote during a virtual meeting came after 80,000 people hit shores in the Orange County city last weekend when the first heat wave of the year sent temperatures soaring. Lifeguards said most people appeared to be obeying social distancing rules and maintaining 6 feet of distance between groups.

Ryan Selewicz, 28, lives right on Newport Beach. He said he was mostly out on his patio as the beach grew packed.

A few people were wearing masks but most weren’t, and groups seemed to stick to themselves and weren’t intermingling, he said.

“If I was dropped in and didn’t know there was a pandemic, I wouldn’t notice much of a difference,” he said.

Many recreational areas, from hiking trails to parks and playgrounds, have been shut down for weeks and tens of millions of Californians have been encouraged to avoid going out under various stay-at-home orders designed to limit contact that could spread COVID-19.

While most beaches in Los Angeles County have been closed since March, Southern California’s patchwork of state and local beaches meant that some remained open elsewhere. Some communities have worried that they will be overwhelmed by people driving north or south from the sprawling region and from inland areas to get a sea breeze.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom chided weekend beach crowds in Ventura and Orange counties, calling them an example of “what not to do” if the state wants to continue its progress fighting the spread of COVID-19, which would allow an easing of statewide and local stay-at-home orders.

“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off, this virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful sunny day around our coasts,” he said.

Those counties pushed back, saying that most of those who hit the beach followed social distancing protocols, staying 6 feet apart on the sand.

Also on Tuesday, the Laguna Beach City Council voted to reopen city beaches for weekday mornings as of May 4, although weekends will still be off-limits. The Orange County city had kept its beaches closed while nearby county beaches were opened.

Further south, beaches across San Diego County reopened Monday with a few exceptions. Officials reported that at San Diego city beaches, most visitors heeded rules permitting exercise such as running, kayaking, surfing and swimming but forbidding people to sunbathe or linger.

In Newport Beach, council members and members of the public seemed most concerned with parking problems. The city has closed some beach parking and police planned to enforce neighborhood parking laws. One speaker described a weekend “conga line” of cars circling for hours through their neighborhoods looking for parking.

The city also planned to have lifeguards monitoring the beaches.

Some public speakers voiced concern that with other beaches closed, out-of-towners who may be infected but not showing symptoms could be funneled to the local shores. Some said visitors weren’t wearing masks when they walked through the city to reach the shore.

“There was zero social distancing. I was there,” one resident said. “It’s been contained in LA now. Why bring it here?”

Those who called for keeping the beaches open were skeptical of the extent of the coronavirus outbreak and tended to lump the issue with social distancing measures they perceived as attacks on personal liberty and the economy.

Orange County has had more than 2,000 coronavirus cases, up by more than 500 in a week, and around 40 deaths. However, City Council member Kevin Muldoon said he believed the county had “flattened the curve,” that is, slowed the increase in cases.

“Scare tactics is not the solution,” he said. “This is America. People have the right to free movement.”

But City Council member Jeff Herdman argued that the weekend crowds posed a health threat, citing the tally from just a single day.

“People are supposed to be sheltering at home. Forty-thousand people did not do that,” he said.