Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday lashed out at crowds who flocked to some Orange County beaches over the hot weekend, most notably Newport Beach, saying ignorance of social-distancing mandates is dangerous and could delay the state’s ability to reopen businesses and ease health orders.
“Those images are an example of what not to see, … what not to do if we’re going to make the meaningful progress that we’ve made in the last few weeks extend into the next number of weeks,” Newsom said. “The reality is we are just a few weeks away, not months away, from making measurable and meaningful changes to our stay-at-home order.
“That is a very optimistic point to emphasize, however, that’s driven by data. That’s driven by behavior. And as we change our behavior we can impact the science, the health and the data. This virus doesn’t take the weekends off. This virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful sunny day around our coasts.”
Thousands of people descended on beaches in Orange and Ventura counties to escape the weekend’s heat wave. Television news images showed crowds of people on the sand, and while many appeared to be trying to position themselves away from other beachgoers, others appeared to disregard such safeguards.
Beaches in Los Angeles County were closed, prompting some residents to drive to neighboring counties to enjoy the ocean breezes.
Newsom was visibly frustrated over the images as he discussed them in his daily coronavirus briefing from Sacramento, insisting the state has been making progress on “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 infections, but a departure from health orders will endanger that effort.
“We have to manage risk,” he said. “We have to manage and augment our behavior. And that’s why I cannot impress upon you more to those Californians watching that we can’t see the images like we saw, particularly on Saturday, in Newport Beach and elsewhere in the state of California.”
Newsom acknowledged that Newport Beach officials, recognizing the situation, have scheduled a special City Council meeting for 3 p.m. Tuesday to discuss closing the city’s beaches for the next three weekends and appointing a council committee to discuss business reopening plans.
In a statement issued over the weekend, the city noted, “While most of the beachgoers were practicing responsible social distancing, the volume of visitors generated significant neighborhood impacts and ran counter (to) guidance from California State Parks to `stay close to home when you get outdoors. This is not the time for a road trip to a destination park or beach.'”
Newsom said he respects local decision-making — and the political pressure being placed on local elected officials — but he said social-distancing has to remain in force.
“I cannot impress upon people more: The only thing that will set us back is our behavior,” Newsom said. “The only thing that will set us back is people stopping to practice physical distancing and appropriate social distancing.
“That’s the only thing that’s gonna slow down our ability to reopen this economy, our ability to adapt and modify the stay-at-home order. As I said, weeks — not months — if the data continues to be as stable as it has been over the course of the last few weeks. The only thing that can stop that is more images like we saw over this weekend.”
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said he drove along the coast this weekend and noticed the large crowds, but he said he believes the problem will resolve itself as beaches are reopened in San Diego and elsewhere.
“What I heard was San Diego will open its beaches so that will be a benefit to us, since we won’t see people coming up to Orange County from San Diego,” Kim said.
“I don’t want to punish Orange County residents, keeping them away from the outdoors to recreate… I think the density will lessen as more beaches open.”
Kim said he also heard that the state’s beaches in the area were also set to reopen soon.
“Once they do that it’ll spread out the crowds,” Kim said.
OC Parks officials in charge of enforcing social distancing at the county’s beaches told Kim, “It was not being followed as well as we hoped.”
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel told reporters Monday afternoon that she thought beachgoers were “properly social distancing… In the city of Huntington Beach people who came to the beach kept their distance from each other.”
Steel said, “It’s important to take care of our mental health as well. We want our neighbors to get exercise. This plays a big role in mental health, which is why we encourage our residents to safely spend time outside. Their local beaches are an ideal place to do so.”
OC Parks Director Stacy Blackwood said the county controls 16% of the shoreline.
Blackwood said the turnout was “pretty typical of what we see in summer weekends.” She estimated it at about 6,000 people during peak hours across the major beaches.
Dr. Nichole Quick, the county’s health officer, said, “We encourage residents to recreate in their general neighborhood… Mass gatherings are not allowed under the governor’s orders.”
Quick encouraged family outings, but added, “If you need a car to reach a place to recreate then you’re going too far.”
Jerika Lam, a Chapman University associate professor of pharmacy and an expert on viral infections, said county officials should consider closing the beaches. Beachgoers should also be wearing masks, she added.
It will be difficult for government officials to enforce stay-at-home orders if there are “mixed messages” about opening some beaches in one location, but not another, Lam said.
Lam also said since coronavirus can be spread in the air that an ocean breeze could carry it farther than normal.
While Newport Beach officials plan to discuss closing beaches, officials in Huntington Beach said people who gathered in that city over the weekend were taking precautions.
Huntington Beach Fire Department Battalion Chief Eric McCoy said some media outlets were using file footage of the beaches from last summer.
“We did see some bottleneck areas on the crosswalks and stairs that led to the beach,” McCoy said. “As a city we’re working on addressing those as we speak.”
If Newport Beach City Council members decide to close their beaches then Huntington Beach is expected to call a special meeting to consider doing the same, McCoy said.
“If Newport Beach closes all of its beaches and that crowd decides to come here we’ll have to make some decisions to make sure that doesn’t happen,” McCoy said.
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett is concerned that closures in north county will prod beachgoers into the beaches in Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
Bartlett suggested approving something similar to San Diego, where joggers, bikers and strollers are welcome, but sunbathers are shooed away.
“We could keep our beaches open, but allow for people to recreate, walk, jogging and running on the beach, but keep moving,” Bartlett said.
Last week, Bartlett proposed closing the beaches for the next few weeks, but her motion died for lack of a second.
Supervisor Andrew Do said Bartlett’s proposal would be too difficult to enforce.
Laguna Beach last month voted to close its beaches. The county has also closed parking lots to the beaches to help curtail crowds, but it has caused parking problems in some neighborhoods around the beaches, officials have said.