UPDATED: Laguna Beach Closes Trailheads, City Beaches to Prevent Coronavirus Spread

Mayor Bob Whalen speaks to reporters about planned beach and trail closures during a press conference March 23 at Laguna Beach City Hall. (Photo by Daniel Langhorne)

The Laguna Beach City Council voted in an emergency meeting Sunday to close city beaches at 5 p.m. tonight if the state or county don’t act before that time to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The City Council will revisit the closure in two weeks, Mayor Bob Whalen said Monday.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said in a prepared statement Monday that she will ask the Orange County Board of Supervisors to consider closing all Orange County beaches along with adjacent parking lots, parks, and trails, to reduce person-to-person contact and the spread of COVID-19.

The City Council’s extraordinary action followed a weekend where many daytrippers visited Laguna Beach’s beachfront parks and trails, sparking concern that benches, railings, and other high-touch structures would become breeding areas for the virus.

“The safety of the public is our utmost concern, and this decision was not taken lightly by the City Council,” Whalen said in a prepared statement. “We were unanimous that these steps must be taken now in our City to slow the spread of COVID-19.  I urge everyone to comply with our actions for the health of everyone in our community and beyond.”

The City beach closures would also include Main Beach, Heisler, and Treasure Island parks. The City Council also voted to direct city staffers to close trail access from Laguna Beach to the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park an Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park ton Monday morning.

Generally, local jurisdictions have faced enforcement action by the California Coastal Commission, which oversees public access to beaches and tidelands, after impeding access to the state natural resources.

During a Monday afternoon press conference in the City Council Chambers, Whalen said city leaders didn’t contact the Coastal Commission on Sunday to notify them of the planned closure because the City Attorney advised them the local emergency proclamation provides authority to protect public health and safety. Coastal Commission staffers called Laguna Beach City Hall on Monday to obtain information about the planned beach closures, he said.

“We know below the tideline is not our jurisdiction,” Whalen said, adding that stairways, beach-adjacent parks, and playgrounds are under city control. “As part of our emergency declaration, we have the power to protect health and safety.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom encouraged Californians last week to observe social distancing while going outside for fresh air and exercise during the ongoing public health crisis.

“The governor said go out and walk your dog, he didn’t say congregate in large crowds at the beaches,” Whalen said

Councilmember Toni Iseman, who used to hold a seat on the Coastal Commission, told the Independent on Monday that she didn’t anticipate any punishments for the Laguna Beach closures.

“I have not heard that there’s been confirmation with the Coastal Commission on this but I can’t imagine that the Coastal Commission would interfere with this decision,” Iseman said.

The California Coastal Act allows cities to obtain a permit waiver for such action as long as  Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth is notified about the type and location of the work within three days of a disaster, commission spokesperson Noaki Schwartz wrote in an email

“This provision allows us to work with local governments who are taking immediate action, like closing beaches or parking lots, if necessary to respond to emergency situations like we have with the COVID-19 crisis,” Schwartz wrote.

The City Council has an ally in the Laguna Beach Police Employee’s Association, which took the rare step of asking for beach and park closures on Sunday night. Around 6 p.m., the police union requested immediate closure all city beaches and parks to protect the public and city employees. Less than three hours later, the city issued a press release announcing the immediate closure of trailheads to county parks and the planned beach closures.

“Thank you all for your quick and decisive action in closing our parks and beaches,” Brian Griep, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees’ Association, wrote in an email to council members. “We know this was not an easy decision; however, it was a necessary one. We are confident that many other cities will follow your leadership. We applaud your commitment to our community, and thank you for your service.”

Laguna Beach police officers on foot and ATVs will seek voluntary public compliance with beach closures, Sgt. Jim Cota said. If someone knowingly flaunts the closure order after being educated by officers or breaks other laws, officers could make an arrest.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t go there but we’re hoping they’ll listen to what the mayor has put in place,” Cota said.

Community members wishing to comment on the Board of Supervisors’ proposal to close Orange County beaches can email [email protected].

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