UPDATED: Newsom Closes Orange County Beaches

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A rare view of a closed Main Beach. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Laguna Beach residents were whipsawed Thursday when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would order the closure of Orange County beaches to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Newsom announced a “pause” on allowing visitors at Orange County beaches to prevent a repeat of last weekend when the thousands of people gathered in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, and to a lesser extent county-owned beaches in South Laguna.

“We’re going to do a hard close in that part of the state, in Orange County,” Newsom said.  “Specific issues at some of those beaches have raised alarm bells.”

He started his comments on this topic saying, “we’re guided by health. We’re guided by your health and the health of others. Nobody is invincible to this.”

Newsom added that it might be premature to determine the impact of beach crowds on the virus’ spread, considering it happened less than a week ago.

The governor’s county-specific order arrived three days after many community members celebrated the Laguna Beach City Council’s decision to reopen city beaches from 6 to 10 a.m from Monday to Friday. Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow and Councilmember Peter Blake said Thursday morning they expect the city to comply with Newsom’s order.

“Good-hearted people looking at the same set of facts can come to different decisions,” Dicterow said. “This is a nationwide crisis and I think we all have to work together under the authorities that exist. I don’t think it makes sense to be divisive now.”

A widely-reported memo from the California Police Chiefs Association to law enforcement leaders reported that Newsom was planning to close all California beaches. That statewide order did not materialize Thursday after the governor consulted local elected and health officials.

Newsom’s order ends the inconsistency among a patchwork of jurisdictions along the 42-mile Orange County coastline. In Laguna Beach, the order was met with mixed reviews.

South Laguna residents concerned about the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ recent decisions to keep county-owned beaches open and their parking lots closed will see relief from a uniform closure of Orange County beaches.

On the other hand, residents looking forward to surfing, swimming, or walking at city beaches next Monday were hit with a gut punch. The order will surely inflame residents who were already advocating that city leaders reopen beaches and allow residents the freedom to visit the beach and risk infection if they wish.

In a phone interview Thursday morning, Blake said he understands why Newsom took the action but said the order still deserves close scrutiny to prevent government overreach.

“It’s not detrimental to Laguna Beach to shut the beaches down but it would be disastrous if we kept the beaches open and the businesses closed,” Blake said.

Blake pointed out that Laguna Beach has already paid dearly from the stay-at-home order through a steep decline in sales tax revenue. The City Council also agreed to defer Laguna Beach hotels’ transient occupancy tax payments.

Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold, executive director of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, said she anticipated the governor’s order will have no additional impact on local businesses because city beaches are already closed.

Regardless of the seemingly day-to-day changes in governance, Horbucke-Arnold summed up the feeling of Laguna Beach’s business climate as “devastating.”

“I have some who have hope that they will survive,” she said. “I have others who aren’t sure they’re going to get through the next month.”

Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) said in a prepared statement that if citizens exercise proper social distancing, then they should allow access to the beaches.

“Orange County residents have been responsible,” Moorlach said. “They’ve followed healthcare officials’ prudent recommendations and respected the science. The County hasn’t seen the ‘surge’ in its hospitals, and six weeks into this shelter-in-place order, the beach may be the best medicine.”

Mike Beanan, co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, wrote in an email that Newsom’s order was necessary to protect public health and safety.

“It certainly makes sense to have one consistent policy to control the spread of such an infectious virus as COVID-19,” Beanan wrote. “Unfortunately, beach visits can cause hundreds of individuals, who may not know they are already infected, to infect others. If we’re truly in a war to protect each other from community spread, we must all work together.”

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