Oil-related beach closures hit local hospitality industry already shaken by COVID-19

Laguna Beach officials posted a beach closure sign at Shaws Cove on Monday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent

As beach closures from the recent oil spill keep tourists and beachgoers away from Laguna’s shores, local businesses may face a financial burden for an unknown amount of time.

The Orange County Emergency Operations Center announced on Monday that all city and county beaches will be closed. City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said Tuesday the Orange County Health Care Agency is testing the air and ocean water to gauge the risk to public health and safety. Health officials have not only advised against ocean sports but also walking, hiking, and exercising on the beach due to noxious fumes.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Laguna’s beaches and coves have avoided the substantial oiling seen on Orange County’s northern coastline.

Local hotels and rental companies are facing cancellations as tourists fear the beaches will remain closed through their trips.

“An impact the spill has caused are cancellations of local hotel bookings dependent on beach and ocean enjoyment,” Visit Laguna Beach CEO Ashley Johnson said. “We at Visit Laguna Beach are working internally to determine the economic impact this will have on our community, with specificity on visitor traffic, flow, volume to our beaches; in order to draw assumptions of loss of traffic.”

Visit Laguna has contracted a data analysis company to help track declining beach traffic so industry leaders can have some preliminary estimates of the spill’s economic punch.

“With media coverage over the last 24 hours, we’re definitely seeing an influx of cancellations,” Johnson told the City Council on Tuesday. “Our office received close to 60 calls today with people having plans to visit and wanting information.”

Laguna Chamber of Commerce CEO Sandy Morales explained that tourists planning on visiting as far out as December have also called her office, concerned about the oil spill’s impact on Laguna’s beaches.

“Well, it’s definitely going to be impactful for as long as this goes on,” Morales said. “At this time we don’t really know how long it’s going to go on… The biggest impact is going to be the beachgoers obviously.”

With the uncertainty of how long cleanup efforts will take and how long beaches will remain closed, Morales encourages business owners to call the Chamber of Commerce or the City to stay updated.

To assess the spill’s economic damage, she’s also asked merchants to complete a form to report any loss in revenue they have suffered or expect to suffer in the next several weeks due to the oil spill by 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 6.

La Vida Laguna, a guided tour and equipment rental group, has already seen the impact of beach closures.

“Most of our activities do occur on the ocean,” Doug Oyen, Chief Adventure Officer at La Vida Laguna said. “So we offer kayaking, paddleboarding, as well as surf lessons. None of that’s going to happen in the coming days, if not weeks, perhaps even longer. And so that is definitely going to create a financial burden. Much of our business is driven by corporate guests this time of the year, and some of them have already contacted us asking for a full refund.”

While kayaking and paddleboarding tours are paused, Oyen encourages tourists and residents hoping to support local businesses to consider an e-bike tour as e-bike rentals are not impacted by the beach closures.

In response to the spill, many businesses are searching for ways that they can aid in the cleanup effort.

“We as a company haven’t really put as much time and energy into our lost revenue as we have for the grave concern that we have for the ocean that we love so much and the community that you know really thrives with access to the ocean and how they’re all affected,” Oyen said.

His entire team is ready to volunteer when called up by the Surfrider Foundation, which is serving as an intake for people interested in helping future clean-up efforts.

The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s oceanfront Lost Pier Cafe is currently closed. While it’s unclear how long beaches will be closed for, the Lost Pier Cafe plans on donating 100 percent of revenue on the day of reopening. The restaurant plans to split profits equally between the Surfrider Foundation and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, two environmental partners to the Ranch. The Lost Pier has also advertised a collection for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center to donate needed supplies for the clean-up.

“The oil spill last weekend is a cause for concern with over 128,000 gallons of oil being leaked into our oceans; and impacts to our birds, wildlife and wetlands is extremely unfortunate to witness,” Johnson said. “It’s also tragic to see, as our beaches in Laguna are some of the most fragile and environmentally sensitive beaches in the state. I’m truly grateful for the overall clean-up efforts being led by the Coast Guard.”

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