Beaches in Newport will remain open to the public with city staff advised to increase police and lifeguard presence to enforce social distancing guidelines after photos of crowds of people at the beach surfaced this past weekend.

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The City Council voted 5-2 at a special meeting on Tuesday night against an emergency ordinance that would close the beaches on the weekends of  May 2-3, May 9-10, and May 16- 17 with council members Jeff Herdman and Joy Brenner dissenting.

“America needs to return back to activities of freedom. We are a free people. It was paid for by the blood of patriots over 200 years ago. It’s paid for still to this day. We can not let fear, frustration or irrational behavior stop our fundamental God given rights,” said City Councilman Kevin Muldoon at the meeting.

More than 1,000 emails from residents were sent in regarding the potential weekend closures of beaches. Over 660 emails were sent in support of keeping the beaches and more than 390 who wanted the beaches to be closed. 

Those in favor argued that keeping the beaches open will put residents’ safety at risk and that those coming to the beach are not practicing social distancing guidelines.

Some of those against closing the beaches argued that it will negatively impact people’s physical and mental health. Mayor Will O’Neill said there has been an “incredible spike” in calls to emotional distress lines.

The council has kept beaches accessible to the public for the “mental health and physical wellbeing of residents” following guidance from the state coastal commission, the state public health agency and the county public health agency,  said staff in a city news release over the weekend.

“Our open beaches are not the sole source or solution to preventing mental health problems and issues,” Herdman said.

“If everyone in this state and our cities were cooperating with the governor and staying at home we could bring this quarantine to an end. People are supposed to be sheltering at home. 40,000 people did not do this on Friday and Saturday this past weekend.”

While beaches will remain open in Newport, all parking lots in the beach areas will be closed. Piers and boardwalks where people tend to congregate will also remain closed. 

The meeting was called after crowds in the tens of thousands flocked to the beaches last weekend during a heatwave in Southern California. According to city officials, a majority of people were practicing social distances but many were not.

On July 4th last year 115,000 people visited Newport Beaches. An estimated 40,000 showed to the beach on Friday and Saturday.

Subsequent images of the crowds, beach towels and umbrellas went viral on social media.The number of visitors caused concern that some beach goers are not adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

“The likelihood of having a virus free world is not realistic in the next number of months,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday. “We can’t see the images like we saw, particularly on Saturday in Newport Beach and elsewhere in the state of California.”

Muldoon called a photo published in the Orange County Register that showed crowds of umbrellas and people bunched up on the beach “not an accurate depiction.”

Aerial photos taken by Newport Beach Chief of Police Jon Lewis on Saturday at around 2:45 p.m. as well as screenshots taken by Assistant Lifeguard Chief Michael Halphide on Saturday from a surfline camera were shown at the meeting by city staff. The photos showed beach goers more spread out.

The Orange County Register published an article defending the authenticity of the photo they published on Tuesday morning after comments on social media accused the Register of doctoring the photos.

“The photo was indeed shot this past Saturday, April 25, from the Newport Beach pier at 3:30 p.m. Actually, if you really want to get specific, the shutter snapped at 3:30:56 p.m.,” reads the Orange County Register Article.

While the council voted to keep the beaches open they have advised city staff to increase physical presence at the beaches to ensure social distancing guidelines are followed.

Lewis and Newport Beach Fire Chief Jeff Boyles discussed a plan to ensure social distance guidelines are followed with an increased presence of lifeguards and police in the areas around the beach and the beach itself.

Brenner said she was not sure the measures the city could take will be enough to do the job of ensuring safety.

“I’m really concerned about the amount of manpower that it’s going to take from our public officials,” Brenner said. 

“My concern is we have an open house sign out. We have a sign out that says welcome y’all come down to Newport Beach. It’s really important that our actions convey the message that we want to send to the much broader community because this is not just about local people going to our beaches for their mental health.”

Herdman said beaches are not the problem but rather the convergence of people on the city of Newport Beach is the issue.

“A day at the beach is not essential right now,” Herdman said.

Muldoon said having the government control our lives is not acceptable to the American people.

“This is America. People have the right to free movement. If they’re being responsible it’s on them. If they’re being irresponsible it’s also on them but it’s up to the individual,” Muldoon said.

“That’s the founding principle of this country.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC news intern. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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