Laguna Beach officials this week are thinking about joining San Clemente in reopening its beaches and coastal access to the public, after initially closing them off in response to the coronavirus public health crisis.
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But with a week of sun and high temperatures ahead, Laguna officials worry any effort to reopen the beaches with caution — and spur commerce throughout the adjacent coastline businesses — could be upended by massive, warm weather crowds and ineffective social distancing.
Crowds over the hot weekend already flocked to cities like Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, where beach access has remained open to the public, and subsequent images of the crowds, beach towels and umbrellas went viral on social media.
Now Newport officials are rethinking their current open-beaches policy, with a special City Council meeting scheduled Tuesday for possible closures.
On the table is the potential closure of the beaches for three upcoming consecutive weekends: May 2 and 3; May 9 and 10; and May 16 and 17. Either that or city staff say an option is to close roads leading to popular beach spots at the Peninsula and Corona del Mar.
Laguna Beach’s possible reopening, to be decided at a special April 28 City Council meeting, would weigh the economic benefits of warmer weather drawing more people to the city and its cadre of businesses along the coast, against possibly increasing the virus’ threat of transmission to the public and at-risk populations, staff say.
All the beaches, trails and coastal access controlled by Laguna Beach are currently closed. They were in San Clemente, too, until City Council members on April 21 opted to reopen them to the public for limited use, like exercise and walking.
City officials there as well have noted concern about large crowds going into the week of heat.
Though reluctant to talk at length about the possibility without hearing from other council members, Laguna Beach Councilman Steve Dicterow said whenever the beaches reopen, “it will have to be done gradually — on a part-time basis, with limited hours in the day.”
“You can’t prove these things, but I’m quite certain that by closing the beaches, we’ve saved lives,” he said in a Friday phone interview.
On the other hand, with warm weather across Southern California, city staff say opening the beaches would draw vast amounts of people to the city’s grocery stores, gas stations, and take-out restaurants.
“When businesses open, I want the beaches to be open. That will help businesses recover,” Dicterow said. But Dicterow and staff say more people in the city comes with more risk of spreading the disease to its at-risk population.
Meanwhile other parts of the county’s coast, like Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, and shorelines overseen by the county, have remained open.
Before images of the crowds at Newport Beach and Huntington Beach made viral rounds on social media, Newport Beach spokesman John Pope on Friday said in his city’s view, “as long as we can effectively maintain social distancing at our beaches, we can keep them open.”
Pope said in Newport, the beaches haven’t been a free-for-all. “We’ve tried hard to keep beaches open but also limit access to the general public to the extent we’ve closed the parking lots, as well as areas where people tend to congregate, like piers and boardwalks – those remain closed.”
“If we get larger crowds and it becomes more difficult, we would have to make other decisions,” he said, adding that with the period of high heat, the city expects bigger crowds. Even on Friday, he said the city saw an uptick in visitors — “but so far we’ve seen people staying apart from each other.”
Now Newport Beach officials could change course.
While staff in a city news release over the weekend said “most” beachgoers were practicing social distancing, “the volume of visitors generated significant neighborhood impacts and ran counter 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.’”
In cases where there’s people who look like they’re not adhering to social distancing, “our lifeguards, police officers, or patrol will approach them,” Pope said. “We’re not ticketing them, but we’re taking an educational approach to let people know about the social distancing guidelines.”
Still, vocal skeptics like Jim Gardner, a former Lake Forest mayor and former Newport Beach resident, say the risk of transmission at the beaches could still be higher even with social distancing precautions.
Gardner, a retired clinical psychologist and lecturer, pointed to the case counts in Orange County cities per capita — which he said was a much better indicator of risk than just a city’s total cumulative case count by itself. Based on his own calculations of the county’s numbers, he said the average case counts per 100,000 people in beach cities were appreciably higher than the averages of those between the rest of the county’s cities.
That, Garnder said, indicated a higher risk of getting the virus in beach cities versus landlocked cities.
Contacted by Voice of OC for comment on the accuracy of that conclusion, the county’s emergency operations center deferred to its communications office, which didn’t have answers to those questions Friday. The county also didn’t immediately provide their own figures on case counts per capita or the averages between beach cities compared to averages between the rest of the cities.
Paul Yost, a healthcare professional and CalOptima board member, said the one thing that’s known for sure is that the risk of the virus’ transmission comes down to how close people are to one another.
“Some beaches are open and some aren’t, and people will likely flock to the ones that are open,” Yost said in a Friday phone interview. “So having some closed in one city and others open in others would probably not be a great idea.”
Laguna Beach city staff in their report for the special meeting also noted concern with drawing a disproportionate crowd of visitors should a neighboring city close down its beaches.
Pope, however, said Newport Beach didn’t see an uptick in visitors when Laguna closed theirs. “But also we were seeing some bad weather, so it was hard to tell.”
“But so far, Huntington has remained open, and they’re our larger neighbor to the north, so I think between ourselves there’s been a degree of access for Orange County that other counties like Los Angeles haven’t had,” he added.
In Los Angeles County, all public beaches are closed until May 15.
“I would like to see a consistent message from the county and the state,” Yost said.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.