Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’ll be closing all Orange County beaches beginning today, yet there’s still no order and only a letter on the issue as coastal cities are gearing up to file lawsuits against the state during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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In addition to closures of state beaches, “beaches operated by local governments in Orange County are directed to institute full closure starting tomorrow, May 1, to restrict the gathering of visitors that create unsafe conditions,” reads a Thursday letter sent to OC officials from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
“State public health leadership reviewed conditions on these beaches and determined that this beach visitation created unsafe conditions,” the letter adds.
“These conditions threaten the health of both beach visitors and community members who did not visit the beach but are threatened by worsening spread of the virus, including first responders and health care providers.”
As of Friday morning, there was no word of an order on beach closures from Newsom’s office, and only the letter from the emergency services office.
Newsom also has a news conference scheduled at noon today through Twitter and Facebook.
There’s also a protest against the orders scheduled for Huntington Beach Friday.
Meanwhile, Newsom is sending California Highway Patrol officers to the beach, said Huntington Beach City Councilman Erik Peterson.
“The governor is deploying ten units to Orange County as a whole to enforce his order, and I don’t know exactly what our police department is going to do, but he is sending his CHP officers to enforce his order,” Peterson said.
Although it’s unclear if the CHP officers will roam OC’s coastline, or are specifically assigned to Huntington Beach, Peterson said.
Surf City voted to sue the state over the beach closures Thursday night and OC Supervisor Don Wagner said he believes there’s going to be a wave of lawsuits against the beach closure.
“I continue to believe that the county has no legal standing to sue the state but I know lawsuits from individuals and businesses in Orange County are coming,” Wagner said in a Thursday text message. “I would hope the governor will not fight a destructive legal battle, but instead listen to local leaders, who are in close consultation with our own health care professionals.”
The Dana Point City Council also voted to pursue legal action against a state, after a 4-1 vote Thursday to file a temporary restraining order against the governor and the state. Newport Beach Councilmembers are thinking of filing lawsuits.
Supervisor Chairwoman Michelle Steel said the move is state overreach.
“We should be rewarding our communities for practicing safe social distancing and not punishing them by only closing down Orange County beaches. This is unacceptable,” Steel said at a Thursday news conference.
State data shows OC saw an 80 percent increase in hospitalization rates over the past month, despite statements indicating otherwise from Steel.
As of Thursday, the virus has killed 45 people out of 2,393 confirmed cases. According to state data, there’s about 211 people hospitalized with about 76 in intensive care. There’s also been 31,534 people tested throughout the county, which is home to over 3.1 million people.
“Governor Newsom’s memo directing the closure of California beaches is a clear example of unnecessary government overreach. Orange County has been successful in flattening the curve. We are regularly increasing the number of available tests, and hospitalizations are decreasing,” Steel said in a Thursday news release.
It was unclear if Newsom was going to close all California beaches until his comments Thursday, which only focused on closing Orange County beaches.
At the center of the beach closure debate are news photographs from last weekend, depicting packed beaches in Newport Beach. But those photographs have come under scrutiny by city and county officials.
Newport Beach officials insist that the photos were misleading and that city officials were enforcing social distancing on the beach.
Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said a majority of the beach goers they observed on April 24, 25 and 26 were spread apart. The city shared aerial shots of the beach taken on April 25 that showed more people spread out.
Newsom said the news pictures “were disturbing.”
OC Sheriff Don Barnes said, at a Thursday news conference, his department will take a light-handed approach to the orders and not arrest people for violating Newsom’s beach closures. Deputies will instead look for “voluntary compliance” through educating residents about the issue.
Barnes disagreed with Newsom in a Thursday statement.
“The Governor’s decision to single out Orange County by closing our beaches is wrong and fails to recognize the sacrifices made by our 3 million residents,” Barnes said in the statement. “No one should fear being subject to a criminal violation merely for seeking out and exercising healthy activities, especially when using good judgement and appropriate protective measures.”
Local city councils in beach communities also spoke out against Newsom’s order, calling it an overreaction and stating that the order lacked specifics.
“He’s being punitive,” Peterson said. “We were doing things correctly in Orange County, we’re the third lowest county in outbreaks of COVID. You look at Los Angeles, they’re about 4 to 5 times the size but 10 times the number of cases.”
“Social distancing was put in place, the beach is a great place to stay away from the coronavirus. It has all three things that kill it; heat, humidity and sun.”
The San Clemente City Council is also meeting tonight to discuss the order.According to Councilmember Laura Ferguson, she had been told that the beach closures would apply to the entire state and was shocked when she heard it was just Orange County“I felt singled out, a little targeted there, considering we have such a low caseload here in Orange County,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson also said that the sheriff’s will handle the city’s enforcement response, and that there would be lifeguards and other employees to remind residents the beach was off limits.
“They will post some signs along the beaches, there will be no fencing to lock anyone out but we’ll put notices up warning people,” Ferguson said.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.