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Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday directed the temporary "hard close" of state and local beaches in Orange County after thousands of Californians flocked to the shoreline there over the weekend in defiance of a statewide stay-at-home order enacted to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The news comes after a memo sent Wednesday evening to California police chiefs said the governor would go further, closing all state and local beaches and parks, a plan Newsom appeared to abandon.
The action marks Newsom's most symbolic response to the pandemic so far as tensions rise over when and how to reopen the state and allow Californians to return to their normal, everyday lives.
After photos of crowded Orange County beaches went viral last weekend, Newsom chastised beachgoers who ignored the state's restrictions, saying they could prolong the spread of the coronavirus in California and put the health and safety of others at risk.
"Specific issues on some of those beaches have raised alarm bells," Newsom said. "People that are congregating there, that weren't practicing physical distancing, that may go back to their community outside of Orange County and may not even know that they contracted the disease and now they put other people at risk, put our hospital system at risk."
Newsom said Orange County beaches would be reopened soon if the situation improves.
"We want to work very closely with local elected officials, and we're committed to doing that if we can get some framework and guidelines to get this right. We can reopen very, very quickly but ... we've got to make sure we get this right," Newsom said.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, on Thursday sent a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors directing local authorities to close all access to beaches in the county on Friday, including all parking lots and restrooms. Surfing, beach walking and sunbathing also are prohibited.
"Last weekend, state and local beaches in Orange County experienced exceptionally heavy visitation that generated a high concentration of beach visitors in close physical proximity," the letter stated. "State public health leadership reviewed conditions on these beaches and determined that this beach visitation created unsafe conditions. 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 healthcare providers."
Newsom on Wednesday hinted that he was mulling a crackdown on California's beaches, saying he was consulting with the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission, both of which have jurisdiction over the state shoreline.
"What this shows is that the threat of coronavirus spreading remains very real and that Gov. Newsom is as serious as ever about keeping Californians safe,” Steve Padilla, chairman of the California Coastal Commission, said in a statement. “I had COVID-19, was hospitalized for three weeks and in ICU on a ventilator for 11 days fighting for my life, so take it from me — we need to listen to the governor and stay home until it’s safe.”
Newsom's announcement Thursday followed reports that he would take broader action. On Wednesday evening, a California Police Chiefs Assn. memo sent to local police chiefs said the governor intended to make an announcement on Thursday about closures of all state and local beaches. A law enforcement source confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that authorities were briefed on the plans, which they were told might also include the closure of some parks.
On Thursday, Newsom said the memo to the police chiefs "never got to me," and he denied rescinding plans for an order to close beaches statewide.
“So, we’ve been consistent,” Newsom said. “I can’t square what others may have said, but this is what we’ve said.”
After Newsom's news conference, Aimee Faucett, chief of staff for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, appeared to contradict the governor's statement.
"For the record, last night Mayor Faulconer’s administration was notified by Gov. Newsom’s administration that he would be announcing the closure of ALL CA beaches. Minutes before today’s press announcement Mayor’s office was notified this would only apply to Orange County," Faucett said in a tweet Thursday afternoon.
Faulconer was also relieved to hear that San Diego beaches will remain open.
The mayor joined with other San Diego County leaders and health officials to enact a multiphased plan for beach access countywide. Currently, beachgoers are allowed to surf and swim in the water, as well as jog or stroll on the beach. But they have to keep moving: Sitting down or sunbathing is not permitted.
"I'm glad they reversed course. We put together a plan that is working,” Faulconer told The Times in a telephone interview. "This is consistent. It’s countywide. And, most important, people bought into it. People are doing the right thing.”
A top Newsom administration official involved in talks with local leaders about the status of California beaches said that some of the governor's top advisors were recommending a statewide closure. But after hearing the concerns raised by city and county leaders, Newsom decided instead to focus solely on the Orange County beaches that had attracted such large crowds this past weekend.
"Our public health officials were really waving the red flag," said the administration official, who agreed to talk with The Times on the condition of anonymity.
Some counties, including Los Angeles, have ordered all beaches closed, an expansion of Newsom’s sweeping stay-at-home rules.
But others, such as Ventura and Orange, have allowed them to remain open. Social distancing has been required, and some parking lots have been closed in an effort to keep out-of-town visitors out. In advance of last weekend, Orange County officials urged outsiders to stay away.
It is not clear when the closures will go into effect or how long they will last. County officials say they have not received specific details from Sacramento about the closures.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said he intends to direct his deputies, who have jurisdiction over county beaches and certain cities, to seek voluntary compliance from residents.
"We have been able to accomplish that and educate the public where necessary," he said. "To date, we have not had to take any enforcement action on any components of the governor's orders."
Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta said the city invested considerable effort and expense to discourage overcrowding at the beaches and worked hard to ensure the public had safe access to the beach for exercise and their mental well-being.
"Our experience here locally has been that most people are being responsible and complying with social distancing, and given that Orange County has among the lowest per capita COVID-19 death rates in California, the state’s action today seems to prioritize politics over data,” Semeta said in a written statement.
Some Orange County officials, though, said the images of crowded beaches painted a distorted picture of what conditions were actually like.
Huntington Beach surfer Alex Carvalho said he wasn't surprised by the closure, but said the beach crowds he saw last weekend really tried to keep physical distance from others.
"I went out there with my girlfriend and her neighbors, and we found our own pocket in the sand just to enjoy being in the beauty near the water," said Carvalho, 23, who surfed three times this past Saturday and Sunday. "I'm definitely sad when things shut down, but whatever happens, I will respect and follow the rules. People need to stay healthy."
San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson said she reached out to the city manager and city attorney Wednesday night after she heard about the proposed order, suggesting that they review what legal authority the governor had to close city beaches.
“I’m hoping the governor can cite some valid reason under case law to be doing this to cities because, in my opinion, it appears to be government overreach. Local beaches are under the control of the cities, not the state.”
After a roughly two-week closure imposed at San Clemente beaches, the city reopened its sandy stretches last weekend with the caveat that visitors would only be permitted to run, walk, swim, surf or partake in other activities while along the coast. Sunbathing or sitting on the sand was not permitted.
In nearby Laguna Beach, officials on Tuesday also moved to reopen their coastline for limited hours during weekdays, beginning Monday.
Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake said that while he understands Newsom’s action given the photographs of the crowds descending on other city beaches over the weekend, the move “comes at a point when it seemed like we were on a trajectory to move forward, and this now moves us back.”
He opposes the latest effort by the governor, saying that it appears to be more of a power move than a reasonable step toward reopening the state and restarting the economy.
“There are people that rightfully so feel Newsom has gone beyond the scope of his authority and has taken on power that is not outlined in the [California] Constitution,” he said.
In neighboring Newport Beach, Police Chief Jon Lewis and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said in a joint statement Thursday that there were some clusters of people who were crowded too closely together on the beach last weekend, but that “it was our personal observation, and that of our officers, that the overwhelming majority of Newport Beach residents and visitors were families or practicing social distancing.”
The departments also shared aerial photos captured Saturday afternoon that showed sparse crowds on the city’s beaches.
Health officials in Los Angeles County, which has been the hotbed of the pandemic in California, say staying at home now is essential to slowing the spread of the illness.
Los Angeles has recorded more than 1,000 deaths and an outsize share of cases and hospitalizations.
Others counties, especially those in rural areas, have been much less affected.
Times staff writers Taryn Luna and Anh Do contributed to this report.