California Gov. Gavin Newsom closed beaches in Orange County on Thursday, overriding some local officials who had rejected his pleas to limit access as the coronavirurs continues to spread throughout the state.
A memo to the state’s police chiefs on Wednesday indicated Newsom was preparing to close all beaches in the state of nearly 40 million people whose identity is rooted in part in the surf and sand along its scenic coasts.
But Thursday, Newsom limited the order to Orange County, south of Los Angeles where the Newport Beach City Council earlier this week rejected calls to close its beach at the beginning of the busy tourism season. And nearby beaches in nearby Huntington Beach have remained open with few restrictions.
Last weekend, some 80,000 people flocked to the Orange County city of Newport Beach with additional thousands gathering at open beaches northwest of Los Angeles. Beaches in Los Angeles County remained closed.
Newsom said those packed beaches were “disturbing” and makes it more difficult for him to consider relaxing the state’s mandatory stay-at-home order.
“The only thing that will delay it is more weekends like last weekend,” he said. “Let’s not see that happen.”
While most state parks and many local beaches, trails and parks have been closed for weeks, Newsom’s order ignited pushback from community leaders who argue they can safely provide some relief to residents.
“Governor Newsom just doesn’t seem to get it,” said Republican state Sen. John Moorlach, a former Orange County Supervisor who represents the area in the state Legislature. “We need to trust people. If our citizens exercise proper social distancing, then we should allow access to the beaches.”
Other beaches in Southern California have opened this week, but with restrictions. In the City of San Diego, officials allowed walking, jogging and swimming — banning people from stopping or sitting. A statement from Newsom’s office called restrictions like that “responsible strategies to allow residents to recreate in coastal areas.”
“We are hopeful that Orange County can work with us to apply a similar approach,” the Governor’s Office said in a news release.
Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis and Fire Chief Jeff Boyles said in a statement Thursday that they were out patrolling last weekend and most city residents and visitors were keeping their distance.
“What we observed from land and by air was the vast majority of beach goers practicing social distancing,” the statement said.
An Orange County supervisor, Donald P. Wagner, said he believes Newsom has the power to close local beaches but “it is not wise to do so.”
The announcement angered some in Orange County, who were tired of being cooped up at home for weeks as the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations have flattened.
“It’s time to move on,” Huntington Beach resident Jim Puro, 59, said Thursday. “We need to start opening up and I can’t think of a better way than to be out in the sun.”
Newsom said California saw a 5.2% increase of coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, offering a reminder, he said, that “this disease has not gone away.” California has more than 49,000 cases and more than 1,950 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested.
Pressure is building to to ease state and local restrictions that have throttled the economy, closing most businesses and adding nearly 4 million people to the unemployment rolls.
In Humboldt County, also near the Oregon border, Sheriff William Honsal indicated he wouldn’t enforce Newsom’s order to close beaches and state parks. “It is not OK to punish Northern California for Southern California’s mistake, and I hope he hears that loud and clear,” Honsal said in a statement Thursday.
In sparsely populated Modoc County, also near Oregon, schools, hair salons, churches, restaurants, the county’s only movie theater and other business will reopen Friday as long as people stay six feet apart, said Ned Coe, a cattle rancher and county supervisor.
Newsom reiterated Wednesday it would be weeks before he makes the first significant modification to the state order. “It won’t be on the basis of pressure, it won’t be on the basis of what we want, but what we need to do,” Newsom said.
The governor’s order is sure to draw fire as pressure is building to ease restrictions and slowly reopen the state.
While beaches and parks close across the state Friday, in sparsely populated Modoc County schools, hair salons, churches, restaurants, the county’s only movie theater and other business will reopen Friday as long as people stay six feet away from each other, said Ned Coe, a cattle rancher and county supervisor.
The rural county in the northeast corner of California has about 9,000 people living in 4,200 square miles (11,000 square kilometers) and zero reported cases of COVID-19, Coe said.
“Just as our physical health is is vital for our citizens, so is the mental health and economic health of our citizens,” he said.
Coe said officials sent a letter about a week ago to Gov. Newsom asking him to ease restriction in the county but have not received a response. He said he didn’t expect Newsom to take legal action against the county that survives on cattle ranching and travelers.
“The governor himself has indicated that it is time to start opening in a staged and safe manner, and that obviously has to be different for different areas of the state,” he said.
Six San Francisco Bay Area counties that imposed the first broad stay-at-home orders in California because of the coronavirus loosened them — slightly — for the first time Wednesday, joining a growing list of local governments that are cracking the door to a less-restrictive life.
The announcement was part of a dizzying list of modified orders making it difficult to keep up with what is allowed and what is not. Tennis will be OK in Sacramento starting Friday, but not in San Francisco, where public health officials say it’s still not safe for people to share a ball.
Compounding the confusion: Some elements of the revised orders won’t take effect because they conflict with the statewide stay-at-home order, which is still in place.
“I want to remind everyone that we must all abide by all the local health orders and the state health orders. That means whichever is stricter, in some cases that is the state order,” Santa Clara County legal counsel James Williams said. “It is important that we adhere to the stricter of both.”
The Bay Area order allows for landscaping, construction and other outdoor businesses, such as flea markets and nurseries, so long as social distancing is maintained. And in what could be a critical addition for many parents, it specifies that summer camps are allowed, but only for children of people allowed to work under the state order. The children must remain in groups of 12 or fewer and with the same supervisor and may not mingle with kids outside their group.
It’s not clear if that element complies with the state order. When asked about it Wednesday, Newsom said it was “a point of clarification” his administration will be discussing with local officials.
The changes in local orders reflect the growing unrest among some residents and government officials over Newsom’s order and his plan for a slow and methodical reopening of the nation’s most populous state even as other states such as Florida move much more quickly.
With much of the economy closed, more than 3.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment benefits since March 12. In Auburn, northeast of Sacramento, salon owner Tisha Fernhoff said she has started taking an occasional client to help pay her rent and meet other expenses. She’s among a smattering of owners across the state who have dodged public health orders that closed their businesses because they are considered nonessential.
Newsom reiterated Wednesday it would be weeks before he makes the first significant modification to the state order, urging people to remain at home to prevent unintended outbreaks among the state’s most high-risk populations, including nursing homes.
“It won’t be on the basis of pressure, it won’t be on the basis of what we want, but what we need to do,” Newsom said. “And what we need to do from my humble perspective is listen to the public health experts.”
But each of the state’s 58 counties have their own public health experts, and many are starting to ask Newsom to open up the state. On Monday, six rural Northern California counties sent a letter to the governor asking him to let them reopen, noting they only had 69 confirmed virus cases among a combined population of 500,000 people.
Santa Clara County Health Director Dr. Sara Cody said local officials have come up with their own metrics to measure infection rates, hospitalizations and testing to ensure that infections don’t start rising again. If that happens, she said, stricter rules will be back.
But she acknowledged there may be other health effects from forcing people to stay home, as well as the burgeoning unemployment the pandemic restrictions have caused.
“I wish I could give you a set timeline for when this was going to end. My family asks me, my friends ask me — we don’t have a date,” she said, noting that there still is no vaccine, so “we are going to need to have protections in place for a very, very long time.”