(CN) — Coastal cities across Orange County, California, vowed to defy Governor Gavin Newsom’s beach closure order this coming weekend — and took him to court as an opening shot.
Meanwhile, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Huntingon Beach on Friday in defiance of the beach closure and the statewide stay-at-home orders.
Newsom’s health order came after images of crowded beaches last weekend surfaced, where throngs of people flocked to the shore during the stay-at-home directive meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The residents argue Newsom’s actions “infringes on established state and federal constitutional rights” in their motion for an emergency injunction filed Friday in Orange County Superior Court. They say all California residents have the right to beach access and that Newsom’s order violates residents’ rights to due process and equal protection.
The plaintiffs include Dana Point City Councilmember Joseph Muller, San Clemente City Councilmember Laura Ferguson and Mission Viejo City Councilmember Gregory Raths, though none are suing in their capacities as elected officials.
Newsom singled out Orange County in his order to temporarily close state and local beaches, while other coastal counties like Ventura, San Diego and elsewhere were left unscathed. Newsom’s decision on Thursday drew the ire of Orange County elected officials, who said they would defy the beach closure.
That includes the coastal charter city of Newport Beach, which drew 40,000 people last Saturday and another 10,000 last Sunday. The city’s population is approximately 85,000.
Newsom said his office would work with Orange County on new guidelines to reopen the beaches, but officials did not wait around for that opportunity.
In their petition to the court to keep the beaches open, the parties argue the media released misleading photographs to make it appear that Newport Beach was crowded last weekend and that’s what Newsom reacted to when he made his decision.
This week, Newport Beach City Council voted 5-2 to keep its beaches open despite the health order from Sacramento.
The parties also contend that the Covid-19 death rate in Orange County is lower than the state’s death rate. As of Thursday, 2,393 Orange County residents were infected and 45 people had died due to the Covid-19 virus.
The plaintiffs say, “The directive was also devoid of any scientific data to support the directive to shut down all beaches in direct contradiction to recent policy positions adopted by county and local government to continue the operation of Orange County beaches in a safe manner.”
They argue Newsom has no legal authority to close beaches in Orange County and he’s retaliating against them for having “recently expressed opinions that the data no longer supports keeping business closed and individuals confined to their homes.”
The plaintiffs claim their right to assembly is also violated by the state’s temporary beach closure. Orange County has been a flashpoint in anti-quarantine protests in recent weeks. Historically, the Republican-majority county has been home to the most vocal critics of Newsom’s policies, including the stay-at-home orders and the March 4 state of emergency order.
Named defendants include California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the governor’s Office of Emergency director Mark Ghilarducci and the state’s Natural Resources Agency secretary Wade Crowfoot.
The cities of Huntington Beach and Dana Point filed a similar petition on Friday, joined by a group of hotels in Orange County.
That complaint says Newsom’s TV appearance announcing beach closures for Orange County “engendered significant, ongoing public unrest” because “thousands of California residents are actively planning protests and assemblies to specifically reject Governor Newsom’s executive order.”
They claim protests will be ongoing through the weekend and the closure will cause “significant and appreciable damages” to the other named plaintiffs Balboa Bay Club, the Pasea Hotel, Lounge Group, and Lido House.
Gates noted previously Newsom had encouraged people to practice social distancing but also to enjoy the outdoors while hiking or going to the beach.
“It is a very difficult time for a lot of families,” said Gates during a telephonic court hearing Friday afternoon. “We have all of these families told to stay at home, told their children cannot attend school and they’re occupying small spaces. It’s their only escape from the stresses from this pandemic and that is to go to the beach.”
Dhilon called Newsom’s actions the most restrictive action that a governor could have taken and the closures are an abuse of that power.
Munoz said the local government would be in a better position to evaluate the situation “as opposed to Newsom in Sacramento.”
Attorneys for the beach communities also kept bringing up the number of protesters taking to the streets in Orange County on Friday and blamed Newsom’s orders for causing them to come out in large numbers.
Arguing on behalf of the state, Supervising Deputy Attorney General Mark Beckington cited the broad authority Newsom has under the state of emergency declared in March to take actions to protect people’s health.
“The status quo appears to be the governor’s order is in effect, which would weigh toward receiving full briefing before making any changes to them,” Scott says. “But even if that isn’t covered in the status quo, based on the information I do have in this early stage, balancing of the interests and harms on both sides would help in favor of declining to intervene against the governor’s orders and in favor of giving priority to protecting against the threat of public safety posed by Covid-19.”
In the end, Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott denied the requests of both the residents and the beach cities to block Newsom’s beach-closure order and ordered the parties to return to court May 11.
Gates said the court based its decision on a quick turnaround as the plaintiffs filed their complaint earlier in the day, but he’s optimistic they will be able to make a compelling argument.
“I think we’re going to get there,” said Gates.
In the meantime, Huntington Beach will close its beaches on its own authority.