Coastal Watchdog OKs Local Beach Closures Due to Pandemic

The coronavirus health crisis trumps the right of all Californians to freely access their beaches — for the time being, at least.

Dogs enjoy their slice of the surf in San Diego’s Ocean Beach. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — Finding it appropriate to defer to local public health authorities who have closed or limited access to California’s beaches, the Coastal Commission on Wednesday unanimously waived emergency permit requirements for cities which restricted beach access to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under normal circumstances coastal access restrictions and beach closures would require an emergency coastal development permit issued by the Coastal Commission, California’s state agency which oversees development along the coast.

But Coastal Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth told commissioners during their first ever teleconference meeting over Zoom the Coastal Act grants him the authority to waive permit requirements for public agencies or individuals performing a public service to protect life and property in emergencies.

Under the provision, Ainsworth said Wednesday he had waived 69 permits for 55 entities throughout the state since March 30.

Ainsworth noted the closure of California’s beaches has been a point of contention for some residents and some beach closures “may have been overly broad.”

“I did not think it was appropriate to second-guess local health officials,” Ainsworth said before noting the large crowds that had gathered on Orange County beaches last month when local officials refused to close or restrict beach access there. The gathering prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to order a hard closure of the beaches.

Commission chair Steve Padilla, who headed Wednesday’s virtual meeting after recovering from Covid-19 and a stay in the intensive care unit, said he couldn’t wait to feel “sand in his toes” when he was released from the hospital and was “sad to learn” the beaches in San Diego County had been closed.

Local restrictions on beach access in San Diego have since been lifted to allow for recreation.

Ainsworth said he sent memos to local coastal agencies March 24 requesting they submit proposed or adopted Covid-19 closures or restrictions to the commission to waive Coastal Act requirements. The requirements will be lifted during the duration of stay-at home orders.

But some jurisdictions have apparently closed or restricted access to their beaches without receiving approval from the Coastal Commission. Ainsworth said Wednesday staff members had reached out to those agencies to request they submit waiver requests to comply with the Coastal Act.

Ainsworth pointed out many cities have since relaxed restrictions on beach access to allow for recreation including surfing, swimming, biking, walking and running.

“Coastal access plays an important part in maintaining physical, emotional and mental health,” Ainsworth said.

“I think this crisis demonstrated how important California beaches and open spaces are. My hope is this will be a hard lesson and people will understand the consequences of losing our beaches to sea level rise. Our beaches are the heart and soul of California,” he added.

Ainsworth’s point was bolstered by news that Los Angeles County beaches reopened for limited activities Wednesday after a six-week closure even after the county’s public health director said Tuesday “stay-at-home” orders would likely last until August. LA County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer walked her comments back during her daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday and apologized for “the confusion I inadvertently created.”

Ainsworth said he expected more beaches and trails to open over the summer with limited access, which Commissioner Caryl Hart noted was vital for those who live in dense urban areas without adequate access to outdoor spaces.

Commissioner Katie Rice suggested the commission “make a plea” to Newsom and the State Parks Department to ensure enough money is allocated to employ staff to manage restroom and waste facilities so federally managed parks and beaches can also reopen as restrictions are lifted.

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