Newsom Orders ‘Hard Close’ of Orange County Beaches

People soak up some sun this past Sunday, in Huntington Beach, Calif., prompting warnings from officials that defiance of stay-at-home orders could reverse progress and bring the coronavirus surging back. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Staving off another weekend rush on Southern California beaches, Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday ignored pleas from local officials and ordered the closure of Orange County beaches to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Newsom said photos taken last weekend of the county’s famed beaches packed with beachgoers and advice from public health officials spurred the decision to single out Orange County, the state’s third largest. For now, many beaches in nearby counties like Ventura, San Diego and elsewhere in the state will remain open in a limited capacity.

“The conditions last week, the images we saw at a few of our beaches, were disturbing,” Newsom said during a press briefing.

Many state parks and beaches have been closed over the last several weeks, but last weekend many counties and cities eased off and allowed residents to enjoy California’s famous coastline. With record-breaking temperatures gripping much of the state, tens of thousands flocked to beaches in Orange County to escape the heat and the quarantine.

Photos and aerial footage unsurprisingly went viral and led to Newsom’s decision to ground beachgoers.

The “hard close” of the county’s well-known beaches like Newport, Laguna and Huntington, goes against the will of some cities and lawmakers that want to keep the beaches open to the public during the pandemic.

Newsom complimented counties like Los Angeles and San Diego for preventing overcrowding and “meeting the moment,” but remains concerned about Orange County. He said the state is working with the county on new guidelines to reopen the beaches.

“We’re going to do a hard close,” Newsom said. “If we can get some framework and guidelines to get this right, we can reopen very, very quickly.”

A memo circulated late Wednesday by state police chiefs claimed Newsom was preparing to close not just Orange County, but all state and public beaches. Rather than squash the rumors, Newsom’s office declined to comment to various media outlets and allowed the inaccurate news to reach millions as they woke.

But Newsom said his office was merely reaching out to local officials for guidance and input — and did not flip-flop on a statewide ban.

“I can’t square what others may have said,” Newsom said in response to a question on the apparently false memo.

While Newsom singled out Orange County in his beach closure order, no other Southern California city felt the governor’s comments more than Newport Beach.

Earlier this week, its City Council voted 5-2 to keep its beaches open despite the throng of people who took to the shore. Images that circulated on social media became national news and yet city leaders decided that the beach access was essential for the health and well-being of its residents. At least one City Council member called the media’s photos of swelling crowds inaccurate.

Councilman Jeff Herdman voted to close the beaches to follow the state’s public health orders. City officials estimate 40,000 people flocked to Newport Beach on April 25.

“It’s very embarrassing. The whole reason for this order is because of what happened in Newport Beach last week and the council majority’s vote on Tuesday night to not close beaches,” Herdman told Courthouse News.

David Carrillo, executive director of UC Berkeley’s California Constitution Center, said Newsom’s March 4 state of emergency order trumps city and county autonomy.

“Newport Beach is a charter city, so ordinarily it might have some arguments about local autonomy. But we’re now under a statewide emergency declaration, and in an emergency the state assumes primary responsibility over the coordinated response, so the governor can close state beaches even if a local ordinance would keep them open,” Carrillo said in an interview.

Officials from Newport Beach and Huntington Beach said Thursday evening that they would oppose the governor’s order.

Newsom’s decision predictably drew mixed reactions around the state.

State Sen. John Moorlach said “Newsom just doesn’t seem to get it” and argued social distancing is possible on county beaches.

“Orange County residents have been responsible. They’ve followed health care officials’ prudent recommendations and respected the science. The county hasn’t seen the ‘surge’ in its hospitals, and six weeks into this shelter-in-place order, the beach may be the best medicine,” said Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, a beach town.

Orange County Supervisor Donald Wagner accused the governor of being overly influenced by the media.

“Governor Newsom did not like images he saw in the papers about Orange County beaches and has chosen to base policy that will affect residents without any input from local leaders, medical professionals, law enforcement officials or residents,” Wagner said in a statement.

In a statement, Orange County Board of Supervisors chair Michelle Steel called Newsom’s order “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,” said Steel. “Our highest priority is public health and public safety, and I’ve maintained that a large part of that includes our mental and physical well-being, which includes getting fresh air and exercise.”

Orange County has reported the fourth most Covid-19 cases of California’s counties at 2,400, and eighth in deaths with 44, according to the state’s public health department.

Meanwhile, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer applauded Newsom’s targeted order.

“Great news: the governor heard us. San Diego beaches WILL STAY OPEN under our plan approved by lifeguards and health officials. In a time of great crisis we don’t need knee-jerk policies. We need to keep a steady hand,” the Republican mayor tweeted.

A goose named Goosey crosses the street to get to the other side with owners Psyche Lynch, left, and Tom, center, in a crowded downtown Huntington Beach on Sunday. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Covid-19 cases continue to pile up in the nation’s largest state, as Newsom said counties reported a 5.2% increase along with 95 new deaths overnight. Officials have confirmed nearly 49,000 cases and the state’s official death toll stands at 1,982.

With the help of private biomedical companies and the opening of new sites in rural counties, California is now testing on average over 20,000 people for the virus per day. Officials have grown more and more confident of the state’s expanded testing capacity and are now recommending all essential workers, such as health care workers, first responders and grocery store employees, be tested regardless of whether they have symptoms or not.

Newsom remains adamant that a return to normalcy hinges on the state’s ability to offer and process tests for its 40 million residents and has made testing the first metric in his 6-point reopening plan. 

The expanded testing guidelines follow an announcement made Wednesday by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti that the city will offer free testing for all residents, becoming the first major city to do so.

Los Angeles County Health Services director Christina Ghaly said tests for county residents would be prioritized for select groups including the elderly, people with underlying health conditions and those showing symptoms of Covid-19.

Ghaly said social distancing is just as important as tests.

“It can make people feel more comfortable knowing whether or not you’re infected. But I want to caution holding on too tightly to that security. Because medically it is fleeting,” said Ghaly.

The county reported 55 new deaths and 733 new confirmed infections Thursday, bringing the death toll to 1,111. In total, 23,182 Angelenos have been infected with the virus according to public health officials.

An outbreak at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown LA accounts for most of the 172 infected homeless people in LA County. And 525 people who lived in institutional settings have died — most in nursing homes, according to LA County Public Health.

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