LOS ANGELES — When Florida residents were allowed to start going to the beach again last weekend, photos of the crowds went viral along with the hashtag #FloridaMorons.
This weekend, amid the year’s first heat wave, thousands converged on some California beaches to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and to get a break from weeks of isolation at home.
The images from places including Huntington Beach also went viral and raised questions about whether allowing the beaches to reopen could set back California’s progress on slowing the spread of coronavirus. It also is testing the exhortations of health officials, who urge staying at home as the best path to flattening the coronavirus curve and restarting the economy.
California was the first state in the nation to adopt a stay-at-home order, and experts say that swift action has prevented a greater death toll, like those of New York and New Jersey. Gov. Gavin Newsom urged residents to avoid beaches and other public gathering places, expressing fear it could cause more people to get sick.
Some communities, including Los Angeles County and many parts of the Bay Area, have kept beaches closed. On Saturday, L.A. beaches remained largely empty.
“My compliments to our community for staying away from the beaches in LA,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said Saturday on Twitter. “From Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice, to Dockweiler — All Clear!!”
Communities in the Bay Area have cracked down on those who violate the rules. Last week in San Mateo County, officials ordered 275 people off Linda Mar Beach and threatened arrests and citations if people continued to violate the order.
Polls have found wide support for the stay-at-home order among Californians. Among those polled for a recent California Health Care Foundation/Ipsos survey, 75% wanted the order to continue as long as needed. Only 11% wanted to stop the stay-at-home order, while 13% had no opinion.
Yet amid the heat wave, the ocean beckoned to many. Authorities kept a number of beach parking lots closed and were out in force trying to impose social-distancing rules.
One sunbather from the San Fernando Valley, who declined to give her name, said she drove to Ventura County to do what Southern Californians often do when the mercury rises.
“It’s hot,” the Canoga Park resident said. “It’s the go-to thing to do if you live in California.”
Although few people — including the lifeguard and police — wore masks, most observed social-distancing rules, reminded to stay six feet apart by a flashing road sign outside Santa Buenaventura State Beach.
At the north end of the beach, several dozen surfers fought their way atop 3- to 4-foot swells. By midafternoon, with the beach largely emptied, Robin Hoag and Paige Leichtnam made their way over from their nearby home.
They have been hiking county trails and riding their bikes to work since their favorite beach was closed last month, but they waited for the visitors from L.A. County, where beaches are still closed, to leave before coming back Saturday to play paddle ball.
“It’s pretty laid-back now,” Hoag said. “People will go wherever it’s open.”
Ashley Bautista, public information officer for Ventura County, said there was a law enforcement presence at all of the county’s beaches, and officers were informing visitors that they were only supposed to walk, run, swim or surf. Beachgoers were complying, she said.
“We appreciate that our community members are making these sacrifices,” she said, “and that local law enforcement is focused on education for compliance.”
In Orange County, Sebastian Alcaraz was preparing to surf at 11th Street in Newport Beach on Friday afternoon, as he has continued to do during the pandemic.
The 17-year-old from Long Beach said he was sick for about a week in January and lost his senses of taste and smell. He now believes he was infected with the coronavirus.
Alcaraz’s friend, Natalie Peart of Huntington Beach, 23, said she felt safe going to the beach.
“We’re in California; we’re the most chill people,” Peart said. “Everyone’s social. Nobody wants to give that up, you know? … People are going out because we’ve been quarantined for a month, and now it’s hot. Nobody wants to be inside.”
Heather Rangel, press information officer for the Newport Beach Police Department, said Saturday there had been no arrests or citations related to the stay-at-home orders.
Angie Bennett, spokeswoman for the Huntington Beach Police Department, said no one was cited for violating social-distancing guidelines.
Beaches have been a point of political debate n the coronavirus crisis. Some surfers and others say they don’t see the danger of being allowed back in the water and have been pressing their case to officials and in online polls.
“There is no logical or defensible reason to disallow access to the ocean, provided we maintain responsible spacing, which is essentially guaranteed by Mother Nature,” wrote Andrew Mactavish, one of more than 4,100 people to sign a Change.org petition to reopen Manhattan Beach. “This is a ridiculous publicity stunt on the part of paranoid and apparently ignorant public officials.”
Justis Brown, another petition signatory, added: “Surfing is not a crime.” Many of those signing the petition in one of L.A.’s wealthiest communities proposed allowing locals, alone, to have access to the shore.
It remains unclear when the state will ease the stay-at-home rules, which closed all but essential businesses and limited trips to such tasks as shopping and medical appointments. The order did not cover beaches, so it is up to local authorities to determine when they can open.
The coronavirus crisis has not hit all of California equally. The virus has slammed Los Angeles County and Silicon Valley harder than some rural areas.
The number of deaths in L.A. County — where the outbreak began in California — doubled over the last week to nearly 900. That has prompted health officials to urge residents to stay home whenever possible.
“We have high rates of illness and a lot of people in our county who are dying. We know it’s best right now for us Angelenos to stay home, or stay outside (in) your own yard or your own neighborhood,” Los Angeles County health director Barbara Ferrer said last week.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that most of the six milestones he set to consider loosening the stay-home order he issued last month had not been met. The only change the governor has made is to allow some elective surgeries to again be scheduled in hospitals, citing sufficient capacity.
“It will be those indicators that drive our decision-making,” he said Thursday. “Not dates. We don’t debate dates. We look at the facts objectively.”
The six milestones include the ability to closely monitor and track potential cases; prevent infection of high-risk people; prepare hospitals to handle surges; develop therapies to meet demand; ensure schools, businesses and child-care facilities can support social distancing; and develop guidelines for when to ask Californians to stay home again if necessary.
On Friday, Newsom said, “We will consider local conditions” when deciding when to ease the rules. “We will consider those things not only from the perspective of the spread of the virus, not only from the perspective of the number of deaths and trend lines, but also in terms of our broader capacity.”
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