HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Maureen Osborne is torn by the state’s decision to close the sweeping, scenic beach just a 10-minute walk from her home.
She hasn’t gone there much since the coronavirus outbreak because the neighborhood has become crowded with visitors who park their cars to walk down to the shore — but wishes she could.
“It is what it is,” said the 62-year-old, who now carries a mask with her as a precaution when she goes out. “If people are sensible and do what they’re supposed to with the social distancing — but not everybody is.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his decision Thursday to close beaches in Orange County after seeing photos of thousands of beachgoers clustered on the sands during a heat wave last weekend.
The move was backed by those concerned about the virus’s spread and reviled by others. It spurred questions for many living in beach communities who rely on the shoreline for exercise and open space.
Scientists said beaches could contribute to the transmission of the virus because they draw people to congregate in large numbers at a time when virtually all other large group activities — ranging from school to concerts to sporting events — have been shut down.
“The main reason for not going to the beach is just simply you don’t want to go to places where people are congregating. It’s hard to go to the beach and not congregate,” said Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists.
“You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you are exposing yourself, for minutes or hours, to people who may potentially be breathing out — even if they’re not coughing or sneezing — but people who might be breathing out virus.”
The virus can be transmitted through large and also small droplets that are light and don’t fall to the ground quickly but carry through the air. A strong wind on the coast could push these droplets even farther, Nouri said.
Complicating the issue is that the virus can be transmitted by people who don’t have symptoms, he said.
Viruses can live in the ocean, but it isn’t known whether the coronavirus would remain infectious. Most likely, it would be diluted to the point where it is not a concern, Nouri said.
Chad Nelsen, chief executive of the Surfrider Foundation, said there’s a study under way to determine whether the virus remains infectious in sewage, though beachgoers shouldn’t be in the water anyway in the case of a spill.
As a result, the main risk to beachgoers is their fellow beachgoer, he said.
“The primary concern for contagion is physical distancing at the beach or in the water,” Nelsen said.
Some California counties have adopted measures to try to address the issue. Ventura County allows walking and jogging at the beach, but residents can’t sit on the sand and linger. Los Angeles County closed beaches altogether.
“We actually don’t have anything to suggest that just because you’re outside means that if you’re in close contact with other people this virus won’t spread,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
The beach is more than a fun day in the sun for those who live along Huntington Beach’s shoreline of crashing waves dotted with surfers — it’s a lifestyle.
Osborne said she usually walks with friends on weekends and stops for a bite. She also likes to park along Pacific Coast Highway and take in the views while working in her car.
She hasn’t been able to do either since the viral outbreak, and rarely even goes to the beach to avoid having to walk through congested streets to get there since the city shut down beach parking lots in a bid to discourage crowds.
Ryan Selewicz, 28, lives right on the sand in Newport Beach. People in his neighborhood don’t have yards — the homes are wedged between the road and the beach, where people go to watch the sunset and walk their dogs.
He said he doesn’t know what a beach closure would look like because his patio faces the ocean.
“I don’t really know where people are going to be expected to go now to get out of their house and have their outside time,” he said. “Most people would probably consider that the front of their house.”
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.