Distant Shore: Los Angeles County unlikely to lift beach closures until at least May 15 [UPDATED]

“I was amazed by the lack of footsteps and displacement of sand from human interactions. I’ve never seen the coastline so pristine. A wild sight to see on a perfect beach day.” -- Cover photographer Richard Podgurski (RP-Photograph.com)

“I was amazed by the lack of footsteps and displacement of sand from human interactions. I’ve never seen the coastline so pristine. A wild sight to see on a perfect beach day.” — Cover photographer Richard Podgurski (RP-Photograph.com)

After Los Angeles County ordered the temporary closure of all beaches late last month, Hermosa Beach resident Chris Brown began a routine of strolling west on one of the city’s walk streets right up the edge of The Strand, which had also been ordered closed, and watching the sunset.

Eventually he stopped strolling. Brown, an avid surfer and beach volleyball player, decided that being so close without being able to sink his toes in the sand or dive into the ocean was hurting more than it was helping.

“You’re like a kid with your face pressed against the glass. I actually have realized that it’s better for me not to look at it, to pretend it’s not there. Because it’s so painful for me to be able to not go out there. And it’s worse if I’m actually looking at it,” he said.

Brown is a founder of Residents for Responsible Beach Use, one of several efforts in the South Bay to lobby officials to reopen beaches that were closed last month to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The efforts have gathered significant support, a testament to the place of the coast in the region’s identity. (A change.org petition entitled “Reopen Manhattan Beach’s public spaces” had gathered more than 4,000 supporters by Tuesday morning.) They have also prompted concerns that they could lead to a potential spike in COVID-19 cases and a setback to the progress Southern California has made in limiting the spread of the virus.

Officials interviewed for this story said it is unlikely there will be any change in access to the beaches until at least May 15, while the L.A. County Public Health Department’s “Safer at Home” order remains in effect. It was an amendment to the order that shut down the beaches, and it would take another amendment to lift them. The issue has become more urgent in the past week, though, with some beaches in other parts of the country and the state beginning to reopen, including those in neighboring Ventura County. Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the county public health department, was asked about Ventura’s reopening during a briefing Monday and said “every county is different,” but that health officials were actively considering when and how the beaches would be reopened.

“Like other counties that are moving in that direction, we too want to make sure people can get outside, let people enjoy the beauty L.A. County has to offer. But we do need to do that safely, and we do need to have some pieces in place so we can protect each other when we do reopen,” Ferrer said.

Officials in Hermosa, which owns its beach, cannot reopen ahead of the rest of the county. Photo by JP Cordero

On March 27, Los Angeles County Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis ordered the closure of all county beaches and associated facilities, including bike paths, piers and bathrooms. Hermosa, which owns its beach, had ordered its beaches closed the day before. But the language of the county’s order, which applies the entirety of the county’s “public health jurisdiction,” means that only a city with its own health departments, namely Long Beach, would be able to reopen beaches on a different timetable. (The city of Pasadena also has its own public health department, but lacks a beach.) 

In an attempt to craft a unified reopening policy, mayors from Rancho Palos Verdes through El Segundo joined in a conference call to gather ideas and share them with Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents the South Bay. Hahn, aware of the pressure that local elected officials in the South Bay were facing from residents, cautioned them that any plans for a selective early reopening were unlikely to be granted. 

“Nothing should happen until after May 15. And I warned them that, if there’s another surge, or our hospital capacity isn’t there, who knows, we might extend the [Safer At Home] order. I’m not hearing that now, but I wanted to warn them there’s a possibility,” she said.

Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, who has been helming the group, said that he expected to have another call on Friday. Brand said proposals from resident groups were some of the “many ideas out there,” and declined to get “into the weeds” of the proposal coastal cities would ultimately deliver.

“We’re going to be weighing them against what we can actually accomplish in terms of enforcement, and what we can reasonably expect from just general behavior,” Brand said.

Among those who have gotten into the weeds is Derek Levy, a past winner of the South Bay Big Wave Challenge. Levy said that like most surfers he has been itching to get in the water. Earlier this month, he presented a plan to give surfers access to the ocean to Manhattan Beach Mayor Richard Montgomery. It would involve using cones to mark off a 12-foot wide path — the two swords’ length of social distancing — from the bike path to the water. Surfers would walk west in single file toward the water along the cones on the north, and walk east along the line of cones on the south after finishing their session. Levy suggested 26th Street in Manhattan, which is in front of the county Lifeguard Training Center, as a possible entry point.

Levy is a board member of the South Bay Boardriders, and suggested that volunteers from the organization could help make sure people follow the rules on land. Once in the water, he added, surfers’ notorious greed for more waves means that people will naturally spread out. 

“Out in the water, you don’t want me within half a mile of you,” Levy said.

Critics of the plan have pointed to images of packed lineups in places where surfing was maintained longer than in the South Bay, such as Lower Trestles at San Onofre State Beach, as proof that surfers will congregate. But unlike Trestles, which breaks over a cobblestone reef and tends to have a single, well-defined take-off zone, the beach breaks of the South Bay provide constantly shifting peaks, making it easier for an enterprising surfer to be alone with a wave (if perhaps harder to reach the lineup).

Montgomery said he had forwarded the plan to Hahn’s office. He said the city welcomed suggestions about how to go about reopening the beaches.

“There’s no guarantee [the Board of Supervisors] or the Department of Beaches and Harbors will approve any of these. But we want to see ideas. We’re all feeling the same thing. How do we relieve some of that pressure of being cooped up?” he said.

Pono Barnes, a public information officer for the county lifeguards, said even if surfers present little danger of spreading the coronavirus once in the water, there is considerable risk of transmission leading up to that point.

“It’s not just the individual surfer. That person is fine by themselves. But what did they do to get down to the beach? Did they stop for coffee? Are they touching the parking meters? Do they stop at the bathroom on the way to the water? That times 10 million people is a level of exposure that is probably not necessary,” Banes said.

Beaches, piers and coastal paths like The Strand and The Esplanade, shown above, are unlikely to reopen before May 15. Photo by JP Cordero

Other locations have begun experimenting with various kinds of limited reopening. Jacksonville, Florida, reopened its beaches on Friday but kept them closed between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., when the midday sun is highest and people might be most likely to remain in place. Various pro-reopening groups in the South Bay have circulated photos of signs posted on beaches in New South Wales, Australia, laying out acceptable activities such as jogging or surfing that would keep people moving and distanced, rather than gathering in one spot.

Barnes said he was familiar with plans calling for limited access on a more immediate basis, but said they would be “pretty difficult” to implement in L.A. County.

“I know they’ve been relatively successful in Australia with limited beach activity. But we’re in one of the most populous metro areas in the world. Our beaches are a major tourist attraction, and I don’t know what that would look like or if there’s a clean way to do it,” he said.

L.A. County residents are being discouraged from traveling to Ventura or other counties that have opened their beaches, for fear of spreading the coronavirus there or bringing it back with them. And in Santa Cruz, which opened its beaches last week, popular surf spots have featured signs limiting the water to surfers from Santa Cruz County. The possibility that L.A. County beaches will remain closed because of their proximity to a much larger population — one with significant socioeconomic differences from the mostly well-to-do living near the coast — has exposed a strain of nativism in some South Bay supporters of early reopening. Several commenters on social media have suggested that crowding could be curtailed by “checking IDs” at the beaches to ensure that they were only being used by local residents.

Nicole Mooradian, a public information officer with the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, said that an eventual reopening could attempt to limit crowds through measures like keeping beach parking lots closed. But an attempt to limit access by city of residence is unlikely to figure in any reopening plan.

“It’s highly doubtful that we would, say, specifically close the beach in Manhattan Beach to only residents of Manhattan Beach. That just goes against what we’re about,” she said.

Brown, of Residents for Responsible Beach Access, also found the idea of limiting the beach to locals distasteful. The coast, he said, belongs to everyone.

“I don’t particularly like it, and I wouldn’t want to suggest it,” he said.

But as Brown’s abandoned sunset strolls suggest, the inability to take advantage of something so close at hand appears to be creating particular problems for the South Bay. Kevin Sousa, a Hermosa resident and a licensed marriage and family therapist, said that his practice saw a spike in bookings with the emergence of the coronavirus, and that since the closures late last month, the loss of an outlet like surfing or jogging on the beach has aggravated the condition of some patients.

Sousa is also the clinical director of the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, a pioneering ocean-therapy group based in the South Bay. In an interview, he said he supported the closure order when it came down, but that the combination of his recent experience with patients and his understanding of the benefits the beach can provide meant his position on the issue had “evolved.” 

“I have personally witnessed and am now treating members of our community suffering from depressive episodes, anxiety, feelings of isolation, panic attacks and the resulting symptomatology; irritability, agitation, trouble concentrating, insomnia, overeating, suicidal ideation and anger to name but a few,” Sousa wrote in a Facebook post. In a quarantine situation, he wrote, these conditions can lead to increased incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as partner abuse.

Public health officials have acknowledged the mental health impact of both the virus and the restrictions intended to combat it in their decision to maintain the Safer at Home order, and Sousa agreed that the decision to lift restrictions should be based on the advice of medical professionals. The hardest thing for people to deal with, he believes, is uncertainty.

“I think the problem is an absence of a plan. People want to know, and they keep moving the target,” Sousa said. “What happens if, as we get closer to May 15, they say, ‘You know what? June 30 sounds better.’”

Officials began thinking about how to go about reopening almost as soon as they closed the beaches, but have found themselves scrambling in an unprecedented situation. In a podcast interview with Coastal News Today recorded just a few days after the closures were instituted, Gary Jones, the director of the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, said the uncertainty over the virus had “made planning difficult” for the summer season, including the decision whether to write checks for Fourth of July fireworks celebrations. 

“We ask people to have more patience. As you can tell by the numbers we keep reporting, we have lots of cases here, we have lots of people dying still, and we’re not at the point at this moment in time where we can relax our stay at home orders,” Ferrer said Monday. “We are going to relax them. And we are going to relax them as soon as it’s sensible for us to lift up restrictions.”

Ferrer has identified several benchmarks need to be met before any kind of broader reopening can take place, including substantial increases in the availability of testing and a more predictable cushion in hospital capacity. It also appears as though the effects of the virus have yet to pass their peak. County health department figures indicate that 305 people died from COVID-19 in the week that ended Tuesday, compared with 193 over the week before.

In the meantime, advocates for an earlier reopening argue that the broadness of the South Bay’s beaches means that reopening them may make it easier to limit contact than the with current alternatives for walking and running: streets and alleys that have become crowded with people, some of whom formerly logged their steps and miles on the sand. This zeal for the outdoors, though, has also reinforced stereotypes of the South Bay as a place filled with the selfish and the privileged, unwilling to sacrifice a workout or social gathering even as COVID-19 becomes the county’s leading cause of death. Recently, the celebrity gossip website TMZ.com featured a picture of the Greenbelt packed with joggers as an exemplar of failed social distancing. 

Brand said he understands the desire to open the beaches, and as a surfer is eager to return to the ocean as soon as possible. But the precautionary principle is leading him, for now, to support keeping things as they are. 

“I basically live at the beach or on water in my free time. I’m sensitive to people who’ve been denied not only their recreation but their lifestyle. Plenty of them think this is overblown, that we’re overreacting. That’s easy to feel when you’re not in a decision making position, and there are lives at stake, and medical professionals who have been in the field for decades telling you not to let up.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Hermosa had the power to reopen its beach on its own. While it had the power to close on its own, the county’s subsequently issued public health order removed that power. The Easy Reader regrets the error.


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