Kevin Cody

Fourth of July beach closure tests South Bay’s commitment to fighting coronavirus

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Line in the sand

Participants celebrate at the conclusion of the 4th of July Ironman in 2014. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the closing of beaches, the Ironman has been cancelled on what would have been its 46th anniversary. Photo by Patrick Fallon

by Ryan McDonald

Over the past few weeks, organizers of the Ironman — the South Bay 4th of July tradition in which participants run a mile, paddle a mile and then drink a six-pack of beer on the beach in Hermosa — were waiting on a critical piece of information.

“There is no study to date about the infectiousness of puke,” said former Hermosa Beach City Councilmember Robert “Burgie” Benz, tongue firmly in cheek. Benz, the longtime emcee for the Ironman, is always disappointed to miss out on a party. But the Ironman will take a different form this year, living on in a commemorative T-shirt of the kind offered to participants every year, with the money raised going to support local COVID-19 recovery; the competition itself is cancelled. Benz said he could think of few things less appropriate for a global pandemic than an early morning of shirtless alcohol consumption capped off with a mosh pit.

“It’s the antithesis of social distancing. And you throw the puke on top of that, and oh my gosh,” he said. “Plus, I don’t know if you know if you know this, but I’m getting old.”

Hermosa Beach police officers Dorothy Schied and George Brunn and a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy stop to enjoy a Pennywise at the corner of 16th Street and Hermosa Avenue in 2010. Sheriff’s deputies and officers with the Culver City Police Department will be deployed in Hermosa this year. Photo by Kevin Cody

The decision to cancel the Ironman was already made when, on Monday afternoon, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health made it a moot point. Beaches throughout Los Angeles County will be closed, the department declared, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Friday and lasting until 5 a.m. Monday morning. The order, which also closes beach parking lots, bike paths and The Strand, shuts down the world’s busiest beaches on what is usually their busiest day.

“This is going to be a different summer. This is going to be a different July 4th celebration for all of us,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said Monday, a few hours before the closures were announced.

Reaction to the stepped up restrictions has been mixed but swift, brimming with a certainty that has eluded scientists attempting to understand the novel virus yet has colored almost all commentary on efforts to contain it.

“Bad call. Give people an outlet. Beaches are a safe environment as much as can be. Studies prove this. The beaches are a source of relaxation, and provide distancing, much better than home parties, events and small apartments could provide,” Redondo Beach City Councilmember Nils Nehrenheim tweeted Monday evening, in response to Supervisor Janice Hahn announcing the beach closures.

Hahn said the decision was motivated by the rapid increase in the county’s COVID-19 case load in recent weeks, and the knowledge that past Fourth of July celebrations have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the county’s beaches. 

“More people are getting it, more people are being hospitalized, and we’re definitely going in the wrong direction. People think being outdoors is safer, being in the sunshine is safer, but it’s the gathering of crowds that we are beginning to see is a problem. We just couldn’t risk huge gatherings of crowds at the beach for the Fourth of July weekend,” Hahn said in an interview.

Neighbors pile in the back of Dave and Mary Garrett’s white Ford Pick up for the 24th Place Fourth of July Parade, which would have celebrated its 40 anniversary this year. Photo by Kevin Cody

Thanks to the nation’s first shelter-in-place order, Southern Californians avoided the overrun hospitals that have been seen in other parts of the world. And over the past six weeks, the average daily death rate dropped by roughly a dozen people. But now, Ferrer and others say, those gains are evaporating, and the region is at risk of a public health disaster. Monday and Tuesday marked the largest and second-largest single-day totals for positive cases, respectively, since the pandemic began; the top five have all come within the past 10 days. Hospital beds, particularly those in intensive care units, are filling up quickly, and continued increases could force officials to set up field units, where treatment may be less effective, within weeks.

The recent increase in positive cases has been particularly acute among younger people. In the past two weeks, there has been a 42 percent increase in cases among people 18 to 40. Although the virus so far appears to be less likely to cause death or serious illness among younger people, they are no less likely to pass it on to others once infected. 

“Just because you are in a younger age group and may be less likely to suffer debilitating effects, if you don’t have underlying health conditions, you are a spreader and you easily have the ability to spread this infection to other people who in fact do have higher risk of needing hospitalization and eventually dying,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer acknowledged that the Fourth of July was an especially difficult day to follow the health officer orders to wear face coverings, socially distance and avoid gatherings, but said that the surge in cases meant it was critical for people to adjust their behavior.

“There are a number of businesses and individuals who have gone back to living as if COVID-19 is not in our community,” Ferrer said. “At this point if you’re not part of the solution to slowing the spread you’re ending up being part of the problem.”

Now retired Los Angeles Police Camptain Tom Thompson confiscates a beer from a minor on Fourth of July, 2009. Photo by Patrick Fallon

Chief Paul LeBaron of the Hermosa Beach Police Department was not thrilled when he found out that the county was closing beaches. He agreed that people need to take the pandemic seriously, but said that closing the beaches just adds to the responsibilities of officers who he said were already strained by the demands of the holiday. Before the beach closure was announced, HBPD Lt. Landon Phillips estimated that Hermosa’s beaches would attract 100,000 people on Saturday.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like this weekend. If the beaches just become flooded with people who choose to be irresponsible, it would be a poor use of my resources for my officers to spend every moment of the day trying to talk to people on the beach, knowing what else might be going on in the city. That’s not to say we’re going to ignore it, but were going to have to find that balance,” LeBaron said. 

Easy Reader reporter Robb Fulcher was embedded in the Hermosa Beach Ironman competition in 2010

The pandemic has posed challenges for police in Hermosa and other departments. The health orders created a whole new set of rules to enforce, ones that are as unfamiliar to most of the  public as they are to the officers charged with enforcing them, and which have suffered from widespread defiance. Given examples of potential violations of the beach closure order, LeBaron declined to say what an officer would do, saying that it would ultimately be up to the officer’s discretion and assessment of the resources needed to address the violation. 

“I’m concerned that people will fail to adhere to the warnings of the ordinance. However it happens, if people plan to come to the beach, that puts my officers in a very precarious position of trying to enforce public health when the Fourth of July is the most critical day of the year for us for public safety,” LeBaron said.

After this article appeared online, the city contacted the Easy Reader and said that LeBaron and the police department support the county’s beach closure order.

Dr. Muntu Davis, the Los Angeles County Health Officer, previously ordered the county’s beaches closed on March 27, and they remained closed until May 13. At the time they reopened, officials with the county Department of Beaches and Harbors said that it was possible that beaches would close again on the Fourth of July.

The beaches reopened for “active recreation,” such as surfing and jogging, on May 13, and “passive recreation” like sunbathing, about a month later. But these rules have been widely flouted. Nicole Mooradian, a public information officer for the Department of Beaches and Harbors, said that since the beaches reopened, compliance has been limited. Group sports, including beach volleyball, remain banned by state order, but are widely practiced.

“Generally speaking, people are not following the rules,” Mooradian said. “We take visual surveys, check on crowds, that sort of thing. It’s been reported that most patrons are not wearing face coverings or practicing social distancing. But we have no enforcement powers. We can educate, but we can’t cite.”

Hahn said that the relatively poor record of compliance with the reopening restrictions contributed to the decision to close the beaches for the holiday. She also said public health officials considered the possibility that closing the beaches would encourage people to move parties to backyards and apartment complexes, but said that the risk was outweighed by the likelihood of huge numbers of people congregating on the beaches. The supervisors, she said, were unanimous in their support of the health department’s order.

Hermosa Beach Police watch over the Hermosa Ironman during the 2010 Summer of Color, when County lifeguard towers were painted bright colors. Photo by Kevin Cody

The pervasive spread of COVID-19, combined with the sheer size of the county, means that even the strictest of orders can only do so much to contain the virus, and officials are hoping that people take it upon themselves to limit risk and exposure. Self-reported data indicate that far more people are interacting with others outside of their household, both in reopened businesses and at private gatherings.

Public health officials have linked the increases in case counts to greater mixing of people in recently reopened businesses such as bars and gyms, as well as to the proliferation of gatherings at home with people from multiple households. News of the beach closures brought out embittered suspicion that another factor was to blame: the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that convulsed Southern California after George Floyd was killed by an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department at the end of May.

“You can still go to the beach this weekend provided you’re in a large group carrying ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs. If you do that you can also burn and loot local businesses with no criminal penalty. Just don’t do anything peaceful like surf, fish or hang out with friends who aren’t Marxist,” Rhett Bise wrote on the Easy Reader’s Facebook page Monday afternoon. 

GI Joe Charles Annual $1,000 Push Up Challenge is one of the coronavirus victims. The Challenge is traditionally held following the Riviera Village Fourth of July 5K. Photo by Randy Angel

On June 1, approximately 1,000 people marched from the Manhattan Pier to the Hermosa Pier for a Black Lives Matter protest organized by Mira Costa High School alumni. There was no property damage and, like the vast majority of those depicted in photos of recent protests around the country, almost all of the participants wore masks.

Ferrer has said the county health department’s contact tracing program is not able to conclusively link the rise in cases to either protests or particular aspects of reopening, although she has said it is “highly likely” that protests featuring large gatherings and yelling have contributed to community transmission. She has also said that county officials assumed cases would rise once more sectors of the economy began to reopen, although not as quickly as they have in recent weeks.

But the reflexive finger pointing at Black Lives Matter protests, sometimes by people who question the existence of the coronavirus in the first place, reflects a deeper tension that has emerged amid COVID-19’s uneven impact. Caseloads have increased in the Beach Cities lately, but they remain below those areas with higher populations of poor people and minorities. Nationally, a Black person is more than three times as likely to know a person who has died of COVID-19 as a white person. In Los Angeles County, infection rates in the county’s poorest zip codes are four times higher than they are in the wealthiest ones.

Beaches, open to everyone but nestled in the toniest neighborhoods, have been particularly contested. While they were still closed, some in the South Bay suggested reopening them while checking IDs, in order to limit access to local residents. At various times, skepticism toward efforts to limit the spread of the pandemic has suggested an unwillingness to be inconvenienced in order to help those who are differently situated.

“Steeling [sic] young lives to save the incarcerated, homeless and those living in assisted care (from Newsom’s mouth)…this is all wrong!!!” Erin DiMaggio, a Palos Verdes Peninsula resident, wrote on the Facebook page of the county’s Junior Lifeguard program, after organizers decided to cancel it for the summer.

The symbolism of ordering beaches closed on the 244th anniversary of a day intended to celebrate American freedom is lost on no one. But at a time when the United States has, by far, the world’s worst outbreak of COVID-19, it’s possible that the rugged individualism of cowboys and solitary surfers is doing more harm than good.

“It’s ironic of course that it’s the holiday that we celebrate our independence. And yet this is a time that if we truly believe that we’re in this together, we do have to make some personal sacrifices for the good of our communities. We’ve got to get through this, we’ve got to get out of this, and were not there yet. So everyone’s going to have to sacrifice a little bit, as a community, until we’re really safely out of the woods,” Hahn said. ER

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