NEWPORT BEACH (CNS) - Orange County beaches will remain closed, at least for now, with a judge today rejecting bids by Dana Point and Huntington Beach to have Gov. Gavin Newsom's temporary closure order lifted.
Newsom announced the “hard close” order for the county coastline on Thursday, citing crowds that gathered on some beaches during last weekend's heat wave. In response, thousands of people staged a protest at the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier Friday, demanding the loosening of stay-at-home and business-closure orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing arguments from attorneys Friday afternoon, Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott ruled that “maintaining the status quo ... favors a conservative response ... and in this case the status quo appears to be the governor's order.”
Attorneys for the two cities argued that Newsom upended the status quo with his order, which they claimed violated the state's constitution for a variety of reasons, ranging from the right to travel to the authority of a charter city such as Huntington Beach.
One lawsuit was filed by residents Joseph Muller, Laura Ferguson and Gregory Raths, and another lawsuit was filed by the cities.
The governor, in his daily coronavirus briefing early Friday afternoon, said he wasn't surprised by the lawsuits, but he reiterated his fear that mass gatherings at beaches could undo the progress the state has made in fighting the virus.
He hinted that announcements could come as early as next week relaxing stay-at-home orders, but he added, “We can screw all that up. We can set all that back by making bad decisions.”
“All of that works because people have done an incredible job in their physical distancing. But we change that and we see the images we saw last weekend and concentration of thousands of people, we could start to see a spread again,” he said. “That's the only thing that could set us back.”
Huntington Beach police estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 people took part in the midday protest at the Huntington Beach Pier, many of them without face coverings. Police on horseback kept them out of the streets.
One of those protesters, Monica Beilhart of Tustin, said “only a few” of the demonstrators wore masks and that some of the local stores opened for business. A plane flew overhead with a banner referring to the governor as “gruesome Newsom” as it called on him to “open California,” Beilhart said.
“People are out here with their shirts off, sunlight, enjoying the weather,” Beilhart said. “They're chanting USA, chanting about the constitution, and just trying to get their voices heard.”
Referring to earlier, smaller protests, Beilhart said Friday saw a larger gathering because of the governor's beach closure order.
“It was the straw that broke the camel's back,” she said. “It was uncalled for, unnecessary and people out here are making that known. And we're also very much saying enough is enough, we have the right to work, people have the right to work and that it's time for the governor to allow the healthy to be able to get back to business.”
No arrests were reported.
The Newport Beach City Council on Saturday will discuss joining the litigation, and San Clemente's City Council was expected to meet tonight to do the same.
Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates said Newsom “doesn't have a rational basis for this. What he seeks is a remedy to something that wasn't a problem in the first place.”
Huntington Beach officials said they believe being a charter city gives it more authority to self-governance that prevents Newsom from shutting down its beaches.
“We're not simply a component of the state,” Gates said. “The city has some level of autonomy and independence.”
On Monday, Newsom lamented images of crowds that gathered on some beaches in Orange County -- particularly in Newport Beach -- last weekend, saying such masses of people are a feeding ground for COVID-19 and could reverse the progress the state has made in “flattening the curve” of the illness.
Newsom repeated those concerns Thursday, while noting the “vast majority” of the state did not have issues with large crowds gathering.
“But in areas where we didn't see that, you have to acknowledge that, you have to own that. And you have to figure that out,” Newsom said.
Newsom had expressed optimism earlier this week that local Orange County officials would take action to prevent a recurrence of last weekend's beach gatherings.
However, on Tuesday, the Newport Beach City Council rejected a proposal to shutter beaches for the next three weekends and Laguna Beach City Council voted to allow “active use” of the beaches from 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays beginning Monday.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel said there was “no rational basis” for Newsom's “arbitrary and capricious” order and that law enforcement did a “fantastic job” this past weekend encouraging social distancing on the beaches.
“We should be rewarding our communities for practicing safe social distancing, not punishing them by only shutting down Orange County beaches,” Steel said Thursday.
Steel has insisted that hospitalization rates have shown the county has been flattening the curve. On Thursday, the county's Health Care Agency reported 145 coronavirus patients hospitalized, with 63 in intensive care, and one additional death. Five more deaths were reported Friday, raising the county's death toll to 50.
Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, who supports Newsom's order, said Steel's remarks were dangerous.
“How could she possibly say the curve is being flattened when the hospital rates are higher than ever?” Umberg said. “The trajectory is higher than ever.”
Umberg said Steel is “creating a false sense of security,” which encourages residents to head to the beaches.
“I don't hear any public health professionals clamoring to open the beaches,” Umberg said.
Steel and Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner argued Newsom decided to close the beaches based on a couple of newspaper photographs. They said the depth of field was collapsed by a telephoto lens, making it appear Newport Beach was more congested.
However, Newport Beach City Councilman Jeff Herdman, who represents Balboa Island, said there were large crowds on the beaches last weekend. He said about 40,000 people from outside the area descended on the city without practicing social distancing such as wearing masks.
“They have no business being here and once they get here, they're trying to find a parking place, filling up our neighborhoods with cars, getting out of their cars, converging on the beach, not wearing masks and not observing social distancing as they lug their coolers, chairs and beach towels to the beach,” Herdman said.
That prevents residents from using their own city to get exercise, Herdman said.
Wagner urged Newsom to work with county officials, saying they heard about the order 15 minutes before Newsom's daily briefing. Wagner said it was unlikely county officials would want to sue the state since they would largely be in a position of suing themselves.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, whose deputies patrol about 16% of the shoreline, said he would try to seek “voluntary compliance” from beachgoers, which has been his policy since the pandemic began. He said the policy has been effective.
Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, condemned Newsom's order.
“Gov. Newsom just doesn't seem to get it,” Moorlach said. “Orange County residents have been responsible. They've followed healthcare 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.”
Photo: Getty Images