HUNTINGTON BEACH (CNS) - Authorities were keeping a close eye on Orange County beaches today, which remain officially closed after a judge rejected bids by Dana Point and Huntington Beach officials to lift Gov. Gavin Newsom's temporary closure.
Some scattered surfers were seen in the water in the early morning sun on Saturday, but the beaches were mostly empty, according to footage from overhead news crews, which also showed a few people rollerskating and bicycling on paths.
No citations were reported in Huntington Beach as of early Saturday afternoon, according to Public Information Officer Angela Bennett.
“People are cooperating. Officers have been down there (at the beach) for a few hours,” Bennett said. “People are very passionate about this. We understand this. So we're not trying to cite anyone.”
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.
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 Newsom upended the status quo when he issued the order Thursday, 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.
Scott set a hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction for May 11, but it may become moot as plans are in the works for a compromise that would allow for active use only on the beaches, County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told City News Service.
“Hopefully we'll have everything ironed out over the weekend,” Bartlett said of the county's negotiations with state officials.
The plan would be “very similar” to what is allowed on the beaches in Ventura and San Diego counties.
“It allows them to recreate outdoors and to ensure that we maintain the highest level of public health and safety,” Bartlett said.
The Newport Beach City Council voted to affirm its support for the litigation on Saturday..
“On Tuesday, the Newport Beach City Council voted to keep City beaches open in a safe manner, with a plan in place for this weekend crafted by law enforcement personnel from the police, fire, and lifeguard departments,” a city statement said. “This plan was designed to ensure that people had a safe outlet for recreation and exercise for their physical and mental wellbeing. On Thursday, however, Governor Newsom ordered all beaches in Orange County to close. The Governor's office had not sought the City's perspective on beach safety or the weekend plan before issuing the directive.”
City spokesman John Pope said authorities in city have yet to issue any citations to beachgoers.
“We are seeing some people at the beach and our people and lifeguards are letting them know the beaches are closed,” Pope said. “We haven't issued any citations at this point. We may need to. In the meantime, we're working various channels to get the beaches opened safely, (and) as soon as possible.”
Orange County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun there was a small protest of about 50 people that began about 11:30 a.m. in San Clemente and that there have been no citations or arrests at this point.
Laguna Beach City Council members voted this week to reopen their beach from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays for active use only, so that may be the plan implemented in that city, including the county's beaches there, Bartlett said.
Chad Nelsen, the CEO of Surfrider Foundation, said an active use plan for Orange County was the best compromise.
Officials in Ventura and San Diego counties “were able to find a manageable solution that allowed people to walk, surf, swim and jog and not congregate in groups and hang out in the sand and it worked,” said Nelsen, whose nonprofit organization seeks to protect the world's oceans and beaches.
Newsom, in his daily coronavirus briefing early Friday afternoon, said he wasn't surprised by the lawsuits, but reiterated his fear that mass gatherings at beaches could undo the progress the state has made in fighting the virus.
In San Clemente, City Council members met Friday to consider joining other Orange County cities in the legal challenge to the governor's order, but took no action.
The non-action prompted some councilmembers to question why the special meeting was held.
“At this point, I'm not sure what's more of a joke; Gavin Newsom's order or this meeting?” Councilman Chris Hamm said, according to the Voice of OC news website. “Other than costing the citizens of San Clemente, probably a couple thousand dollars, we've really done nothing here this evening.”
Dana Point officials issued a statement saying they are hopeful the state will accept the plan. Bartlett said she spoke with a San Clemente City Council member who was supportive of the plan as well, and added Newport Beach officials also seem to be on board.
Newsom cited crowds that gathered on some Orange County beaches during last weekend's heat wave for issuing the “hard close” order for the Orange County coastline.
In response, thousands of people staged a protest at the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier on Friday, demanding the loosening of stay-at-home and business-closure orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Newsom hinted that announcements could come as early as next week relaxing stay-at-home orders, but 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,” Newsom 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 Friday protest at the Huntington Beach Pier, many of them without face coverings. Police on horseback kept them out of the streets.
One protester, Monica Beilhart of Tustin, said “only a few” of the demonstrators wore masks and 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 Newsom's beach closure order.
No arrests were reported.
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.”
“Yesterday Governor Newsom directed the hard closure of all beaches in Orange County with little warning and no collaboration with local governments. It was a sudden decision that prioritized politics over data,” Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta said in a video statement Friday night. “...we believe it's unconstitutional and do not believe it's warranted, as Orange County has among the lowest per capita COVID-19 mortality rates in the entire state.”
Semeta said the city made the “difficult” decision to close its beach Friday out of fear that theirs might be the only county beach open and therefore would draw enormous crowds that would make social distancing impossible.
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.
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