Tens of thousands of people packed southern California beaches over the weekend, reigniting fears that large crowds in public spaces could reverse progress on containing Covid-19 in the US.
Photos of the gatherings in Newport Beach, Orange county, during a weekend heatwave sparked intense backlash and comparisons with Florida, where images of beachgoers raised alarms about the state’s coronavirus strategy. In recent days, beach and park reopenings have also prompted debates and public health concerns in Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and other regions looking to re-emerge from lockdowns.
On Monday, California’s governor Gavin Newsom chastised those who crowded the beaches, saying “this virus doesn’t take the weekends off”.
“This virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful, sunny day along our coast,” the governor, who last week urged beach-goers to practice physical distancing, said at his daily news briefing.
“We can’t see the images like we saw, particularly on Saturday in Newport Beach and elsewhere,” he added.
Local officials in Los Angeles and the surrounding region have been deeply divided on the merits of allowing beach visitors. Many popular beaches have remained fully closed to the public due to Covid-19, though a handful have taken steps to permit visitors in a limited capacity while adopting a range of restrictions, enforcement plans and recommendations.
California’s statewide shelter-in-place order remains in effect, and police at the open Orange county beaches have attempted to enforce distancing rules. But there have been growing concerns over the weekend that the crowds were too dense, and the Newport Beach city council is now considering closing the beaches for the next three weekends or possibly blocking roads to the most popular destinations.
At Newport Beach, where temperatures were close to 90F (32C), residents compared weekend crowds to the Fourth of July holiday, and lifeguards reminded people to stay apart if they were in groups of six or more. Police officials told the Los Angeles Times the department did not issue any citations for violations of stay-at-home orders.
Neighboring Huntington Beach in Orange county also saw big gatherings, despite the closure of parking lots along the highway. Sitting on a bench by the beach, Robin Ford surveyed the crush of visitors with concern.
“Unless all these people are in one household, it does look like they are not social distancing,” Ford told the Orange County Register. “They could be spread out more.”
Los Angeles city and county beaches, trails and playgrounds were closed, and officers on horseback were patrolling those areas to enforce social distancing rules. The city also opened cooling centers for people who might not be able to survive the heat wave at home, the LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, said.
Barbara Ferrer, the head of the LA county health department, urged LA residents not to crowd the neighboring beaches that remain open.
Further north in California, police in Pacific Grove said they had to close the picturesque Lovers Point park and beach at the southern end of Monterey Bay due to lack of social distancing.
The question of beach access is likely to become more contentious as the US heads into summer. Some experts have argued that governments should find ways to allow people to visit beaches while strongly encouraging distancing and other safety measures.
On Monday, the six northern California counties that led the charge on the first stay-at-home measures in the nation extended the order through the end of May, capturing the contrast in regional enforcement of behavioral shifts meant to curb the spread of the virus.
As of Monday, California has had 43,464 positive cases and 1,755 deaths. The state has issued $4.4bn in unemployment insurance payments since 15 March, Newsom said.
Agencies contributed to reporting