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Californians Mostly Keeping Social Distance Protocol at Beaches, Police Say

People outside at Mission Beach in San Diego, April 30, 2020.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: People outside at Mission Beach in San Diego, April 30, 2020.

A week after Californians weary of stay-at-home orders packed beaches, authorities pleaded for weekend visitors to follow social distancing rules: no bunching, keep walking or swimming, and leave the umbrellas at home.

Lifeguards and police were out in force Saturday even in cities that are battling Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new order that took effect Friday and singled out Orange County beaches for closure.

Huntington Beach was mostly empty on Saturday as officers patrolling on foot and on helicopter issued warnings to people who hit the sands. A police spokeswoman said people were cooperating and no citations have been issued as of Saturday afternoon.

In neighboring Newport Beach, police put out barricades and spoke with surfers to advise them of the closure, and said people were quick to comply.

In San Diego, where people can exercise on the beach but not linger, Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer praised residents for heeding safety restrictions that public health officials have credited at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

But he urged them to redouble their efforts over the weekend.

“We need your help, we need your cooperation, and we need your patience,” Faulconer said. “We’re not going to lose all of the gains that we’ve made.”

City Lifeguard Services Lt. Rich Stropky told KFMB-TV most people were following guidelines on Saturday.

“Most people understand this is serious and if we don't do this right, we could lose the privilege of using the beaches,” Stropky said.

Orange County beach cities argue that most of the tens of thousands of people who hit their shores last weekend did practice anti-virus safety measures and fumed that they were being unfairly singled out.

On Friday, an Orange County judge refused a request by Huntington Beach and others to block Newsom’s order. Judge Nathan Scott said he weighed the harm the closures caused the city and others, but the virus’s threat to public safety should take priority. He said he will consider the issue again May 11 after the city, state and others have briefed the court in more detail.

Newport Beach council members voted Saturday to support a lawsuit by other coastal cities seeking to reopen Orange County beaches but in the meantime officers were patrolling the beaches to remind people of the closure.

In Northern California, Santa Cruz County began on Saturday to close all beaches between 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to let residents visit the beach in the early morning or sunset hours and deter visitors from driving long distances to hang out there.

Beaches are just the latest focus for frustrations over Newsom’s month-and-a-half-old order requiring nearly 40 million residents to remain mostly indoors. Businesses not deemed essential are closed until COVID-19 testing, hospital and death rates indicate the state outbreak is beginning to ease. Millions have been thrown out of work.

While Newsom has promised a cautious, phased reopening of the state, protesters don’t want to wait.

In Huntington Beach, police estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people gathered for May Day on a beachside street. They waved American flags and held signs. But most of them wore no masks and didn’t practice social distancing.

In Sacramento, as police lined steps outside the Capitol, protesters waved signs that said “Defend Freedom” and broke into “U-S-A” chants.

There were about a dozen organized rallies in cities including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. A few rallies took place Saturday, though attendance was significantly smaller.

On the state’s far northern end, rural Modoc County became the first to defy the state’s shutdown orders after it allowed hair salons, churches, restaurants and the county’s only movie theater to reopen on Friday. There haven’t been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 among 9,000 residents, but the reopening came with strict social distancing limits. Businesses could only have half the patrons, and customers must stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.

Elsewhere, a variety of businesses from restaurants to hairstylists in rural and more populated areas have opened their doors in individual acts of defiance. Two more counties north of Sacramento — Yuba and Sutter — plan to allow some businesses to reopen on Monday as long as they follow social distancing protocols.

Newsom acknowledged the building anxiety while repeatedly teasing the possibility the state could begin relaxing aspects of the restrictions next week.

“We are all impatient,” the governor said during his daily briefing Friday.

He also confirmed the obvious: With its once-roaring economy in shackles, the state will face a funding shortfall that will run into billions of dollars.

“Billions in surplus, in just weeks, tens of billions of deficit,” he said.

But the governor also noted that while hospitalization statistics are heading in a better direction, the state has more than 52,000 confirmed infections and 2,100 deaths.

For the vast majority of people, coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The fear is that the virus can be spread in close quarters by people who don’t known they’ve contracted it, and allowing too much contact too soon could lead to a second surge of cases.

“Don’t think this virus has disappeared,” Newsom said. “Just ask the families that have tragically lost loved ones.”

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