LA County beaches reopen with restrictions after nearly seven-week shutdown

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

LA County’s reopening of area beaches means visitors can walk, run or swim along the shore
Photo by Paul M.J. Suchecki

The Venice Skate Park may still be buried under sand, but Wednesday, May 13, marked the reopening of LA County beaches since they were shut to the public in late March. Although the LA Mayor’s office remains tightlipped on the opening of the city-controlled Venice boardwalk, pier and recreation area, the Los Angeles County Department of Beach & Harbors announced Monday via tweet that it would reopen access to surf and sand on LA County beaches. That includes county-operated Will Rogers, Marina “Mother’s” Beach, Dockweiler and Venice Beach, along with Santa Monica beaches in alignment with the county.

But now that we’ve gotten our beaches back, will we be able to keep them?

Local authorities are mindful of the events that transpired in Orange County the last hot and sunny weekend in April — tens of thousands flocked to iconic shores at Huntington and Newport while ignoring social distancing rules. (In Venice, few beachgoers showed in the gloom of the still-closed beaches.) Governor Gavin Newsom responded by using the state’s authority to “hard close” all 42 miles of beaches in that county, but state officials have since approved plans in each Orange County coastal city to reopen their beaches for active-use only, but not for people to lounge on the sand.

Under the LA County plan, the first phase of reopening will be like San Clemente’s, which reopened its beach on May 4: beach access for active pursuits like running, jogging, swimming and surfing. Sunbathing, volleyball, gatherings and athletic competitions along with coolers, beach chairs, umbrellas and canopies will be banned for now.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has come out in support of the reopening of LA County beaches:

“I do personally support that our beaches are open for active recreation. I don’t think we can afford to have people sitting, tanning, in the dry areas of sand, but on the wet sand areas, if you need to, get in there to swim, to surf, or walk, or jog,” said Mayor Garcetti, adding that he hopes the beach reopenings give Angelenos “a place to spiritually recharge.”

But isn’t opening the beach premature given the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases? “When it comes to deaths, it’s been pretty stable and that’s good. We hit our peak and it’s come down a little bit. We’ve seen the percentage of people testing positive going down, hospital beds not being overwhelmed, so we think it’s time to move forward with these baby steps,” said Garcetti.

This initial phase is projected to last six weeks. Phase 2 of the county’s plans would permit visitors in family groups of up to 10. The county would reopen the 22-mile coastal bike path, while chairs, coolers and canopies would be allowed, along with tightly limited parking in parking lots. Through both phases anybody not in the water is expected to wear a mask and to keep six feet away from other people. There are two more phases expected to last far past the summer.

Carolisa Pomerantz, the Associate Producer of my company Checkmate Pictures, was not a fan of the initial beach closures, but expressed worry that reopening the waterfront and boardwalk could be risky. “They do get very populated especially at the waterfront. Everyone should wear a mask but what a hassle; it would leave a sunburn mark on your face. Not cool. However, the beaches are rather large. It’s the boardwalk at Venice that’s worst if crowded with bikes, skating — too close and risky.”

Skipper Glenn Damato, author of “Breaking Seas” and the “Far Shore,” disagreed with the initial shutdown of the beaches.

“Not in favor. I do not believe there is any public health justification for doing so, provided that the vulnerable population is protected. Sadly, most of our politicians lack the courage to do the right thing – they prefer to protect their own image because, as they see it, there is no upside for themselves in phasing out the lockdowns, only risk,” said Damato.

Now, he looks forward to the day when beaches can unlock their invisible gates: “I think there’s very little risk of reopening the beaches, so it’s a good idea. We have a lot more data than we did in mid-March, and that data confirms the vulnerable population is well-identified and should continue to self-isolate. That includes people over 65, and anyone with heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, or cancer. People not in those high-risk categories should be free to go about their normal lives, along with several common-sense changes such as refraining from touching, hugging, and so on.”

John Goldberg wore a facemask for his interview. An Ocean Front Walk vendor, he was hurt hard by the beach closure and is surviving by posting videos of the exotic places he visits to procure his wares as Wanderer Nirvana on YouTube. Still, he wanted the restrictions maintained as he chided the rest of us for not wearing masks: “People don’t get it. This virus has now attacked one million one hundred thousand Americans. We’re leading the world in infections and deaths. The virus is peaking here. Now is not the time for us to drop our guard!”

Anthony Ridino, a real estate agent, looks forward to the beach reopening the way it is planned — with restrictions. That includes the continued closure of beach parking lots, beach bike paths, piers and boardwalks.

“If you just open the beach, too many people show up,” said Ridino. “If you close down the parking lots, then if you walk there you can enjoy it. Of course, that sounds elitist, restricting beach access to locals.” (And to anybody taking Uber or a bus, we might add.)

“It’s almost a locals-only moment,” said Rebekah Loren Rife, a vegan chef, who runs the website rife.style with her twin sister Rachel.

Rachel, whose been kicked off the beach twice by lifeguards since the county closed beaches, added: “I’ve been going to the beach to workout, because where else can I go? The gyms are closed. Lately I’ve been beginning my workouts by a lifeguard tower. I feel as if I can show the authorities, that I know what I’m doing and am minding my own business, I’ll be left alone. It’s safer for me to work out on the beach, than to run down Speedway, which is now packed with people walking. It’s much safer than a grocery store.”

Will the beach be as safe now for her to work out if a lot of people are there?

“I am not worried about the virus spreading,” she said. “I would like to think everyone is kind enough to do their part. I hope non-locals who drive in appreciate the fresh ocean air so much, that they are driven to respect the rules, for everyone, for the community. I think safe distancing is almost becoming second nature at this point.”

Mr. Ridino jumped in. “Even when there were no regulations, there was nobody who set a blanket next to another. They were always 30 to 50 feet apart.”

Victoria Chase, a yoga instructor who moved half a block from the Venice Pier about a month before the beach closures, admitted that she had snuck onto the beach to go surfing, but after the reopening does she think people will follow the rules?

“If they’re fair,” she said. “I think that people being out in the sun at the beach makes them happier and that energy is contagious.”

But hopefully not contagious for the coronavirus — Carol Baker of LA County Beaches & Harbors urged potential beachgoers to be mindful of new beach rules to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“The idea of going to the beach and going to sit on a lawn chair isn’t something that anyone should consider doing at this point,” she said. “The reason we have these restrictions is to limit the number [of people] we have at the beach. It’s really up to individuals to use the beach responsibly and understand the limitations.”

So perhaps we should all try to be on our best behavior in the days to come and not ruin the chance for us to keep access to our beaches.

Emmy Award winning writer/producer Paul Suchecki is the founder of www.VeniceBeachVideo.com 

Argonaut editor Christina Campodonico contributed to this column.

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