Evelyn McDonnell is a Professor at Loyola Marymount University, where she directs the journalism program. She has written for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times and lives in San Pedro.
By Evelyn McDonnell
I have been on a wild goose chase. Literally. I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps in Wisconsin in the summer of 1984, and our job one day was to walk through the wetlands chasing Canadian geese. We started at one corner of a swamp, about a dozen feet apart – socially distancing decades before that was a thing. At the opposite corner was a net. It was molting season so the birds could not fly. As we trudged through the mud in rubber boots – sometimes up to our chests in muck – we moved closer together, pushing the flightless creatures further down the funnel until finally, they were trapped in the net. The hunt was for their own good: The captured geese were tagged for research. And then they were freed.
Now, I know how the geese feel. The country, state, county, and city have been driving us into tighter and tighter quarters. First, they told us to stay indoors except for exercise. Then they closed every open space where we could exercise: the beaches, the trails, the bike paths, promenades and tide pools, etc. Santa Monica parks remain open, but forget about taking a coastal amble through Palisades Park, which is still closed. Don’t try to do more than run or walk through an LA public park right now, if you manage to find one open at all; my local research found more than half of neighborhood parks closed – contrary to official city policy. Instead of giving us ample places to social distance, they have driven us into increasingly crowded neighborhoods and streets. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles has not only refused to shut down roads to give pedestrians added walking areas; this week, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti stopped Del Rey from closing streets to give walkers room to socially distance.
Where I live, San Pedro, I am surrounded by public spaces where we used to be able to walk for miles with minimal passers by. Now, to give myself and my dog the exercise and sunshine we all need if we are going to stay healthy and keep our immune systems up, I have to walk on hard sidewalks, ducking into the road to keep six feet from all the other walkers driven into this urban net, that the city keeps tightening.
As the COVID-19 curve flattens, weather grows warmer, and people’s patience and mental health begin to flag after weeks of captivity, it’s time for Los Angeles to begin a measured, controlled opening of public spaces. That may be about to happen: On May 5, Mayor Eric Garcetti said trails may reopen and LA County Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said beaches will reopen “soon.” For many of us, it can’t be soon enough. Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Garcetti have angered many outdoors enthusiasts in recent weeks with their increasing restrictions on public spaces: Last weekend Newsom ordered Orange County to shut beaches that have been open the whole time (LA’s coronavirus death rate is 7.3 times higher than the OC’s), and from Del Rey to White Point, Garcetti keeps tightening the net. Instead of rewarding citizens’ dutiful sacrifices and compliances, these politicians have been alienating public faith in them, as growing demonstrations have made evident.
This is Southern California. We live here for the sun, the air, the oceans, the mountains, the desert. We are a people who swim, surf, run, ride bikes, paddleboard, kayak, skateboard, sail, and fish. Activity defines us. To not be able to partake in these sports is an assault not only on our mental and physical health, but our freedom and identity.
As Dr. Shana Jordan, a family doctor on respiratory duty, neighbor, and avid surfer, recently wrote in a letter to Mayor Garcetti: “The ocean is not a contagion zone. No two surfers or swimmers or paddlers would ever be within six feet of each other. This is nonsense. The government is swiftly losing credibility among outdoors people, particularly surfers and runners. I understand that enforcement is made so much easier with blanket park/trail/beach closures. But without nuance it is barbaric and idiotic.”
Sure, some people are going to be stupid/reckless/forgetful and not socially distance. The media had a blast circulating photos of Newport Beach revelers during the heat wave two weekends ago. What got little to no attention were the miles of other oceanfront areas, from San Diego to Ventura, where people have been sensibly socially distancing throughout the pandemic. (As a journalism professor, I have been pained to watch the media’s role in spreading fear and falsehoods; it’s an object lesson for my students.)
So control the crowds. “No butts on the beach,” as Surfline eloquently puts it in its official call for public ocean access. Do what Hawaii and Ventura are doing: Provide access to parks and beaches for walking, running, biking, swimming, surfing, boating, etc. – but not for hanging out. The minute a beach blanket gets laid out – bingo! Turn on your park ranger siren. Patrol the parks for people violating the rules. Limit the numbers who can enter beaches, parks, and trail heads by keeping parking lots closed or restricting access. Close the beaches entirely on weekends if you have to. If Home Depot can figure out how to socially distance shoppers, can’t Parks and Recreation do the same for recreators?
Part of the problem is that Southern California beaches are wrongly emblems of hedonism to landlubbers and urbanities, New Yorkers and Northern Californians; we are still a Puritan nation at heart. These outsiders don’t understand that for us daily users, the beaches are our gyms – although a thousand times healthier with their fresh air, sunlight, and ample room for social distancing. In the good ol’ days, I walked twice a week on the beach or fishing pier across from my house. Typically, I passed maybe 15 people in an hour – and I knew most of them by sight if not by name. Many of us swim out to the buoy placed about ¼ mile off shore by the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bears. Or we put in our kayaks, paddleboards, and surfboards and head out past Point Fermin – getting as far from society as we can. Ninety-five percent of the time, the whole area is so empty, the closest you would ever have to get to someone is maybe 10 feet on the pier. The other five percent – hot summer weekend afternoons, holidays – on those days, at least shut the parking lot, if not the whole thing.
The last weekend Cabrillo Beach was open, it was a gorgeous day, and after weeks of restricted movement and rain, lots of people did turn up. It was early in the shelter-in-place restrictions, the parking lot was open, and families with small children stuck at home were desperate to do something with their kids. Rangers cruised the sands in four-wheelers politely reminding people to social distance. They were nice; they complimented my dog. Not everyone listened to them, I’m sure, but most people did. The situation could have been improved with more planning, clearer rules. Instead, by the end of the week, all access to all beaches and parks was closed in LA. Period. That’s not governance, that’s dictatorship.
Fact time: coronavirus is deadly, it’s highly contagious, it’s scary. And we in the US were not prepared for a pandemic. Five months since COVID-19 was first identified, Americans still do not have free and widespread testing for the virus and antibodies, personal protective equipment, contact tracing, etc. Kudos to Garcetti for making LA the first city to provide free public testing to all; that is a huge step. Still, from the national to the local level, American governments have had to rely on social control because they have not been able to provide the social services that have proven to be the number-one factor in controlling the deadly outbreak.
Our leaders have instead relied on us to keep each other safe – and we have been pretty damn good, overall. The infection rate in California as of May 3 is 136 per 100,000, less than one tenth the per capita rate in densely populated New York. It’s higher in LA, but that is largely because of infections in nursing homes and other institutions, which account for 45 percent of COVID deaths in LA. Our curve is flattening, and it was never close to the dire numbers Governor Newsom predicted early on. So why, instead of loosening the reins, do our leaders keep wanting to tighten them?
Part of the problem is their failure to communicate and be in touch with their own constituents and rules, despite their daily press briefings. Last week Newsom’s office issued a list of things Californians could do to get exercise. But almost all of the activities require access to the kinds of public spaces that are taped off like crime scenes in Los Angeles – unless, of course, you’re a one-percenter with rolling lawns and your own backyard beach. How are we supposed to go crabbing, canoeing, or kitesurfing if we are not allowed near the ocean? Where can we run on trails, or explore rock pools, or have picnics if the use of open spaces is so restricted? Garcetti deserves much of the blame for Angelenos’ growing anxiety levels as apparently we are not being allowed the outdoor activities sanctioned for the rest of Californians.
Ferrer recently said, “We know it’s best right now for us Angelenos to stay home, or stay outside [in] your own yard or your own neighborhood.” First of all, that’s the definition of a paternalistic, or maternalistic, government attitude. Secondly, not all Angelenos have yards. One of the reasons the pandemic is affecting impoverished and minority communities with more deadly power is because people there tend to be crowded into smaller spaces with less access to open air. Third, I would like to stay in my neighborhood, but my neighborhood open spaces are closed, so I keep having to go elsewhere, where it’s more crowded, to exercise. Open my neighborhood, and I’ll happily stay put.
Florida and Georgia have opened their beaches. Michigan is letting people fish again. When will Angelenos be freed?
People are starting to go nuts. Instead of bringing us together, the virus is driving us further apart – literally, of course, but we are not only socially distancing, we are philosophically, psychologically and emotionally distancing. The go-outsiders roam manically, ever further, looking for room to move, venturing into dangerous territories to get the nature they need. The stay at homers lurk on social media shaming their neighbors for, I don’t know, kissing their children. Early in the restrictions, one of the many locals we used to see every day at the beach stood desolately in front of the yellow tape, surfboard under his arm. A former cop, he shook his head: “They’re going too far. You go too far, there will be social unrest.”
We’re seeing that now. I worry that despite every horrible thing Trump has done wrong, Democrats – and I am one – are driving people straight into his arms by making ours the party of fear, the party of no fun, the party of no freedom. Instead of the party of empathy, of support, of leadership, of services. Push free-ranging animals into tighter and tighter quarters for six weeks, then turn on the heat lamp, and see what happens.
I jumped into the ocean the other day for the first time in months. In seconds, it was as if the heavy coat of tar and dust that has weighed me down was rinsed off, and all that day I felt joy again. I knew I was hurting, but I didn’t know how bad.
A version of this story appeared on www.populismblog.wordpress.com