Editor’s note: Late in the day on Wednesday, April 29, after this story went to print, news broke suggesting Governor Gavin Newsom was planning to make an announcement to close all beaches in California. On Thursday, April 30, Newsom announced a “hard closure” of all Orange County Beaches as of May 1.
Anxiety appeared to be rising over when Safer at Home orders may begin to lift, but officials suggest LA County could still be weeks away from plans to “reopen the economy” and, eventually, allow residents freedom to use trails, beaches and other public spaces—which have been closed for nearly six weeks—once more.
“Getting to the other side of the pandemic, without a large surge in cases and deaths, requires all of us to continue to follow the Safer at Home directives. But this is temporary and we’re preparing for the relaxing of some of the orders,” LA County Department of Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said during the county’s press conference on Monday, April 27. “Know, however, that physical distancing and infection control measures in our day-to-day lives will need to continue for some time to come.”
Later on Monday, Malibu City Manager Reva Feldman reiterated that regulations, which include the closure of public beaches, trails, parks and “non-essential” businesses, were not set to relax in the immediate future—Feldman seemed to suggest the current May 15 reopen date may be overly optimistic.
“At this time, there hasn’t been any change,” Feldman reported, adding, “What I’ve seen in other areas is it’s a gradual turning back to normal—it’s not going to be a light switch and everything goes back … though I did note in the news earlier today that all of the counties in the Bay Area extended their stay-at-home order to the end of May.”
Feldman added she was “very grateful” to everybody who stayed off local beaches over the weekend. While case numbers appeared to stay stable in Malibu even amid ongoing testing, concerns remained high over the possibility of spread on beaches and hiking trails.
Testing, which began with free tests for first responders and other so-called “frontline” workers (including grocery store clerks, delivery drivers and, of course, medical personnel), eventually expanded to any residents of Malibu or nearby communities interested in being tested.
Feldman offered statistics following 11 days of testing spread out over the previous three weeks—approximately 3,000 tests conducted, fewer than 50 positives.
“To date they have found 48 positives out of those 3,000 people, which is a very low rate,” Feldman said Monday. “Some testing sites are seeing as high as 20 percent positives, so we were glad to see that. I do want to note that not all of those positives are Malibu residents.”
Malibu’s confirmed cases were up to 30, citywide, as of Wednesday, April 29, with another 13 reported in the broader, unincorporated “Santa Monica Mountains” area.
Despite some evident stability in the case number within Malibu’s city limits, county officials doubled down on enforcement of beach closures over the weekend, citing still-increasing numbers of infections and deaths in LA County as a whole. From Friday to Monday, April 24-27 the total number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases went from 18,517 to 20,419 and deaths rose from 848 on Friday to 942.
An LA County Lifeguard public information official reported there were few issues with enforcement of beach closures across the county, despite temperatures inland and in valleys reaching well into the 90s.
“From what we saw, the beaches were relatively vacant and people weren’t trying to push that,” LA County Lifeguard Captain AJ Lester said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times. “We appreciate that because we’re all down at the beach and we don’t want to expose ourselves any more than we have to.”
When asked whether there was an increase in conflicts due to beach closures with temperatures rising, Lester said it was natural for residents to want to come to the beach, but applauded those who continue to heed orders to stay home.
“Yes, it is, we will have more activity of people trying to come down to the beach on days when it’s nicer, as compared to days when it’s blowing 40 knots and 60 degrees outside, but what we’ve seen is people are heeding that warning,” Lester said. “They’re understanding the beaches are closed … They’re staying safer at home and they’re’ doing a great job at that and we want to applaud people for that.”
With heavily televised images of crowds of beachgoers in Huntington Beach, concerns have been raised in Orange County communities about risks associated with keeping their beaches open while LA beaches are closed.
Ventura County beaches, which reopened last week, saw fewer crowds—although Ventura County Sheriff’s officials were out in force at County Line, which hosted plenty of visitors on Sunday. Beachgoers in Ventura are permitted to walk, jog, swim and surf but not sit on the sand or congregate in groups.
Lester pointed out that lifeguards were not interested in keeping people from the ocean, but their job was to help people stay safe.
“We’re lifeguards,” the captain said. “We love going in the ocean, we love coming to the beach—it’s something we’ve built our careers around. We want the public to understand, we’re all going through this together.
“It’s not us telling them they can’t come to the beach… we have just as hard of a time with the ocean being closed as anyone else does,” he continued. “We’re all avid surfers. We’re all avid watermen and women. For us not to be able to go to the beach, it affects our mental health just like everyone else. Our message is please heed advisories, heed beach closures … We’re all trying to get past the spread of this virus and get to the other side where we can all be safer and enjoy the beaches safely.”