OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom is shuttering all Orange County beaches in an aggressive move that immediately met resistance in the wealthy coastal county whose beaches made national news last weekend when visitors descended there in summer-like weather.
The governor repeatedly chided outdoor recreators this week, warning that mass gatherings could undermine California’s progress toward containing the coronavirus. The state is poised to allow some forms of commerce to resume, but Newsom has said that large crowds could drive up infections and force the state to delay a reopening that’s otherwise weeks away.
He had called out an Orange County city by name, saying “we can’t see images like we saw, particularly on Saturday, in Newport Beach and elsewhere.” On Thursday, Newsom said “the conditions last week, the images we saw at a few of our beaches were disturbing” but noted “the vast majority” of beaches were not overcrowded, citing San Diego, Los Angeles, Mendocino County and the Bay Area.
“In areas where we didn’t see that, you have to acknowledge that, you have to own that and you have to figure that out,” Newsom said, citing the need to respond “in a targeted way” in “a few coastal cities.”
Officials in Orange County, a onetime bastion of Reagan Republicanism that has trended blue, have already clashed with the Newsom administration in court over housing and coronavirus decisions. On Thursday they accused Newsom of overreacting to a handful of incomplete images.
“His actions are arbitrary and capricious and it is an act of retribution against Orange County,” said county Supervisor Michelle Steel, a Republican who is challenging Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda to reclaim the seat Rouda flipped in 2018.
Steel argued that most Orange County residents have respected social distancing requirements and faulted Newsom for acting based on a “few misleading pictures” that “were taken at a particular angle that made it look as if beachgoers were crowding.” Multiple officials echoed those critiques, including Sheriff Don Barnes, who said he had not seen any violations of the stay-at-home order that would merit law enforcement response.
“The photographs I saw, quite honestly, were a stark contrast to what the governor’s acting on,” Barnes said, adding that he had seen no reason to alter his standing approach of “not taking enforcement action on this order” to maintain social distance.
By focusing on Orange County, Newsom laid down a marker in a demographically shifting area that’s central to his party’s political prospects. Democrats have made steady inroads in the former bastion of Reagan Republicanism, flipping multiple Republican seats that Democrats will be defending in November.
Newsom had already angered local Orange County elected officials by suing the city of Huntington Beach over its failure to build enough housing, and Democrats are defending multiple House seats they claimed in 2018. His administration also drew Orange County outrage in February when it proposed housing coronavirus-exposed people in a state developmental center in Costa Mesa.
After Newsom specifically called out Orange County specifically this week, local officials defended their efforts as adequately protecting public health. In a sign of the legal crosswinds Newsom is likely to face, Orange County Parks Director Stacy Blackwell said that locals should be able to maintain autonomy over parks and beaches unless the state closes every beach in California.
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner downplayed the possibility of another court clash on Thursday and said, “Orange County is not trying to stick a finger in the governor’s eye.” But he assailed the governor for not coordinating with local officials.
The issue already began to permeate competitive legislative races. Republican Diane Dixon, who is seeking to unseat first-term Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), blasted Newsom in a statement for “a clear abuse of his power” and faulted her Democratic opponent for not challenging the governor.
Some Orange County officials backed Newsom’s order. State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) said in an interview that dissenting local officials were instilling a false sense of security as countywide hospitalization numbers have continued to climb.
“What the county needs to do is rely on health professionals to determine what they think policy should be,” Umberg said. “I don’t hear any health care professionals saying we should open up the beaches.”
So far, Newsom had resisted a full-scale shutdown of California’s state-operated parks and beaches, electing instead to prod people away with partial measures like closing parking lots and falling back on social pressure as a deterrent. Local officials have gone further in closing trails and beaches, although some of those public spaces are beginning to reopen as infection rates flatten.
A leaked memo from Newsom’s administration to law enforcement, which surfaced Wednesday night, suggested the governor was preparing to close all beaches statewide. Numerous local officials blasted that reported plan.
Newsom asserted Thursday that he had not planned or rolled back a broader order. But Aimee Faucett, chief of staff to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, contradicted the governor’s claim on Twitter, saying that on Wednesday night the governor’s office notified Faulconer’s administration “that he would be announcing the closure of ALL CA beaches” before reversing on Thursday.
Coastal communities around the state had publicly decried Newsom’s reported plans for a statewide closure. In the hours before Newsom announced the Orange County-specific mandate, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal had defiantly said he would not enforce the directive in his North Coast county.
Faulconer warned on Twitter that “a sudden state ban on every single beach — regardless of the facts on the ground — sends the wrong message to regions where people are acting responsibly.” He reacted to Newsom’s announcement that San Diego would not be affected by telling his constituents “the Governor heard us.”