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4 May, 2020 19:56

‘Beach wars’ heat up as ‘arbitrary’ rules gall stir-crazy Americans determined to enjoy early summer

‘Beach wars’ heat up as ‘arbitrary’ rules gall stir-crazy Americans determined to enjoy early summer

Coastal states are facing a salty insurrection as warming temperatures send lockdown-weary citizens running for the beaches. Faced with seemingly arbitrary closures, thousands of would-be sunbathers became protesters.

Federal stay-at-home guidelines have expired and only state-level measures remain, placing governors and city officials on the opposite sides of the barricades. A unique situation has emerged in which citizens are technically violating the law and law enforcement is looking the other way, unless they choose not to.

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There were no arrests made at Huntington Beach after beachgoers defied Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order closing all beaches across Orange County in the name of the ever-present threat of coronavirus. Police and lifeguards were there, and a helicopter barked loud warnings that the beaches were closed, but not a single citation was issued, according to the city’s public information officer. Nor were there any arrests on Friday, as the water gleamed invitingly while tightly-packed, sweaty crowds of protesters jammed the streets, waving flags and signs protesting the beach closure and demanding an end to the lockdown.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said his department would not be citing people for using the “closed” beach during a press conference following the closure order on Thursday, vowing instead to focus on “voluntary compliance.” The sheriff’s department has refused to “criminalize people enjoying the beach,” while Huntington Beach police chief Robert Handy even told local media he empathized with the protesters, noting that the city’s tourism-based economy depended on beach access. It’s a sign of the divide growing between local and state authorities as lockdowns drag on with no end in sight – even as warming weather lures Americans outside.

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Will O’Neill, mayor of Orange County’s Newport Beach, accused Newsom of overstepping his constitutional authority with the executive order, pointing to the county’s low Covid-19 death rate – just 52 people have died with the virus, out of 2,743 confirmed cases as of Sunday – and suggesting the beach closure was singled out on the basis of an outbreak of public shaming instead. Photos appearing to show Newport Beach packed with people the previous weekend had elicited a public reprimand from Newsom, even as authorities insisted that the photos were misleading, and the closure was imposed after the city defiantly voted to keep its beaches open.

“Children digging in the sand, teenagers surfing, and people reading a good book in a beach chair threatens the health and safety of no one. It is time for Gavin Newsom to stop pretending otherwise,” O’Neill wrote in a Saturday op-ed for RealClearPolitics. This quintessentially Californian variant of ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ may be a bit unusual as a call-to-arms, but in the post-coronavirus ‘new normal,’ merely going to the beach has become an act of civil disobedience.


While mainstream media focused its efforts on depicting the Orange County protesters as an unruly horde of flag-waving “deplorables,” smaller protests took place in San Francisco – hardly a Republican hotspot – and San Diego calling for an end to the lockdowns. Meanwhile, several northern California counties with just a handful of Covid-19 cases between them have begun quietly reopening despite the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Even New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, is chafing under the continuing restrictions, as with no end in sight to the local lockdown – Mayor Bill de Blasio has hinted it could last through the summer – a spate of unseasonably warm weather drove people to abandon their solitary confinement and seek some sunlight in the city’s beaches and parks. Hundreds thronged to Coney Island on Sunday, most wearing masks and keeping a semblance of social distancing even as concessions and beach bathrooms were closed in a low-key attempt to keep people from lingering.

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A police officer confirmed the beach was closed, even as the unusually-pasty sun-worshipers frolicked in the sand. It’s not clear what spared the masses from being descended on with the NYPD’s usual heavy-handed tactics – other than that SWAT teams assaulting swimwear-clad civilians would have been bad PR for an agency that doesn’t need any more of it. But whatever the reason for the reprieve, police helicopters circled overhead menacingly, as if to remind beachgoers that despite the unfamiliar feel of sunlight on their skin, any resemblance to actual freedom was entirely coincidental.


Florida and South Carolina have gone the opposite route – beaches there began reopening in mid-April, and even “non-essential” businesses have begun reopening following the lifting of the federal restrictions. In Florida, any protests are from people opposed to ending the lockdowns – one man was reprimanded by locals on Friday for walking up and down Miramar Beach dressed in a Grim Reaper costume. While some experts insist rushing to lift lockdowns will create a spike in cases, soaring unemployment numbers and the cratering economy have convinced many states’ leaders that it’s a risk worth taking.

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