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Orange County Beaches Shut Down, But Legal Battle Still Making Waves

In Newport Beach, the beaches were practically empty this weekend. Last weekend, thousands gathered on Orange County beaches, prompting California Gov. Gavin Newsom to implement a beach shutdown in Orange County.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
In Newport Beach, the beaches were practically empty this weekend. Last weekend, thousands gathered on Orange County beaches, prompting California Gov. Gavin Newsom to implement a beach shutdown in Orange County.

Two Orange County cities' attempt to legally challenge California Gov. Gavin Newsom's beach shutdown order failed for now, but the battle between local and state officials over the shoreline will continue.

Huntington Beach, Dana Point and various local private businesses in Orange County requested a temporary restraining order in Orange County Superior Court on Friday that would have blocked Newsom's executive beach closure order and kept beaches open in those cities.

Orange County plaintiffs argued the beach shutdown infringed on "their constitutionally protected right and authority to make their own decisions regarding the status of their beaches."

But Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott rejected the injunction, and beaches spanning the Orange County coastline were closed over the weekend and will continue to be. A hearing is scheduled for May 11.

Over the weekend the Newport Beach City Council voted to support the lawsuit but will not join as a plaintiff.

Newsom announced a "hard close" on all beaches and state parks in Orange County on Thursday, after news photos circulated showing people not following social distancing guidelines over the last weekend of April.

Prior to that announcement,according to a California Police Chiefs Association memoand local officials in Dana Point andSan Diego, Newsom had planned to close all beaches and state parks across the state.

But, in an apparent change of course, the governor only ordered those closures to be put in place in Orange County, saying "specific issues on some of those beaches raised alarm bells" and citing concern over high numbers of infection and hospitalization rates in the county.

Local officials there have maintained those photos did not accurately reflect the situation on the beaches and that most visitors were adhering to guidelines.

In recent days some of those officials, including Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta, have argued that Orange County has some of the lowest per-capita coronavirus death rates in the state. On Sunday, the county had experienced more than 2,743 cases of the coronavirus and 52 deaths from COVID-19, according to Orange County public health data.

Dana Point city officials accused Newsom of pulling a bait and switch, saying that during the official closure announcement, a separate conference call was taking place informing Orange County officials the shutdown was taking place over the entire California coastline.

Newsom has maintained he had always planned to implement a targeted shutdown in Orange County. The governor's office has not responded to multiple requests for comment from NPR.

This weekend the scene on the beach was strikingly different from the one before; Orange County shorelines were virtually empty, though some had some sparse crowds.

Still, Californians gathered in a different way over the weekend — about 2,500 people protested the statewide shutdown and the local beach shutdown in Huntington Beach on Friday.

Tensions have risen to a boil with the statewide stay-at-home order now lasting more than six weeks and unemployment reaching record levels. Beyond Huntington Beach, smaller protests rallying against the shelter-in-place orders broke out in Sacramento, San Francisco and San Diego.

Modoc, a rural county in northern California with no reported cases of COVID-19, went ahead with reopening most businesses on Friday. Yuba and Sutter counties are poised to join that approach and will allow many businesses to reopen on Monday, going against Newsom's rules.

Still, polls showthe majority of Californians support the stay-at-home orders.

Newsom stuck to his message that modifications of the order would come in "weeks not months" until Friday, when he said changes would be coming down the pipeline in many days, not weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hannah Hagemann is a 2019 Kroc Fellow. During her fellowship, she will work at NPR's National Desk and Weekend Edition.