California Governor Gavin Newsom will order all beaches and state parks closed starting from Friday after people thronged to the seashore during a sweltering weekend despite his social distancing order, according to a memo sent to police chiefs around the state.
Eric Nunez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said it was sent to the group’s members on Wednesday evening so they have time to plan before Newsom’s expected announcement on Thursday.
A message to the governor’s office seeking comment was not immediately returned.
While most state parks and many local beaches, trails and parks have been closed for weeks, Newsom’s order is sure to ignite furore from communities who say they can safely provide some relief to residents who are starved of fresh air.
Pressure is building to ease state and local restrictions that have throttled the state’s economy, closing most businesses and adding nearly four million people to unemployment rolls.
On Wednesday, six San Francisco Bay Area counties that imposed the first broad stay-at-home orders in California loosened them slightly to allow for landscaping, construction and other outdoor businesses, such as flea markets and nurseries, so long as social distancing is maintained.
And in what could be a critical addition for many parents, it specifies that summer camps are allowed, but only if kids stay in small groups and their parents are considered to hold essential jobs, such as healthcare workers.
Some recreational bans also were eased, but not all in the same way. For instance, tennis will be OK in Sacramento starting from Friday, but not in San Francisco.
Compounding the confusion: Some elements of the revised orders will not take effect because they conflict with the statewide stay-at-home order, which is still in place.
In Riverside County, authorities said its local order will end on Thursday and be replaced by less-restrictive measures. Trails and parks will be open for hiking, biking and horse riding as long as visitors wear masks.
Health officials, however, warn that more mingling brings the potential for more infection and the government should tread gingerly when easing restrictions so as not to ignite another surge in coronavirus cases.
Newsom’s beach order follows a weekend in which some 80,000 people flocked to Newport Beach in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, with thousands more gathering at beaches in Ventura County, north of LA.
An Orange County supervisor, Donald P. Wagner, issued a statement saying he believes Newsom has the power to close local beaches but “it is not wise to do so”.
“Orange County citizens have been cooperative with state and county restrictions thus far. I fear that this overreaction from the state will undermine that cooperative attitude and our collective efforts to fight the disease,” he said.
Beaches in Los Angeles County remain closed.
Lifeguards said most people appeared to be heeding social distance safety rules such as limiting groups and not lingering on the sand. But the crowds irked Newsom, who has said California’s 40 million residents should try to stay home as much as possible.
“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off. This virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful sunny day around our coasts,” he said on Monday.
The same day, beaches across San Diego County reopened. A day later, Newport Beach officials rejected a plan to close city beaches for three consecutive weekends.
California is approaching 50,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 2,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, although the number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested.
However, virus hospitalisations have been virtually flat for several weeks in California and the state has dodged the dreaded massive surge of patients seen in New York and several other states.
Newsom has praised Californians for helping flatten the curve of the outbreak through social distancing and is reluctant to follow the examples of Georgia, Florida and several other states that are moving more rapidly to reopen.
Newsom reiterated on Wednesday it would be weeks before he makes the first significant modification to the state order, urging people to remain at home to prevent unintended outbreaks among the state’s most high-risk populations, including nursing homes.
“It won’t be on the basis of pressure, it won’t be on the basis of what we want, but what we need to do,” Newsom said. “And what we need to do from my humble perspective is listen to the public health experts.”
But each of the state’s 58 counties have their own public health experts, and many are starting to ask Newsom to open up the state. This week, seven rural Northern California counties with low numbers of COVID-19 cases have asked Newsom to let them reopen.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Clara County Health Director Dr Sara Cody said local officials have come up with their own metrics to measure infection rates, hospitalisations and testing to ensure that infections do not start rising again. If that happens, she said, stricter rules will return.
“I wish I could give you a set timeline for when this was going to end. My family asks me, my friends ask me – we don’t have a date,” she said, noting that there still is no vaccine, so “we are going to need to have protections in place for a very, very long time.”