Social distancing on the sand: San Diegans flock to reopened beaches

Early Monday morning on April 27, 2020 the City of Encinitas reopened its beaches in a limited manner. Surfers walked up and down the beach at low tide to get to their favorite surf spots. The city is trying to channel all beach users through the Moonlight Beach Park.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It was back in the water and onto the sand for thousands across San Diego County Monday, April 27, as most cities loosened ocean access restrictions. Public health officials, meanwhile, announced two additional COVID-19 deaths and 98 new cases.

From Imperial Beach in the south to Oceanside beaches in the north, and at many beloved locations in-between, surfers, runners, swimmers and even a few surf fishers arrived early, eager to reconnect with the spots that resonate on a spiritual level for so many.

There were, however, a few holdouts. Stretches of sand in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Carlsbad remained shut down as did all state beaches including Silver Strand, Torrey Pines, Cardiff, San Elijo, Carlsbad and South Carlsbad and San Onofre.

While the city beaches that remain closed pledged to have limited reopenings next week, there is no definite timeline for the state properties. Gov. Gavin Newsom does not seem particularly receptive to reopening at the moment due to pictures out of Ventura and Orange counties that showed large crowds gathering over the weekend. The governor deemed those locations examples of “what not to do.”

“This virus does not take the weekends off,” Newsom said. “This virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful sunny day around our coasts.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whose city reopened the largest number of locations Monday, April 27, stressed that this is not about recreation. Visitors are free to come down to get some beach-related exercise, be it swimming, surfing, walking, running, paddle boarding or kayaking, but when those activities are finished, they’re expected to go home. No lingering to stretch out on the sand and soak in the plentiful sun that has hung around after so many rounds of recent rain.

For the most part, the mayor said during an afternoon briefing, those orders were obeyed Monday, April 27, though there were some “trouble spots” on boardwalks and pocket beaches.

The weekend will be the real test, Faulconer said.

“We do not want to give back the gains we have sacrificed so much for,” he said. “We do not want to see beaches crowded. That’s what led to their closure in the first place.”


The communities that did not go along with Monday’s reopening released their own short statement Sunday, April 26, indicating that they intend to reopen on Monday, May 4. The cities said the county’s announcement Friday that it would amend its public health order to allow ocean exercise “came as a complete surprise,” one that left them unable to move immediately because they were still working on methods to provide adequate social and physical distancing.

Mike Stein, fire chief for Encinitas, Del Mar and Solana Beach, said during a hastily-called special meeting of the Encinitas City Council Sunday afternoon, April 26, that the county’s action took everyone by surprise.

“We did not know, nor did we have any warning, that the county was going to do that,” he said.

The decision to open Encinitas beaches Monday, April 27, was a narrow one, passing as it did on a 3-2 vote with those who said no worried that, with neighboring beaches closed, all traffic would concentrate in one location.

City Councilwoman Jody Hubbard, who voted no, expressed her frustration, especially since other neighboring cities weren’t opening.

“I’m very disappointed that all the work and effort that was put in to try to coordinate with our cities kind of all went out the window,” Hubbard said. “It seems if we could have just waited a few more days or a week, we might have been in line with them.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Faulconer’s office said in an email Monday evening, April 27, that, when the city sent its letter that essentially said everyone was ready to go, it was meant to govern “how beaches would reopen, not when.” But Solana Beach, Del Mar and Carlsbad disagreed, saying in their statement that the agreed-upon working date was to be May 4, not April 27.

There did seem to be a bit more coordination in the works just one week ago.

On Monday, April 20, county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during a daily COVID briefing that coastal cities had formed a working group that was to reopen using a “regional approach so that the guidance surrounding the ocean in particular is consistent across jurisdictions.”

Fletcher said Monday, April 27, that the county made Friday’s decision after receiving a letter from beach cities Wednesday that cities and agencies throughout the region were ready to move forward with restoring limited beach access “when the county has enough data related to COVID-19 to substantiate modifying the public health order.”

The supervisor said he saw no issue with some locations going “a little faster, a little swifter, than others,” provided that they can police their beaches well enough to make sure that they are being used only for exercise and not for recreation.

“If they are unable to ensure the plans that they have written, then they are going to have to make adjustments to what they do,” Fletcher said.

All stairways up and down connecting the street and beaches are closed, but one surfer jumped the closure at the D street stairway. The City of Encinitas reopened its beaches in a limited manner at 8 a.m. on Monday, April 27, 2020 on a limited basis. They are trying to channel all beach users through the Moonlight Beach Park.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego beaches

There was definitely some policing going on in San Diego Monday, April 27, embodied most forcefully by a long line of police recruits standing along the Mission Beach boardwalk, keeping visitors from strolling or skating its usually-packed surface.

Most at what is arguably the region’s busiest stretch of sand seemed to be doing what they could to keep feet of distance from their fellow visitors, though few walking or running next to the waves wore face masks. That won’t be an option in just a few days. A universal masking order takes effect Friday, May 1.

Malik Lestage, 22, was one of a handful already out swimming Monday morning, April 27.

The medical assistant student and Navy veteran said most people he’d seen throughout the day were adhering to social distancing, though some did arrive in large groups.

“It seems like it’s a normal day, besides people walking around with face masks,” Lestage said. “The collective energy still feels like a beach vibe...but there’s still a lot of weird vibes since there’s a lot of police and it still feels militant in a sense.”

There were about 1,000 surfers, jogger an walkers moving between Scripps Pier and the Marine Room in La Jolla which lifeguards said was a relatively normal crowd for a sunny weekday in April.

Surfers like Nick Broms of La Jolla weren’t turned off by the heavy coffee-colored red tide that was affecting the entire surf zone.

“If you look around, everyone is pretty socially distanced around here,” Broms said. “Easily more than 6 feet apart (and the same) in the water. I think that it is pretty justifiable that we can surf again.”

Further north

With La Jolla being the nearest open beach to the south, and Oceanside to the north, Encinitas, which chose to open Moonlight Beach, found itself a popular destination starting early Monday morning, April 27. Stairways at D Street, Swami’s Beach, Grandview and Stonesteps remained closed because the city deemed them too narrow to allow adequate physical distancing.

Beaches in Encinitas saw what may have been a record crowd for a Monday in late April, Marine Safety Capt. Larry Giles said.

“It was one of the most crowded days we’ve ever seen,” Giles said. “Hands down, for this time of year. With all the schools being out, businesses closed and people out of work, we had a very large mass of people.”

Giles said about 1,000 people were at the beach at dawn, with the crowd looking more like July 4 rather than April 27. Most, he said, complied with distancing requirements, though there was an arrest at Swami’s for tearing out fencing and banner tape that prevented stairway access to the stand.

With Moonlight’s large parking lot closed, those who wanted to reach the beach had to find street parking, and many did throughout the day. Teenagers in bathing suits, middle-aged men with surfboards, parents with toddlers in tow, all surged in from surrounding city streets.

Lifeguards, who roamed in various vehicles, kept everybody moving.

“You need to actively run, walk or jog, or leave the beach,” a lifeguard said in one of several afternoon announcements.

Turns out, most people can’t stand around at the beach for long. Resident Lisa Packey said she suspects keeping people upright contributed to her ease finding a parking space on the street.

“It’s like chaos, but it’s like organized chaos,” she said. “I think there’s so many people coming and going, but they get in and get out. You pretty much do your thing and go.”

Packey said she felt little coronavirus-based anxiety because she was able to keep her distance from others.

“I don’t see it as any worse than being in a grocery store,” she said.

As an extra step in helping people maintain distance from one another, Giles said lifeguards set up checkered flags at the north and south ends of the beach to mark borders where people were allowed. As the tide came in, the flags were moved to prohibit people from going where the beach had become too narrow, he said.

Oceanside announced Monday, April 27, a limited reopening of its beaches, but no sun bathing, group activities or recreational boating except kayaking and paddle-boarding.

The city’s fishing pier, beach amphitheater, and beach parking lots will remain closed to prevent people from gathering in groups, and The Strand, a short street at the edge of beach, is closed to vehicles except for residents who need to access their homes.

Two popular areas on the north side of Coronado’s beach will continue to be closed. They include Sunset Park and dog beach.

Mayor Richard Bailey said those places will remain closed because people in the past have not followed social distancing requirements there.

— Paul Sisson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

— Phil Diehl, Terri Figueroa, David Garrick, Lauren Mapp, Gary Robbins, Gustavo Solis, Gary Warth and Lyndsay Winkley contributed to this report.

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