Locals protest beach closure in Seal Beach

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A small group protests the closure of the city’s beach on Saturday, May 2. The city will reopen the beach to physical activities only at sunrise, Monday, May 11. Photo by Charles M. Kelly

The beach in Seal Beach will reopen Monday, May 11.

On Saturday, May 2, some residents came to the beach to call for the reopening of the beach. One of the organizers expressed outrage that the city had allowed Old Ranch Country Club to reopen its golf course on Friday, May 1.

The demonstrators in general objected to the COVID-19 related closure orders, the governor’s stay-at-home order and question the science behind the orders.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 30 “directed” Orange County beaches to close, but didn’t write an executive order. Instead his office sent letters to the Board of Supervisors and the Seal Beach city government.

Since then, the governor’s office has approved plans to reopen some beaches.

Beach demonstration

A small group of Seal Beach residents gathered at noon, Saturday, May 1, at the foot of the Seal Beach Pier. Participants displayed the U.S. flag, the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and signs questioning the scientific validity of the closures. Some of the demonstrators brought their children with them. One of the supports of the demonstration wore a face mask. Most of the participants did not.

Organizers of the event appeared to be Aimee Sugar and Stephanie Wells, organizers of an online petition to reopen the beach. Wells, speaking to the public, said this wasn’t a protest.

“We estimate that there were 25 demonstrators and about 100 spectators,” wrote Seal Beach Police Sgt. Nick Nicholas in an email to the Sun. Sgt. Nicholas is the department’s public information officer. A solitary woman in healthcare attire and a black face mask held a quiet counter-demonstration. The woman said, “I am here for my health care colleagues.” She criticized the group for congregating.

She declined to give her name.

At the start of the event, Aimee Sugar—who appeared to be one of the organizers—told a member of the public, “We want the police to be on our side.”

Later, Sugar said: “This is not about a virus; it’s about control.”

She and the others held a variety of signs.

One of the signs Sugar held said that data and science disproved the need for the governor’s stay at home order.

Police, however, don’t agree with that position. “The police department of Seal Beach respects the ability of people to peaceably assemble; however, we are here to be sure the peace is kept and that people remain safe,” said Sgt. Nicholas on Saturday afternoon. “We’re relying on scientific data obtained from credible sources and we’re following guidelines and directions from the county health department, state Office of Emergency Services, and the governor’s office.”

Wells, holding a sign that asked for the cost of membership at the beach, called out: “Why is the country club more important than the rest of us?”

The group eventually walked down to and onto the beach. After being warned they could be cited, they walked off the beach and marched down Main Street. While they were on the beach, a police car pulled up onto the sand. A Lifeguard truck was already visible on the sand.

Over a public address speaker, a man’s voice said: “A reminder: the beach is closed.”

Moments later, a second police car, lights flashing, rolled onto the sand. The voice said: “If you walk out on the beach, you will be cited.”

Wells could be heard saying, “Why is the country club more important than Main Street?”

Her words were apparently a reference to the Friday, May 1, reopening of the Old Ranch Country Club’s golf course.

Wells said they had asked three times for participation from local officials.

During a Monday, May 4, virtual community chat hosted by Nat Ferguson of Ferguson Realty, Seal Beach Police Chief Phil Gonshak said a peaceful protest stops being peaceful when you break the law. He expressed displeasure the decision of the adults to bring children with them onto the sand in violation of the beach closures.

Local authority to close beaches

Seal Beach City Attorney Craig Steele offered an explanation as to why the county could reopen beaches and the city could keep them closed.

“Different jurisdictions of government control different beaches.  There are State beaches, county beaches, and city beaches.  The City of Seal Beach controls its beach and pier,” Steele wrote in an April 28 email.

“Given the number of government entities that control various beaches, there are a number of different opinions among governing bodies as to whether the Governor’s ‘Stay at Home,’ order permits people to leave their houses and residences to go to the beach,” Steele wrote.

“The Governor, apparently, does not think it does.  All State beaches, for example, are closed.  Los Angeles County beaches are closed, as are many city beaches.  The City of Seal Beach has not reached a point where City officials believe that the beach can safely be opened within the social distancing and other guidelines we all have to follow right now,” Steele wrote.

Beaches and the governor

Seal Beach City Attorney Craig Steele said the governor’s direction last week to close Orange County Beaches doesn’t make any difference for Seal Beach because the city closed the beach long before the governor’s April 30 press conference.

A brief timeline may help clarify some things that have confused a lot of people:

• Newsom signed the original stay at home order on March 3.

• Seal Beach ordered the beach and park facilities closed effective 10 p.m., March 23.

• The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to reopen OC beaches on April 21.

The beach in Seal Beach remains closed to the public.

• On Thursday, April 30, during a press conference, Newsom called for the closure of Orange County beaches.

During his press conference, Newsom referred to now-debated news media images of crowds on Orange County beaches the previous weekend as justification for the Orange County directive.

A Thursday, April 30 letter from the California Office of Emergency Services to the city of Seal Beach, also referring to the mid-April beach crowds, said: “In response, our State Department of Parks and Recreation is shifting to full closure of all Orange County State Beaches on a temporary basis. These beach closures will take effect tomorrow morning, May 1. Additionally, beaches operated by local governments in Orange County are directed to institute full closure starting tomorrow, May 1, to restrict the gathering of visitors that create unsafe conditions.”

Apparently no executive order accompanied the April 30 letter or the governor’s press conference. All executive orders of the governor are available online at the governor’s website.

Based on a search of the website, it appears the only executive order Gov. Newsom issued on April 30 was one that allows people to obtain marriage licenses by teleconferencing.

• On Tuesday morning, May 5, the governor’s office approved plans to reopen the beach in Seal Beach and other cities. The City Council approved the same plan Tuesday night.