As Brad Colburn whisked his metal detector over the tan sands of Huntington Beach, a rejection of Orange County's spiking coronavirus infection rates surfaced.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe the rates are rising," Colburn said. "They’re inflated. It’s another way of shutting everything down … of the Democrats trying to get what they want.”
The 58-year-old Huntington Beach resident said he has yet to wear a mask outside of shopping. Standing by a beach path as cyclists and in-line skaters zoomed by, he offered his own alternative policy to restrictive coronavirus health orders.
“If you don’t want to go outside, don’t go outside,” Colburn said.
More than any other place in California, Huntington Beach has come to symbolize resistance to many of the coronavirus safety rules government officials have imposed in recent months. It's not as though no one in the city is wearing masks and social distancing.
But many who oppose mandatory mask rules and other measures like closing beaches have been outspoken here, and used the tourist mecca as a platform for their views. In May, angry demonstrators converged a block away at the now mostly quiet Huntington Beach Pier to protest the state-ordered shutdown of local businesses.
Since then, many roaming through the city's downtown area are proudly not wearing masks. And the stance has even inspired a parody video that went viral on social media in recent weeks.
Fred Smoller, a professor of political science at nearby Chapman University, described Huntington Beach as a conservative stronghold and said that the attitudes about the coronavirus there reflect larger political divides.
“Their ideology is a lens through which they are viewing the coronavirus,” Smoller said. “I would imagine many people there see it as a hoax, which the president has encouraged them to do in order to up his chance of reelection. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of animus toward the governor.… They’re viewing [state restrictions] as further evidence of the deep state and of an intrusive government.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Lyn Semeta said the city would continue its educational efforts to keep residents safe. Masks, she said in an email statement to The Times, are "critical in keeping people healthy and helping our businesses operate safely in the limited capacity they are able to.”
When asked about opposition to COVID-19 restrictions in Huntington Beach, Semeta said she was aware people around the state are “uncomfortable with the use of face coverings.”
“I can certainly understand that sentiment. However, while there is still much we are learning about this virus, health experts have come out strongly recommending face coverings as an effective measure that helps stop the spread of COVID-19,” Semeta said, urging residents to wear them.
The number of Orange County coronavirus cases has surged in recent weeks, with more than 31,000 confirmed cases and more than 500 deaths. The number of hospitalizations has tripled in the last two months and overall infections have grown so dramatically that the county is now second in the state to Los Angeles County.
There is widespread acceptance that masks play a key role in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and their widespread use in other countries is credited with slowing infections dramatically.
But skepticism abounds over the seriousness of the outbreak.
The Orange County Board of Education voted last week to approve recommendations for reopening schools that did not include mandatory use of masks or increased social distancing in classrooms. The board, however, did leave reopening plans up to individual school districts.
But those concerns became moot Friday when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order that would not allow most California schools to reopen when the academic year begins, shifting instead toward full-time remote learning in response to the summer surge in coronavirus cases.
In a viral video that’s generated more than 1.5 million views since last week, YouTubers Tom Allen and John Parr offered Huntington Beach residents face coverings.
Allen and Parr, who use the pseudonyms Chad Kroeger and JT Parr, respectively, are West Hollywood-based comedians who run a web series called “Chad Goes Deep.” Previously, they advocated for house parties during an L.A. City Council meeting.
“No one here has a mask, but we brought our own supply to fix the problem,” Allen said at the beginning of the video, which showed mostly spiteful reactions to the offering. The two quickly learned the dearth of face coverings didn’t stem from need.
“We found out that it’s not really a shortage, people just kinda think they suck,” Allen told The Times. Parr said Huntington Beach seemed "relatively safe" during their visit in early July, when the duo passed out all 20 packs of masks they brought. The mask promotion angered some residents, however.
“Some dudes tried to fight us, which was scary,” Parr said.
Hauling an orange surfboard toward Huntington Beach’s famous waves last Thursday afternoon, one young man, face covered in drying sunscreen, offered his own appraisal of masks.
“Wack. Never wear it,” said the man, who declined to give his name as he got to the ocean.
“It hasn’t affected me at all, besides that I can’t go to a bar and have a drink and really kick it with the boys,” the man said. He called the restrictions “pretty lame” but acknowledged the deadliness of the “gnarly” coronavirus.
After hailing a beach path biker who had dropped a wallet, Sophia Darr shared her thoughts on the pandemic.
“I’m not afraid of it. I do think it’s overplayed. I think the media made it something it shouldn’t be,” Darr, 15, said. She wears a mask covered in pink peaches when she delivers food to the hungry, but said she didn’t feel like she typically needs to wear one.
“I wear it to respect the other people around me. Personally, I don’t really care,” Darr said. Before Newsom's order was issued, she said she wouldn’t wear a face covering when returning to Huntington Beach High School for her junior year. She supports some of the loosened restrictions, like being able to eat outside, she said.
On the pier, Enoc Step fished for “whatever bites,” which on this day was Spanish mackerel and sardines. A home health nurse, he said he follows professional protocol but wants to see less government-mandated health policy and more individual accountability.
“If I get it, I get it,” Step, 52, said of the virus. “I’m doing the best I can: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, put on a mask in an enclosed room and stay away from people.”
He said he’s seen a sharp reduction in work over the last few months, which he related to shutdowns he found unnecessary.
“People are tired of it. People must be given responsibility for their own actions,” said Step, a Fullerton resident. “Newsom needs to stop being a monarch.” The government should focus on information sharing, he said.
“How can you fight something that you have no control over,” he said.
Eleanor Dunai’s mask was fixed to her wrist as she passed Main Street’s now outdoor-only restaurants on her way home from the post office. She said she wears the face covering in enclosed spaces but not outside where there's a beach breeze.
“I think it’s kind of off-the-cuff,” Dunai, 57, said of the state's COVID restrictions. She thinks gyms shouldn’t have opened before salons, which she feels safer in. Both gyms and salons have shut down again.
“It seems like the smallest fraction of the population are getting their way, not the majority,” she said. Polling shows a slight majority of Californians believe the state reopened too quickly, and more than three-quarters of the population are concerned they or their family members will contract COVID-19. She said she worries, too, but thinks strict health orders no longer make sense.
“If we continue to hide and be totally isolated, we’re dragging it out,” Dunai said. “People need to take responsibility for their own actions.”
For the record:
10:47 AM, Jul. 22, 2020: In an earlier version of this article, YouTubers/comedians Tom Allen and John Parr were identified by their pseudonyms, Chad Kroeger and JT Parr, respectively.