Those flocking to the beach see little risk of getting coronavirus. Experts aren't so sure

Dorany Pineda, Doug Smith, Alex Wigglesworth, Laura Newberry
Thousands of beachgoers enjoy a warm, sunny day in Huntington Beach on April 25 amid state-mandated stay-at-home orders designed to stave off the coronavirus pandemic.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The sunshine and a yearning for freedom beckoned Christopher Sumners to the ocean. So the 31-year-old and several of his friends hit the road Sunday morning, driving from hot and dry Corona to much cooler Huntington Beach.

Beneath cloudy skies, the group of six sprawled on their beach towels and chatted with one another, unconcerned by the threat of the coronavirus. Sumners believes he'll be fine as long as he continues to wash his hands, he said.

“I think you have better chances of winning the lottery or getting hit by a car than getting coronavirus,” Sumners said.

As the year's first heat wave hit California this weekend, thousands converged on Southland beaches to seek relief from record-breaking temperatures and weeks of isolation.

There has been some debate over the size of the crowds and the degree to which beachgoers were able to maintain social distancing in Orange and Ventura counties, where officials have not closed beaches but have urged outsiders to stay away.

Still, images of crowded beaches went viral Saturday, raising questions about whether allowing the shoreline to stay open could thwart California’s progress in slowing the virus' spread.

It is also testing the strength of messaging from health officials, who insist that staying at home is the best way to "flatten the curve" and restart the economy.

"I'm concerned," said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease specialist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. "If the people going to the beach can assure that they will remain six feet or more apart and not touch common things ... then I think it's OK. But I think the chances of that happening ... is extremely small."

Some communities, including Los Angeles County and many parts of the Bay Area, have kept beaches closed. L.A. beaches were largely empty Saturday.

“We won’t let one weekend undo a month of progress,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted Sunday. “While the sunshine is tempting, we’re staying home to save lives.”

Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, has repeatedly said that beaches should stay closed to prevent an overflow of visitors who might be carrying the coronavirus. She has asked L.A. residents not to crowd the coast in neighboring counties.

Communities in the Bay Area have cracked down on those who violate the rules. Last week in San Mateo County, officials ordered 275 people off Linda Mar Beach and threatened arrests and citations if people continued to violate the order.

Though health experts have slightly varying opinions about the extent to which gathering in public spaces should be permitted at this point in the pandemic, most agree that people should maintain a sizable buffer between themselves and others — something that can be difficult at beaches and their adjacent parking lots.

Swartzberg argues that decisions to open certain spaces should be commensurate to the capacity for testing and contact tracing, so that such decisions can be scaled back if there is evidence of increased infections.

"To not be prudent now is taking a chance, taking a real big risk," he said.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, sees no absolute rule of thumb in terms of the right time to open beaches. He’s more concerned with how it is done.

"We have to reopen," Schaffner said. "We can’t stay at home and outlast the coronavirus until we get an effective vaccine.”

But people should be given clear and detailed guidelines for how to behave in recreational spaces like beaches, Schaffner said.

For example, he said, officials need to let the public know that it is still unsafe to mingle in parking lots. And they should clarify whether people should wear masks while on the beach.

Terry Tamminen, who was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s secretary for environmental protection when the state was preparing for the bird flu epidemic in 2005, cautioned against reopening beaches before health officials understand the full extent of infections and have "adequately prepared hospital infrastructure for any future ‘waves.’”

“It seems like SoCal has managed much better than NYC or other places whose systems and health workers were totally overwhelmed by the pandemic, so at least we can conclude that our infrastructure is in decent shape for whatever is next,” he said in an email.

But first responders in California still need time to recover from the first wave, Tamminen cautioned. Any activity that might hasten the arrival of a second wave "wouldn't be the best idea," he said.

The number of deaths in L.A. County doubled over the last week to nearly 900, prompting health officials to urge residents to stay home whenever possible.

The pandemic has not hit all of California equally. In neighboring Orange County, 39 people had died from COVID-19 complications as of Sunday.

Polls have found wide support for the stay-at-home order among Californians. Among those polled for a recent California Health Care Foundation/Ipsos survey, 75% wanted the order to continue as long as needed. Only 11% wanted to stop the stay-at-home order, while 13% had no opinion.

Yet the ocean beckoned many as the mercury rose. Authorities in Ventura and Orange counties kept a number of beach parking lots closed and were out in force attempting to impose social distancing rules.

On Sunday morning, dozens of surfers rode the waves at Huntington Beach as others played on the sand. A mother kept watch over young boys digging holes with a shovel near the shore, while several teenagers flopped onto boogie boards.

Few wore protective face masks.

Eva Sanchez sat on a beach towel with her husband, Jorge, 21, and their 7-month-old baby, Mateo. They kept their distance from others gathered on the sand.

“I wanted to get out of the house for a little bit,” said Sanchez, 20. She and her family were armed with hand sanitizer and were careful about what they touched.

“I believe I’m taking my precautions, practicing social distancing, constantly washing our hands,” she said. “So I’m not that scared."