By Jake Howard
When the current health and economic crisis we find ourselves in kicked into overdrive in early March with California implementing its stay-at-home orders, I wrote a piece for the World Surf League entitled Why Surfing is More Important Than Ever Right Now.
In the piece, I made the argument that our lineups and local breaks are our refuge; that when life on dry land gets too wild we seek the sanctity of the water. Avoiding large crowds and social distancing are things that have long been woven into the surfer’s quirky DNA. We’ve been trying to self-quarantine ourselves ever since the second guy showed up at Malibu.
Last week, access to city and state beaches was officially closed. No surfing, no walking, no sand between the toes. Since then, area surfers have been trying to figure out how to respond.
I’ve had multiple conversations with a wide range of surfers, from business leaders such as Matt Biolos of Lost Surfboards, to Megan Walla, a mother and nurse practitioner, and Charles McDermott, who has degrees in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Business Administration, as well as a number of our more notable professional surfers.
The subject is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
The consensus among everyone I’ve spoken with is that they would like to see San Clemente move forward and begin the process of opening up limited access to our beaches. Everyone has been appreciative and understanding of the precautions taken for all of our health and safety and respectful of the officials that have had to make these tough decisions.
They also readily acknowledge that overcrowding, specifically at Lower Trestles, has been extremely problematic. They also respect and appreciate the difficult position our leaders are in right now, and that, yes, there are bigger priorities than surfing right now.
All that being said, with local schools doing “distance learning” through June 4, all sports programs canceled, and all recreation and fitness facilities closed, people need a place to exercise and take advantage of the increasingly nicer days in a safe environment. That’s where the beach comes in.
In the book Blue Mind by Dr. Wallace Nichols, he make the argument that simply being “near, in, on or under water can make you happier and better at what you do.”
“Right now there is so much confusion and turmoil. I know we are all doing the best we can with the information and guidelines we have been given. In our hearts, I know that each of us wants to keep our neighbors safe and healthy. Reopening local beaches can be part of the solution instead of the problem,” Walla said in one of our conversations.
“There is well-documented research proving the psychological and immune boosting health benefits of exercise and being outside. COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the immune system, and its mere existence is already compounding the mental health crisis that our country is steeped in,” she continues. “Enable our communities to mount the best immune response possible and keep their anxiety and depression at bay by giving them access to move within the natural resources that they have built their lives around.”
“Limited opening up of beaches and the ocean for walking and surfing while keeping the parking lots closed, and maybe curtailing short-term vacation rentals, will open up more usable space and improve social distancing conditions for residents,” said McDermott, who runs Primmune Therapeutics, a company developing a COVID-19 drug. “Policy makers need to understand that we are likely a long way from fixing this outbreak and we need to pace ourselves as we move between opening up and tightening down as the situation evolves. And to do this effectively the public needs to see a clear rationale.”
At the moment, California’s beach closures are a patchwork. In Dana Point, surfing at Doheny and Salt Creek remain open but are steadily getting more crowded as the beaches at nearby San Clemente and Laguna Beach are both closed.
Further up PCH., Newport Beach and Huntington Beach still allow surfing. And while the beaches are closed in L.A. County, access in Ventura and Oxnard has been opening up. And just this week, Santa Cruz opened its beaches back up to surfing. Surfing is also currently allowed in San Francisco, one of the first big cities to go on lockdown.
With all of this in mind, being solution oriented about our current situation has been the driver of my recent conversations with our area surfers. To be perfectly clear, nobody that I spoke with views this as an “us versus them” situation, rather there’s hope that we can collectively work together towards the best outcome for everyone.
“We understand that there have to be limitations and everything has to follow health guidelines, and we want to be safe and responsible about how we move forward,” Biolos says. “But with so much closed around our community, the beach is a huge resource. We’re not suggesting that Lowers has to be open today. The spot is pretty much a tourist attraction and it was drawing people from L.A. and San Diego. Clearly, that’s a huge problem, but we can be responsible about this and still figure out a way for local residents and surfers to utilize their beaches.”
There is a San Clemente City Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 21. The current beach closures are sure to be a topic. Amongst the local surfers I’ve had conversations with, the solutions that have been discussed thus far are as follows:
- Open access to San Clemente city beaches while keeping all parking lots closed.
- For the time being, California State Parks like Trestles and San Onofre that tend to draw large crowds should potentially remain closed to limit out-of-town surfers from crowding the beaches.
- Consider opening up the trails area of San Onofre and place cones on every other parking spot, as well as limit the amount of cars let in, similar to how they do at Old Man’s on busy weekends. Use every third parking spot, then one car in and one car out as the parking area fills up.
- Rather than wasting resources kicking people off the beach, utilize our esteemed lifeguards to enforce social distancing guidelines, including making sure that people on the beach are there to exercise and are not loitering, as well as informing surfers to spread out when appropriate.
- The other concern that’s been voiced is limiting or putting a halt to short-term vacation rentals, so we don’t see a “spring break” type situation with people from out of town potentially reintroducing the coronavirus into our environment.
“We have so many in our community, and surrounding communities alike, who use the ocean as a place of recreation, and also as a place of profession. In San Clemente, there are two Olympians using the ocean as a training ground multiple times per day,” local pro surfer Kevin Schulz explained to StabMag.com this week. “Of course in a time like this, many are out of work, and it’s not exactly time to play, but I am mostly advocating the reopen to provide mental sanity for those who consider the ocean a place of freedom, exercise and a place to make a living.”
The surfing community isn’t looking to be selfish or diminish the severity of the current situation we’re all in, rather they’re solution-minded and looking forward to how we can collectively work together as a community to restore some access to one of the most valuable and important resources we have within our city.
Stay tuned for updates from next week’s city council meeting as things are sure to continue to develop.
Jake Howard is the weekly surf columnist for the San Clemente Times. The views and opinions he expresses are his own and do not necessarily reflect the policies and positions of this publication.