The sun, surf and salty air have lured people to the beach all summer, a chance to get fresh air while seeking out space on the sand – and as Southern California gets hit with another heat wave bringing triple-digit temps inland in coming days, the coastline is expected to be especially crowded through the Labor Day weekend.
There are the ongoing coronavirus concerns to be aware of at crowded beaches, but beyond encouraging people to keep six-feet away from others and to wear masks to limit virus exposure, officials warn a day at the beach can pose other dangers that can quickly turn enjoyment into tragedy.
With four ocean-related deaths and several serious injuries in recent weeks, lifeguards have a warning for beachgoers, especially those unfamiliar with the ocean, to use caution when heading to local beaches for the holiday.
“There’s not a lot else to do, so people are flocking to the beaches,” Seal Beach Marine Safety Chief Joe Bailey said. “Especially with the heat wave, we’re expecting large attendance. It’s one of the few available activities.
“We want people to come down and enjoy the beach, but we want them to be safe and social distance, stick with their family groups,” he said. “It’s a wonderful outdoor spot to recreate, but do be safe. Swim near a lifeguard, always swim with a buddy.”
A summer like no other
Labor Day weekend has long been the unofficial end-of-summer beach weekend, a chance for friends to gather, kids to splash around and parents to relax before the hectic school year hits full speed.
But this year marks the end of a summer like no other.
It kicked off Memorial Day weekend – another big beach weekend – with confusing rules along the coast at the time requiring “active recreation” only – meaning you had to keep moving by exercising and couldn’t just lay out a towel to sunbathe.
Then came Fourth of July, when a heat wave again threatened to bring big crowds to the coast and a massive swell added another element of danger. Like dominoes, one coastal town after another announced complete closures, from Los Angeles County down throughout Orange County, fearing beach crowds would prompt a spike in coronavirus cases.
So Labor Day is shaping up to be the first somewhat-normal holiday weekend, with only Santa Barbara County so far announcing beach closures.
State Parks South Coast District Superintendent Kevin Pearsall said there’s no anticipated beach closures or parking lot restrictions for the State Parks system’s beaches, which includes the popular Leo Carrillo north of Malibu, Bolsa Chica State Beach, Crystal Cove and Doheny State Beach.
Signage at many local beaches still reminds people of coronavirus guidelines and tips, and people must wear masks if entering a park building that is open, Pearsall said. Lifeguards and park rangers continue to wear masks when interacting with the public.
Orange County authorities are also asking beachgoers to be smart as they visit the beach this weekend.
“We anticipate large crowds due to expected high temperatures, so visitors should plan accordingly,” OC Parks spokeswoman Marisa O’Neil wrote in an e-mail. “We ask that beachgoers recreate responsibly and follow all state and county health orders, practice physical distancing, wear face coverings when distancing is not possible, and wash or sanitize hands frequently.”
A wave of dangers
Lifeguards along Orange County’s coast said they have already been seeing big crowds during the recent heat waves that have hit the region.
“We’ve definitely had more people recreating in water, especially at the beaches, than years prior,” said Bailey, also a member of the OC Drowning Prevention Task Force.
And with those crowds – increased in large part because other popular entertainment options such as movie theaters, theme parks, indoor malls, restaurants and bars remain closed – there’s been added dangers and concerns.
One area that has been especially busy is Huntington Harbour, where bridge jumpers and other safety hazards with increased crowds this summer prompted the city to add lifeguards to watch over the beaches and waterways, in some places for the first time in 25 years.
“We’ve had the heat and we’ve had COVID, and people are just trying to get out – and that’s been an area to go to,” said Eric Blaska, spokesman for the Huntington Beach Fire Department. “There’s a lot of inexperienced swimmers or people who don’t know their abilities in the water. We’ve had multiple near drownings.”
Bailey said his agency has seen two serious injuries in recent weeks, including a non-fatal drowning a few weeks ago involving a 14-year-old girl swimming in an unguarded area of the San Gabriel River where it meets the beach. While it’s still important to keep space from others, the incident is a reminder that even if people are seeking out remote areas to stay away from crowds, they should still stay where lifeguards are on duty, he said.
Four recent ocean-related deaths – two in Huntington Beach and two at Table Rock beach in South Laguna that were unrelated to each other – illustrate that a beach outing can quickly turn deadly.
While investigations are still pending on what happened in those deaths, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Dennis Breckner said there’s been a number of challenges authorities have dealt with this summer at the coast.
One is an increase in alcohol consumption at the beach. With bars and restaurants closed, people are taking to-go food and alcoholic beverages to the coast.
“I suspect there may be an increase because there’s simply an issue with bars being closed and finding a place to go,” Breckner said. “Instead of being a controlled environment, they are taking it somewhere else.
“If people are heading to the beach because the wind is in their face and they feel that might be a safe place to go and it’s a place they don’t often frequent, they may not know the dangers that are there,” he said. “People that are not used to going to the beach are now venturing to it and now realizing the dangers.”
OC Lifeguard Chief Jason Young is reminding beachgoers to use caution, especially during a weekend known as a “party holiday.” Drinking at the beach is not only illegal, but can be a recipe for disaster.
“It inhibits physical ability, makes it difficult to swim. You can pass out in the water,” he said. “People drinking can black out, think they are at the surface and they are not. Those are some of the things that can happen at the ocean when you are drinking. Drinking is not allowed at any beach in Orange County.”
A swell bringing waves in the 2- to 4-foot range this weekend will also add an element of danger. While the waves are not large enough to scare people away, they are strong enough to be dangerous, especially for people without strong swimming skills. A big high tide also peaks mid-day, shrinking sandy areas where people can get trapped in rocky coves as water rises, Young said.
Laguna Beach, as well as the Dana Point Harbor, has also seen an increase in people jumping off rocks and bridges, Young noted.
“We keep them off when we have eyes on them, but what we’re concerned about, they are coming down at sunset right as we get off duty, that’s when we have a lot of issues,” he said. “Cliff jumping is illegal.”
Young also warns people to not seek out far away, remote places along the coast.
“We are noticing unguarded areas and rocky outcoves being occupied by people,” he said. “We stress they need to stay near lifeguards to be safe.”
Source: Orange County Register