On Thursday afternoon, word got out that California Governor Gavin Newsom was closing Huntington City Beach to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A man at the beach had an explanation. “Newsom’s not a surfer,” he said.
The man was Kevin—no last names at the beach. Kevin, who is 53, is a surfer who looks uncannily like Richard Gere. His wet suit hung down at his waist, revealing a smattering of tattoos across his chest and arms. He was popping in earplugs and pulling on a rash guard.
Kevin has lived within a mile of the beach his whole life. “I’m not claiming I own this ocean,” he said. “But this is my neighborhood.” Newsom was putting his waves in quarantine.
Huntington City Beach may be the single oddest political battlefield of the coronavirus pandemic. In normal times, the beach consists of three-and-a-half miles of mostly undeveloped sand. “We’re a long-ass beach,” Kevin said approvingly. The beach is where the high school surf team meets early in the morning for practice, where a place called Dwight’s sells chips smothered with unmelted cheese.
The surfers think Newsom blundered into this delicate ecosystem like the villain in a ’60s beach party movie. Last weekend, when Huntington City Beach was one of the few beaches still open in Southern California, crowds poured in. The pictures were all over newscasts; Newsom called them “disturbing.” He closed every beach in Orange County.
“That guy doesn’t surf,” a 25-year-old named Tony told me.
The first reaction among the surfers at Huntington City Beach was political alienation. By Thursday afternoon, they were musing about direct action. They could defy Newsom’s order, like the Malibu paddleboarder who led sheriff’s deputies on a merry chase in April. They could join a May 1 protest, somewhat Trumpy in nature, which would stretch through the blocks of Huntington Beach’s downtown.
“Keep the water open and shut down the beach if you have to,” said a surfer named Pops. I heard that hopeful proposal more than once: The beach would be turned over to surfers, just as local golf courses have been taken over by hungry coyotes. “I haven’t heard of one surfer getting sick,” said Pops.
Pops told me he spent the last several weeks taking care of his 91-year-old mother. Is she worried about the coronavirus? I asked.
“Nah, she says it’s a bunch of bullshit,” he said.
Are you worried? I asked Pops.
“Nah, I have yet to wear a mask,” he said.
Before slipping his board into the water near the pier, he called out, “Tell ’em Pops said, ‘L-O-L!’”
I live in Huntington Beach. But I have yet to become one with the beach, metaphysically speaking. To prepare for an afternoon of reporting, I grabbed flip-flops and swim trunks (both nearly unused). In a flourish of professionalism, I pulled on a gray polo shirt. I wore a black mask over my mouth. Sitting on the sand near the pier, I looked like a public relations official for the narcos or (at best) a cop.
Huntington Beach is a ventricle in Orange County’s increasingly liberal heart. In the 2018 midterms, Harley Rouda defeated noted Russophile Dana Rohrabacher. But the pandemic has brought the city’s strains of conservatism back to the fore.
On Sunday, I drove down Main Street and found a four-person protest near the Pacific Coast Highway. A man wearing board shorts—you can protest in board shorts in Huntington Beach—held up a sign that said, “Shutdown the shutdown.” Fifty feet behind him, the beach was packed. Shut down what?
At the outset of the pandemic, Huntington Beach was its friendly, somewhat sleepy self. Signs were posted at crosswalks reminding pedestrians to hit the walk button with their elbows. In Lake Park, near downtown, someone set up a table of supplies for the needy. Over time, the toilet paper was replaced by a book co-authored by Meghan McCain.
As beaches closed to the north and south, Huntington City Beach remained stubbornly, almost defiantly open. The mayor explained that the city was encouraging social distancing, and the beach was an oasis for exercise. Still, the pier was closed, and the city cordoned off onsite parking lots and some of the meters on the PCH. This was the equivalent of keeping Disneyland open but closing all the parking lots.
Locals began noticing odd things. Surfers from L.A. County to San Diego—recognizable from their Instagram photos—began turning up on Huntington City Beach.
Last weekend, the sun came out and the temperature climbed to 70 degrees. The beach became a magnet for people from all over Southern California. To what extent is a matter of dispute. Some people who were at the beach thought the crowds were close to the massive totals that show up on July 4. “You see a husband and wife and a kid—that’s a family,” said Dean, 59, who has lived here most of his life. “Then you see eight to 10 people in their 20s. They’re not living together.”
“Down here it was kinda gnarly,” said Kevin, motioning at the pier. “But a lot of the photos you were seeing were fucked up by the media to make it look compressed.”
On the beach, I heard many conspiracy theories about the photos: that they were shot from distorting angles, that the crowds were mostly piled near the bike trail behind the beach.
Unless the city’s legal challenge works, the beach will close on Friday. A few surfers said they might take up jogging. Another pondered what the loss of surfing would do to the city. “A lot of kids go surfing,” said Tony. “It’s an outlet for them. There will be more kids in the neighborhood doing stuff they probably shouldn’t do.” Thus, surfing became like midnight basketball in the ’90s.
Some pondered the small bright spots of a shuttered society. “You don’t need exterior shit to be happy,” said Kevin. “Happiness resides within.”
Late on Thursday afternoon, such matters seemed far away. News choppers buzzed over the beach looking for footage. A woman in a leopard print bikini leaned against the pilings of the pier and posed for photographs. A baby tried to stand up in the surf, looking like it was taking all the effort in the world to hoist its swim diaper.
The beach was busier than a normal weekday afternoon, but there was plenty of room for social distancing. Surfers slipped into the water after 5 p.m., hoping to stay in until they could no longer see. For the first time, I heard a surfer use the phrase “sense of urgency.” As Tony said, “Most of the time, you just paddle out whenever.”
Before Tony slipped his beak-nosed Chuck Dent board into the water, I asked him how it felt to make a final trip for a while. “It feels awfully dumb,” he said.