LA County Beaches Are Open Again. But Is It Safe To Go?

The scene at Venice Beach on Wednesday afternoon, May 13. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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A little over a month after officials shut them down due to overcrowding, L.A.'s beaches reopened today. But it's not anything goes - activities are technically limited to "active use."

That means beachgoers will have to keep moving if they want to hit the sand. Swimming, surfing, running and walking are allowed, but sunbathing and group sports are not. (Like in Orange County)

Mayor Garcetti said in a tweet that visitors will be required to wear face coverings and maintain the suggested social distance of six-feet while on the sand (and, we suppose, in the water). He did not mention, however, whether or not violators will face fines; but judging by his policy on hiking trails, enforcement is unlikely.

How is this playing out? Well, written rules are one thing. Reality is another.

Our visual journalist Chava Sanchez visited Venice Beach today and said "almost no one was wearing face masks." He also reported seeing lots of sunbathers, many in large groups, in addition to cyclists on the bike path and boardwalk.

Sunbathers at Venice Beach on Wednesday, tehnically not following the city's guidelines.(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

All of this, understandably, raises a lot of questions and health concerns, especially when there's so much conflicting information floating around on social media about how the virus spreads.

For instance, how would we know if groups of sunbathers (not allowed) are family members sheltering in place together (allowed) or groups of friends who do not live together hanging out in close proximity (not allowed)? Why is it OK to run on the beach, but not sit on the beach? And how concerned should we be about our personal — and collective — health if we choose to go?

Just seven weeks ago, public health officer Muntu Davis said that the crowds were "unacceptable," adding that the decision was made to close the beaches to "save lives."

So, what's changed? Here's what you need to know.

IS THE CURVE FLATTENING?

Last Friday, Mayor Garcetti noted the week was ending — for first time since the pandemic began in L.A. — with fewer COVID-19 deaths than the previous week.

"I can't call that good news when 296 people die," he said, but "we are seeing the curve stabilize. We haven't seen more than 200 hospitalizations a day since April 22."

The mayor said that with these decreasing numbers, as well as the city's high testing capacity and the current availability of hospital beds, he feels prepared to move forward with reopening efforts. Governor Newsom has made similar statements, today adding that ICU numbers were down 0.3%, which he said signifies a shift from stability of coronavirus cases to a slight decline.

It's important to note, though, that the curve isn't flattening for everyone. In April, COVID-19 cases were concentrated in wealthy areas — like West L.A., Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air — where more residents had travelled internationally pre-shutdown, UCLA Professor of Public Health David Hayes-Bautista told KPCC's news and culture show, Take Two. Now, many of those wealthier Angelenos are sheltering at home, while lower income residents continue to work at "essential businesses" like supermarkets, construction sites and hardware stores.

According to county data, Latinos now make up almost half the COVID-19 cases in L.A., Caroline Champlin reported last week. And people of color are suffering the highest rates of infections and deaths.

Garcetti has acknowledged the inequality inherent in infection rates and has said that he is in close contact with the L.A. County Department of Public Health and is following their guidelines on reopening efforts. If these reopenings lead to an increase in coronavirus cases, officials will close them again. Which brings us to our next point...

Venice Beach on Wednesday (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

HOW DOES COVID-19 SPREAD IN A BEACH ENVIRONMENT?

Much of the science on how COVID-19 spreads remains uncertain. That's partially because it's new, and partially because science and medicine are rarely exact.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong specializes in the spread of infectious disease at UC San Francisco. He said that although we don't know exactly how COVID-19 spreads in the air, we do know that most other viruses spread no more than three-feet, on average, via airborne droplets from the nose and mouth. That's because droplets are heavy and tend to fall to the ground within that three-foot range. The six-foot rule for social distancing includes three extra feet, as a buffer zone for added safety.

Chin-Hong said that if you stay six feet away from other people while walking on the beach, you already have a low chance of contracting coronavirus. Even if the person six feet away from you coughs or sneezes, the chance that those droplets will reach your nose and mouth is very low. When you add a mask to that equation, the probability drops even lower. And when both you, and the person six feet away from you are wearing masks, the chance of infection decreases even more.

JUST DON'T TOUCH ALL THE THINGS

COVID-19 tends to stick to cold, hard surfaces, rather than soft, porous ones. So sand is likely not a friendly place for the virus to live. Chin-Hong says the thing beachgoers should be the most concerned about are handrails, bathrooms and swing sets/jungle bars (or any other surface kids love to touch).

"I think the vulnerable places on the beach, frankly, are the restroom facilities," Chin-Hong said. "That's what people should wipe down or be a little bit more careful with. Even after you wash your hands, you're still touching that doorknob to exit."

WHAT ABOUT THE WIND?

Increased wind, which as we know is common on the coast, doesn't change the low probablity of contracting COVID-19 on the beach.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, a professor at UC Davis who specializes in pediatric infectious disease, said via email that the airborne droplets that carry the virus are unlikely to spread futher than six feet, with or without wind.

"[Studies] suggest that transmission outdoors is very rare," he said. "The vast majority of transmission occurs indoors."He said "the almost infinite air volume outdoors dilutes the virus much more than limited air volume indoors."

Dr. Chin-Hong agrees, adding that a lot of the outbreaks we've seen have been caused by people hanging out for long periods of time in an enclosed space, like a bus, nursing home, or choir practice.

He says on the beach or trail, if you're concerned, wear a mask. And if someone passes you closer than six-feet away, feel free to turn your face away from them (even if it feels rude).

Visitors walk, run and bike on the Venice Beach Board Walk. May 13, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

WHY IS WALKING ON THE BEACH ALLOWED, BUT NOT SITTING?

Prolonged exposure to the virus increases your chances of contracting it, Dr. Chin-Hong said. That's why walking is a lower-risk activity than sitting in place. When you pass another person, you're only actually near them for a few seconds, at most. But when you're sitting next to a group of people for an extended period of time, even if you're six feet away, you're being exposed to more droplets.

"When people go to the beach, they [often] hang out for hours next to each other," he said. "That's when those low probability events [the virus spreading outdoors] cumulatively add to a higher probability event."

That's likely why the city and county have the "active use" guideline in place.

But there's also another possible explanation. Chin-Hong said that from a public health perspective, allowing people to sit on the beach might encourage more relaxed behavior in general. If people are already lounging on the sand, they might be more likely to reach for a drink or take off their mask to eat a hot dog, he said, which could bring them closer than six feet apart.

"How are you gonna eat that hot dog even to take off your mask?" he said. "And what if the hot dog falls on the blanket next to you. Are you gonna reach out and grab it? That means putting your nose and mouth next to someone else's nose and mouth."

He added that a lot of people are just over the whole isolation thing. It's been two months, we've reached quarantine fatigue, and being on the beach might prompt us revert to our normal not-so-careful behavior, wihtout even realizing it.

"When you're on the beach with your friends, you're going to relax," he said. "You might have a wine cooler or a White Claw or whatever is popular these days. And you're going to be more lax. It's the same thing with outdoor stadiums. Sure, you can set up stadiums to seat people six feet apart, but nobody is going to stick to the rules, with the emotion of the game and alcohol involved."

Public health recommendations aren't made for the individual, he explained. They're designed for the community at large... so when officials make these rules, they take into the account that a lot of people will break them.

LAPD officers monitor Venice Beach on horseback. May 13, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

WHAT ABOUT RUNNING?

Running does not spread the virus much more than walking, Dr. Chin-Hong said. If you drew a map of the droplets exiting a runner's mouth, it would look like a funnel. By the time those droplets traveled over six-feet away from the runner (remember, gravity makes them fall to the ground), there would be so few of them, that the probably of transmission would still be low.

Plus, the runner is likely moving quickly and would therefore be passing someone else for even less time, which would lower the exposure time. And someone running is more likely to be healthy, than say, a person in a hospital or nursing home.

"All of those things make me think it's very small risk, if at all," he said. "I'd worry more about lying on the beach."

Also there is definitely no need to wash the bottom of your shoes after a run, unless you quite literally rub your hands on the bottom of your shoes and then stick your hands in your nose or your mouth, Chin-Hong says. If you decide to lick the bottom of your shoe directly, we really can't help you.

WHY IS SWIMMING OK?

Coronavirus is not transmissable through water. Surfing and swimming are low risk becuse they are activities done either alone or in a small group, likely of people who are already sheltering at home, together.

Unless you're synchoronized swimming, Dr. Chin-Hong says, or playing a high-contact sport like water polo, it's highly unlikely that you'll contract COVID-19. Just don't do tandem surfboarding with a stranger. Now is not the time!

The basic rule is this: Ask yourself, "will my mouth and nose be close to someone else's mouth and nose?" If the answer is no, and you're outside, then you're ok.

SO... IS THE BEACH SAFE?

The answer is yes, as long as people stay six-feet apart from each other. "If the beach size can support the distancing and people follow advice," Dr. Blumberg said, "then there should be low risk." But if too many people crowd the sand (or any other outdoor space, like hiking trails), Blumberg says, "transmission will inevitably occur, resulting in a surge of cases."

Dr. Blumberg added that he's not in the position to judge whether opening beaches is a good idea, since he doesn't have all of the data on local transmission; but said he holds the Los Angeles Public Health Department in high regard, and trusts their advice: "I'm confident with their guidance as long as local leaders are following their recommendations."

Dr. Chin-Hong agrees that social distancing is key. For those concerned about health risks, he recommends going to the beach at off times, like very early in the morning or at night, when fewer people are around.

He also says we should think why so many people want to go to the beach, when considering the importance of reopening outdoor spaces.

"One of the consequences of COVID which I'm totally sympathetic to, is isolation. Loneliness. Not being in touch with the outdoors. Not seeing people," he said. "And I feel people need that. It's been too long."

He said doctors and public health officials want to arm people with information without being too prescriptive. Becuase it's human nature to want to break the rules.

It's kind of like injection drug users, he said. "The worst thing you can do is say 'don't use drugs. Nobody is going to listen to that. It's better to say 'if you use a needle, make sure it's a clean needle.'"