Authorities across southern California are scrambling to contain large holiday crowds on beaches, boardwalks, and piers this weekend, anxious about a possible new surge in Covid-19 cases.
But they face a restive public eager to party in the sun after more than a year of lockdowns, and appear to have few tools at their disposal to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing.
Images of hundreds of largely maskless people crammed on to the Santa Monica pier or huddled around street performers on the Venice boardwalk over the past few days have raised concerns that spring break in the Golden state could spiral out of control, much as it has in Miami Beach, Florida, and trigger a superspreader event.
While the region’s vaccine rollout has significantly ramped up in recent weeks – roughly 50% of adults in Los Angeles county have received at least one shot – local public health officials are warning that it is too soon for the public to let its guard down.
LA’s public health director, Barbara Ferrer, warned people this week not to get “sloppy” by traveling and gathering with others.
That messaging, however, has been muddled by a rapid reduction in pandemic restrictions and by political leaders eager to deliver good news and restart the economy. Some theme parks reopened their doors this week, and outdoor bars and bowling alleys will be allowed to operate in Los Angeles again on Monday.
“Every metric we are following locally is headed in the right direction,” the LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, told reporters in an upbeat news briefing this week, in which he made only brief mention of the need to make spring break “a lower-key event this year”.
Garcetti’s tone contrasted starkly with that of Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who said she had a sense of “impending doom” amid the uptick in infections in parts of the country.
Local officials in Santa Monica saw similar portents last weekend, when more than 100,000 people visited the city’s celebrated pier without restriction, and street vendors, who are not allowed on the pier, fired up grills on mobile carts, posing a considerable fire risk to the rickety wooden structure.
“If a gas tank exploded on the pier, it would be an inferno and a disaster,” the city council member Phil Brock said. “I was there for 45 minutes on Saturday night and I didn’t see one policeman … It was supposed to be a weekend of maximum enforcement, but there was no enforcement.”
Santa Monica city leaders are now planning to restrict numbers on the pier this weekend by closing off access to new arrivals at 7pm, three hours before closing. They are also planning to deploy half a dozen “health ambassadors” who will remind pier visitors to cover their faces and offer masks free of charge.
City officials will not, however, go back to a system in place last summer when visitors could enter the pier only at a single access point, and numbers were strictly monitored by fire marshals. They are also reluctant to instruct police to hand out tickets for violating city rules on mask-wearing. Those measures are “not our preference”, the deputy city manager, Anuj Gupta, said.
Police in other coastal communities popular with spring breakers – Venice, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach – have shown a similar reluctance to wade into crowds or break up beach parties, in part because there are few rules governing behavior in public open spaces and elected officials fear the political consequences of appearing heavy-handed.
The beach crowds have, however, infuriated local residents whose children have been unable to return to school in person.
Gupta, the Santa Monica official, said he had seen no evidence of people getting sick after visiting his city’s beaches. But he also acknowledged that if out-of-town visitors fell ill or infected others after returning home, there was no certain way to know about it.
“It’s possible that a certain complacency has set in,” Gupta said. “But it’s also incumbent on folks coming to be aware, and in compliance, with health guidance.”