Social distancing and COVID-19 updates were the main topics at the March 24 Newport Beach City Council meeting, which was held in council chambers with two council members, Jeff Herdman and Duffy Duffield, present via teleconferencing.
The public was allowed to attend the meeting in person, although attendance was sparse given the circumstances. The five council members present at the dais were all seated more than six feet apart.
The meeting lasted nearly two hours, with most of the evening’s discussions revolving around the city’s response to the coronavirus.
Before the coronavirus discussion and updates from various city departments, the consent calendar was approved unanimously by the city council, the appeal of a planning commission decision and approval of a fee update were continued to the April 14 city council meeting, and a Community Development Block Grant Program – Public Hearing for Preparation of 2020-24 Consolidated Plan was approved.
The current business portion of the meeting featured oral reports from city council members and the city manager, police, fire and city works departments.
“This continues to be a changing and challenging time, we continue to adapt,” said City Manager Grace Leung. “On Monday, the governor said parking lots at beaches will be closed, and the Orange County board of supervisors ordered all beach parking lots closed. With the mandate to be a home as much as possible, we did an adjustment with our own employees. Essential services are still being provided. We are looking at what can be provided with social distancing. We closed all recreation equipment, taking down volleyball nets, putting up boards at basketball courts, closing playground equipment, to discourage gatherings.”
Leung noted that the city is going through something that is unprecedented. Her staff is reacting and adjusting. “I don’t know where we are on this curve, but clearly we are on the front end. It’s really important to make changes but be steady and thoughtful in our approach.”
Public works director Dave Webb went over the beach parking lot closure plan that started March 25, which included locking the lower gates to the Corona del Mar main beach parking lot, and closing the Balboa Pier parking lot, McFadden Square and Plaza parking lots (except for spaces immediately in front of businesses), and other city lots near beaches. Access to the Balboa Pier and Newport Pier is also closed.
Changeable message signs are being strategically placed at main access roads leading to the beaches.
Fire Chief Jeff Boyles gave an update on coronavirus cases in Orange County, which as of the council meeting was 152 cases and one death, although he noted the numbers will rise. Newport Beach fire department has transported one coronavirus patient to the hospital. Fire stations remain closed to the public. The department’s supply of masks and eye protection is solid.
Police Chief Jon Lewis told the council that his department remains at full service, although they are emphasizing telephone and online reporting.
“If you call 911, we will be there for you,” said Chief Lewis. “We are continuing to be visible at impacted areas. We are getting positive outcomes from the business community, they are in compliance. We encourage everyone to practice social distancing in public spaces.”
Chief Lewis also advised the public to be on the lookout for scams “that manifest during these times.”
Councilmember Joy Brenner told Chief Lewis she has been getting complaints about teenagers gathering and not practicing social distancing, and a rumor of the police giving $400 tickets.
Chief Lewis told her they have been getting compliance when police advise those at public gatherings, and they have not had to issue situations.
“How do we get people to stay at home when we have 11 million visitors a year,” wondered Councilmember Diane Dixon. “We are dealing with the impacts of people coming to our community. People are on our beaches and boardwalks and neighborhood streets. Closing parking lots is the right thing to do, but on the Peninsula when people come to the beach and they cannot find a place to park, where do they go? They will find a place to park in residential neighborhoods.”
“We are trying to discourage visits but still encourage business visits,” said Webb, who agreed that there is some street parking near beaches.
Councilmember Dixon suggested closing the boardwalk that runs along the beach.
“It was bumper to bumper last weekend with people,” she said. “Between bikes and pedestrians, you are within inches of people. We should keep beaches open, but boardwalks are dangerous for lack of social distancing. We should close them just for the weekend. We have to change behavior. The city cannot be welcoming to those violating the governor’s order.”
Councilmember Brad Avery agreed, stating that “no way you can be on the boardwalk on the weekend and keep any sort of social distancing. You are almost inviting visitors by keeping it open. Same thing for Balboa Island, on a weekend you can feel the draft of the joggers. It presents a challenge to our police department to patrol something like that.”
Councilmember Jeff Herdman asked if Balboa Island could be closed to non-residents, while councilmember Brenner asked about closing sidewalks along Ocean Avenue above Corona del Mar beach.
Mayor Will O’Neill read a statement from the Coastal Commission he had received that day stating that given recent events, they are waiving permitting but asking cities to take minimum action to protect public health and safety. Coastal access is important, said the statement, and public agencies and governments should maintain access to public space if there is not an increased risk to public health. They encourage a balance of public health and public access.
Mayor O’Neill said the city is filing an application with the Coastal Commission for the closures already announced and hopes they are not rejected, so for the moment the city cannot act on the suggestions brought up at the meeting. He also encouraged residents to visit the city’s website at newportbeachca.gov for updates.