Walking the Line: Navigating Changing Rules Throughout a Pandemic

Orange Home Grown Farmers and Artisan Market; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

The marine layer hasn’t yet cleared at the Orange Home Grown Farmers and Artisan Market on Saturday morning, and the line to get into the lot stretches nearly a block. Just beyond the ropes, bins topple with bright zucchini, melons, sweet corn, and peaches.

A man tells the entrance guard that he has a medical condition and can’t function with a mask. Then, walking to the end of the line, he hisses: “Sheep! You don’t need those masks. Take ’em off!”

Megan Penn’s voice is muffled through a hand-sewn mask printed with oranges. Her raised eyebrows speak louder. She says 98 percent of the customers comply with the new rules. “It’s just the 2 percent who are vocal.”

Penn, executive director of the foundation which runs the market, was among the first to reopen for business in April. “Controlling the total amount of people is key,” she says.

As we sort out how to co-live with COVID-19, local officials have been forced to grind out novel rules governing our behavior, with mixed results.

Although masks were still scant in March, Irvine mayor Christina Shea says members of the community were able to source them and donated thousands of masks. She enlisted other council members over several weekends to visit commercial centers and pass out the masks.

Orange Home Grown Farmers and Artisan Market; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Not everyone agreed with mask orders. Some social media users chastised Costa Mesa mayor Katrina Foley when the police issued misdemeanors at a popular restaurant where staff refused to wear masks. “I was getting hate mail from all the anti-maskers—(saying) I’m a whore and they hope I die,” Foley says.

Nevertheless, Foley says she sees most residents complying with social distancing, even while engaging in outdoor fitness.

Irvine tried to encourage recreational separation with one-way arrows on paths. The arrows don’t always work, especially in narrow and indoor spaces. The Orange farmers market abandoned them after it became apparent too many shoppers were doubling back. Newport Beach found them successful on Balboa Island and Corona del Mar’s blufftops, where they created a sort of loop, but the city stopped using them when crowds diminished.

Newport Beach has taken a more hands-off approach to social distancing enforcement, although the city temporarily closed the Wedge, the piers, the boardwalk, and the beach parking lots in the spring.

“The city has been very welcoming, very tourist-driven, and now to have to tell people, ‘No you really can’t come here right now’—that is a big challenge,” says the city’s new spokesperson, John Pope. Newport Beach leaders felt stung when the city was criticized as the nation’s problem child, cameras catching throngs of people mingling on the beach.

“It was a bad image, but it didn’t exactly show what was on the ground,” Mayor Will O’Neill says. “We can tell the distance solely looking at the lifeguard towers. (The photo showed) about a mile of beach … (but it looked) like a hundred yards, like people were all over each other.”

The county’s beaches had just reopened. The governor, calling the images “disturbing,” shut down the sand again.

As other beach cities prepared to go to court, Laguna Beach mayor Bob Whalen hammered out a plan quickly, got it to the governor’s desk, and opened his beaches right away.

“The Pageant of the Masters began in the 1930s as a way to help the artists. But it isn’t showing here for the first time since World War II,” Whalen says. The city is pushing for tourists who can drive to Laguna Beach, and trying to open what it can. To keep the restaurants alive, Laguna offered temporary permits allowing customers to spill into parking lots and some streets. Part of downtown has been shut down to cars entirely.

Foley also anticipates a financial hit from the loss of beloved traditions, such as the O.C. Fair, and she had to start making decisions in February. “The federal government got the grand idea to put the Princess Cruise people in the middle of Costa Mesa at the Fairview Development Center,” she says. Her team had a few days to fight the decision. The battle, which was successful, got the city moving earlier than others on pandemic-prevention measures.

“We’re taking the safe approach,” Foley says. “My husband grew up here. We raised our family here. There are so many families like that. We have many generations who stay in Costa Mesa. They still all stay connected, like a small town. The reason to be compliant is because you care about your neighbor. You can only stay home for so long, granted. We’ve had the challenge of finding that balance, finding ways for businesses to open safely.”

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