May 11, 2020
by Elsa Devienne, lecturer in US history at Northumbria University (UK). She is a specialist of environmental history, urban history and the history of the body, gender and sexuality.
On May 1, 2020, Miramar beach in Walton county (Florida) welcomed an usual visitor: the Grim Reaper himself wielding his signature scythe.
Underneath the black robe was lawyer Daniel Uhfelder who toured the local beaches to warn of the risk of reopening the beaches too soon and thus derailing the fragile downward trend in the numbers of daily covid-19 cases in Florida. Uhfelder’s protest methods proved successful as thousands shared on social media the odd image of the personification of death wearing flip-flops. Some local beachgoers accused him of pulling a “media stunt,” but the pro-lockdown protest was remarkably tame compared to its antithesis, the anti-stay-at-home demonstrations which took place that same day at the Michigan statehouse. In Michigan, gun-toting demonstrators shunned metaphors of death for the real thing: if the governor didn’t reopen the state, they implied, they’d open fire.
From beaches to statehouses, the decisions to close or reopen places of business and leisure have sparked a wave of protests across the US. While statehouses are expected to be political sites, beaches may seem more unusual as places of political expression. But ever since humans rushed to the sea for enjoyment and health benefits, beaches have also proven fertile ground for taking political stands. Long before the covid-19 crisis thrust beaches in the limelight, shorelines across the US served as backgrounds for some of the most tragic moments of modern US history—from the 1919 Chicago race riot, which started on a segregated Lake Michigan beach, to the 1964 St Augustine wade-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.
So, what’s new about those covid-19 beach protests?
Two things, I’d say: the first is that in our Trumpian times, individual freedom is brandished as sacred and absolute. From anti-vaxxers to gun proponents, supporters of the current commander in chief categorically refuse any attempt by the State to regulate, control and oversee their individual choices. And what space better represents absolute freedom than the beach? One Spring Breaker who refused to give up on his right to booze up at the beach while getting a sunburn said it best: “If I get corona, I get corona,” Ohio college student Brady Sluder slurred on video on March 18, his cap on backwards. Or take it from political columnist and native Californian George Skelton, a beach lover if ever there was one: “Every Californian has an unalienable right to a day at the beach,” he wrote on April 30. “Going to the beach is our birthright as native Californians, he continued, […] it’s our gift from the Creator—a trade-off for all the quakes, wildfires, mudslides and smog.” Skelton was protesting (no guns, no costume though: just a regular column in The Los Angeles Times) California Governor Gavin Newsom’s threat to close down all of the state’s beaches after Orange County had reopened its shores, attracting thousands of sun-seekers on the weekends of April 25-26.
Later that day, indeed, Newsom passed an executive order mandating the closure of all beaches. Two Orange County cities tried, but failed, to block Newsom’s order. For now, the beaches are closed and some Californians do support the governor’s decision: LA Times reader Paula Del warned that, if they remained opened, people’s “next trip to the beach [might] be in an urn.” Yet supporters of “local autonomy”—echoing the advocates of individual freedom—accuse the governor of overreach.
The second interesting element to come out of the covid-19 beach debates is the fact that pressures to open are inextricably linked to the climate crisis. Southern Californians flocked to the beach on the last weekend of April because of the boiling temperatures as the region experienced its first heat wave of the year. Periods of high heat are expected to become more frequent, and more intense, if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced in the next few years.
In normal times, heat waves expose the housing and neighborhood inequalities that leave some residents without air conditioning and sufficient acres of green space around them to cool off. But in pandemic times, these inequalities are felt even more keenly as people in low-income areas are expected to remain cooped up in small apartments. Los Angeles officials opened cooling centers during the late April weekend (public buildings with AC and a roster of activities) but the needs are immense and social distancing make gatherings in indoor spaces less safe. As we get closer to the summer season, the beach covid19 debates remind us that any plan to resolve the climate crisis needs to tackle social inequalities as well. In that regard, access to public beaches—under normal circumstances—is an environmental justice issue.
These connections didn’t escape the Grim Reaper. Daniel Uhfelder, as he explained, is a “big supporter of public beaches”; he has worked in the past with “Florida Beaches for All” to strike down HB631, a law passed on July 1, 2018 by the Florida legislature and which gave beachfront homeowners more leeway to privatize their properties’ surroundings. Depending on the circumstances, defending the public can mean opening… or closing the beaches.
Elsa Devienne is a lecturer in US history at Northumbria University (UK). She is a specialist of environmental history, urban history and the history of the body, gender and sexuality. She has also lectured at Nanterre University.