Hypocrisy of Surf Bans, Public Shaming, and a Dip Into Civil Disobedience

Matt Rode

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Updated 792d ago

Around the world, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, surfing has been banned or restricted on various levels. People are getting arrested for paddling out. Others are being given $1,000 tickets or 600 euro fines, for “breaking quarantine” in the ocean, while throngs of other people watch from shore, filming the spectacle on their completely legal walks along the coast.

Tens of thousands of global currency is being used for fuel to patrol this, and man/women hours are used up chasing solitary surfers out of the water with jet skis and helicopters and Coast Guard cutters, at a time when the world's economy is facing complete collapse and governments are risking hyper-inflation by printing trillions of dollars for stimulus packages.

Worse, the act of surfing has largely been demonised, even by people within our own community. Judgment gleefully doled out by “quarantine-sensitive” joggers, cyclists, and golfers. Public shaming and tattle-tale finger-pointing are becoming commonplace, and it's all being done in the name of moral superiority—judgment gleefully doled out by “quarantine-sensitive” joggers, cyclists, and golfers, as well as comorbidity-laden gluttons on their way to patronise “essential businesses” such as liquor stores and fast food drive-thrus.

For the first time in generations, surfers are having to skulk around and risk running afoul of the law if they are to ride waves. It’s like the 1950s all over again!

Now, my goal here is not to celebrate law breaking, or even necessarily to encourage you to surf. I completely understand the serious health crisis that is ravaging our species, and the necessity of rule of law and flattening the curve so that our health systems are not overwhelmed.

I lament the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are dying and millions more are at risk—many of my loved ones included. I support the idea of self-isolation and social distancing, and believe that it is currently our best tool for stopping the spread of this virus. I also understand the arguments about the negative impact of commuting to the coast, congregating on the beach, consuming local fuel and food supplies, and risking hospital admission in the case of an injury (protect the NHS).

I agree with the idea that if you can’t surf without contributing to the spread of COVID-19, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. And I also agree that if your local government makes surfing illegal, then you should be a law-abiding citizen and follow the rules.

But that doesn’t mean that I agree with the rules. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I support the rampant hypocrisy currently at play. Because as it turns out, there are a lot of recreational activities that are still allowed during the COVID-19 lockdown—many of which are arguably more likely to spread the virus than paddling out alone for a solo session.

Liquor stores or off licences, smoke shops, and marijuana dispensaries in the States are all open—engaging in retail sales to tens of thousands of people who open the same doors, rifle through the same products, and exchange IDs and money with the same cashiers. Apparently this cross-contamination is okay because these are considered “essential services,” despite the fact (or perhaps precisely because) they are heavily taxed vices that lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths and hundreds of millions in revenue for local governments.

You can make similar comparisons with the majority of individual sports, which are currently deemed “essential”. Golfing. Running. Cycling. Hiking. All involve risk of injury. Most involve commuting in some form. All technically present a higher chance of transmission than staying in your house and doing squats.

A Belgian study has shown that, due to associated wind speed and heavy breathing, runners should stay a minimum of 4 to 5 meters away from other people in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For cyclists, it’s a minimum of 10 meters, and up to 20 meters if you are going fast. That’s nearly 70 feet! I can say with authority that the majority of the cyclists on the road are not staying 70 feet apart—but no one is shaming them, calling them out in comment threads, publishing pictures and damning op/eds in newspapers, or giving them exorbitant tickets.

I think that cycling can be done responsibly, just as I think surfing can be done responsibly. I also know that there are some people who are not cycling responsibly, just as I know there are some people who are not surfing responsibly.

Now don’t get me wrong—I like cycling. I mountain bike all the time, nearly as much as I surf. While I understand the logic behind voluntarily “staying at home” to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, that doesn’t mean I would be happy to see cycling outlawed, just as many people are understandably not stoked to be denied access to the ocean.

I think that cycling can be done responsibly, just as I think surfing can be done responsibly. I also know that there are some people who are not cycling responsibly, just as I know there are some people who are not surfing responsibly.

What I find interesting is the blatant inconsistency of demonising surfing while allowing and even endorsing other sports such as cycling and golf and getting drunk on store-bought booze.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Yesterday, one of MSW’s favourite Encinitas residents decided they needed to remind civic leaders of the values their city was built on. After spotting a handful of pictures of this civil disobedience on social media, I had a good idea of who was behind it, and immediately got in touch to pick their brain and get the skinny on the current atmosphere in Southern California.

Your little act of civil disobedience there in Encinitas has raised a few eyebrows and a helluva a lot of chuckles over the past 24 hours. What was your intention when you pulled out the spray paint and the masking tape?
You know, the funny thing is that the original motivation wasn’t really about COVID-19 and “letting the people surf” as much as it was making a statement about what in my opinion is a city that has been rapidly changing and losing its soul.

When I first caught a glimpse of the city sign about cycling as I was driving south on 101, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The statement of Encinitas being a “bike” town might not seem like much to non-locals, but for people who have watched the city slowly change over time, it really touches a nerve. Very early on, Encinitas adopted extremely harsh tactics for locking down the beaches and implementing and enforcing the surfing ban and beach closures

The mayor of Encinitas, Catherine Blakespear, and her spouse are road bikers, and in many people’s eyes have been advocating for and catering predominantly to road cyclists. The city has been extensively modifying existing roads to give priority to cyclists, and shutting down car lanes altogether. This has had contributed to the gentrification of Encinitas and the overdevelopment of the city’s streets.

The truth is, Encinitas was a surf town long before Mayor Blakespear became mayor in 2016—and in my opinion, the surf, the lack of sidewalks, and the poinsettias is where it’s soul lies.

What is the official status of surfing in the city at the moment?
Well, this is where the other element of the sign statement comes into play. Very early on, Encinitas adopted extremely harsh tactics for locking down the beaches and implementing and enforcing the surfing ban and beach closures.

Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m all about safety measures and social distancing, but we have helicopters combing the coast everyday, kicking everyone out of the water, and police on the shore giving high-dollar tickets if anyone dares to paddle out.

The Encinitas sheriff even did a whole media-staged sting operation where they brought in news cameras and a bunch of cops to give $1,000 tickets for sitting in your car watching the sunset on the hillside overlooking Swamis. It was ridiculous. I think the law enforcement agencies are as bored as the rest of us, but with more power in their pockets. And they seem to be taking it out on certain segments of the population.

Justified?

Justified?

What is the general sentiment among surfers there?
In the very beginning of this whole COVID-19 situation, I feel like everybody was kind of hunkering down and adapting to whatever needed to happen to make sure everyone was safe and things were in order. Surfers are starting to get antsy, and without a rational reason why a single person cannot walk from their house with their board in hand and go surf alone, it’s going to start making them go nuts However, as time has gone on, people have started to realise that some of the actions taken by the authorities in the name of lockdown were unnecessary, and are more based on arbitrary blanket policy rather than rational problem solving.

Surfers are starting to get antsy, and without a rational reason why a single person cannot walk from their house with their board in hand and go surf alone, it’s going to start making them go nuts. 

So what do you think the solution is?
I think there’s a logical and reasonable way to go about allowing surfing. There should be beach closures and parking lot closures, but not an all-out ban on surfing. (Editors note: This is the current policy in Hawaii, which has one of the lowest per capita infection rates in the US).

Walking straight across the beach with your board to the water should be allowed—no stopping, no sitting and sunbathing and crowding the beach. That’s what we are trying to prevent. The authorities should retain full rights to enforce fines if they see anyone in groups or loitering on the beach, etc. 

As for crowds in the water, people rarely ever sit closer than 6ft apart when surfing. Everybody knows if you use a low camera angle and look sideways at the lineup, it appears absurdly crowded—and of course that is the angle of choice whenever anti-surf news articles are published. Everybody knows if you use a low camera angle and look sideways at the lineup, it appears absurdly crowded

But the reality is that people are way closer to each other when grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s or walking/running/biking on the street than they are when surfing. It’s just funny how all of those activities are still allowed, and surfing is in the hot seat. 

I propose we be allowed to go alone to surf, and keep our distance from other people in the water. That’s how it should be anyway.

Ultimately, I guess we are just sort of lucky that this happened during spring and not fall, when the waves are firing. Obviously there’s never a good time for a health crisis of this sort, but in relation to what has been happening with the surf ban, it could have happened at a much worse time.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and pay respect to all the people who have been personally affected by this virus, as well as all the doctors and nurses serving on the front lines.