Encinitas reopens two popular coastal pathways

The pedestrian portion of Coast Highway from Swami’s Beach to the Seaside Parking Lot is shown here on April 15, 2020.
The pedestrian portion of Coast Highway from Swami’s Beach to the Seaside Parking Lot is shown here on April 15, 2020.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Encinitas will reopen its Coastal Rail Trail and the seaside walking path along the southern part of Coast Highway 101 on Friday morning, April 24, but city officials are urging users to follow social-distancing rules or the much-loved exercise routes may be shut down again.

“We are still under the health order of the County of San Diego .... Be smart, keep 6 feet apart,” Jennifer Campbell, the city’s parks, recreation and cultural arts director, said Wednesday, April 22, as she discussed the reopening at a City Council meeting.

The two routes will be marked with special coronavirus signage and trail users are “strongly recommended” to wear facial coverings. Directions also include avoid congregating, and travel on the right and pass other trail users on the left, city publicity information states, adding that people who are sick should not use the trails.

Encinitas officials closed the two wildly popular, Cardiff-area coastal walkways last week, saying they were doing so because county social-distancing rules, which were issued weeks ago to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, weren’t being followed. In some cases, city officials said, trail users were simply ignoring the rules about staying 6 feet apart and not congregating with non-household members, while at other times people were trying to comply, but found it difficult because so many folks were on the trails.

The trail closures have generated much community outrage. Some residents who were already upset about the shutdown of area beaches mobilized and led a protest Sunday, April 19, that attracted some 200 supporters and much media attention.

During Wednesday’s City Council meeting, about half of the some 50 people who submitted coronavirus-related emails to be read aloud declared that they strongly opposed the trail closures. It was a “terrible” and “heavy-handed” decision that took away people’s freedoms and left them unable to enjoy the health benefits of exercise, some said. Many of the writers, including Sunday protest organizer Crista Curtis, wrote that the rail trail closure along San Elijo Avenue created a new public safety hazard because people began walking in the street once the trail closed.

However, Sunday’s protest, which included many participants who weren’t wearing masks and didn’t practice social distancing, also has been controversial. About a dozen of the people who submitted comments to the council on Wednesday, including some who offered advice on ways to increase the options for walking and cycling in Encinitas, wrote that they were embarrassed and horrified by the protest. One called it a “brazen act of stupidity” by a “shameless mob,” and some wrote that they wished the participants had been ticketed.

County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Herb Taft, who leads the department’s North Coastal Station, told the council that he’s hearing there may be protests this weekend at Moonlight Beach, and said his deputies are preparing for this. Taft, whose department faced criticism earlier in April for ticketing nearly two dozen people who were hosting picnics and watching the sunset along Cornish Drive, told council members that it’s his job to enforce the orders, not to question the legality of the protest events.

If the protesters violate the county health orders, “we will enforce it, no question about it,” he said.

Council members said they hoped the reopening of the Cardiff trails might ease some of the pedestrian congestion along Leucadia’s Neptune Avenue, another coastal area where there have been complaints about the inability to practice social distancing because of large numbers of walkers and cyclists.

The city’s parks director said some residents don’t realize that the city’s parks remain open, though active areas within the parks, including playgrounds, are closed. Even with the two Cardiff trail closures, Encinitas has 35 miles of open trails, Campbell added.

Council members also heard reports Wednesday night from the city’s fire chief, Mike Stein, and acting development department services director Roy Sapa’u.

Stein said the city was “doing very well” when it came to personal protective equipment and had received a shipment containing thousands of face masks last week. No firefighters in Encinitas have tested positive for the virus, he said. Both he and the city’s mayor said they have been talking with officials in all of the region’s coastal communities about reopening the beaches.

They’re talking about how to manage a phased opening of the beaches, but “we’re not talking about the ‘when’ just yet,” Stein said as he outlined what a phased approach might entail. Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she would like to see the beaches open to walkers and runners, but said the decision wasn’t hers to make.

“The question of when is up to the county,” the mayor said, adding, “It’s not at all clear to me when that’s going to be.”

Sapa’u told the council that the city’s development services department is proposing to temporarily lift a city regulation that prevents restaurant businesses from doing takeout, or what’s termed “off-site,” liquor sales. The change, which would help the city’s struggling restaurant businesses survive in these economically troubled times, is proposed to go before the council for approval May 6, he said.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune