Flattening the Curve in Malibu

BY Matthew King | Pandemic Diaries

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I spent part of my Covid-19 quarantine hiding from the cops in Malibu.

During the early days of the pandemic, I found myself squatting behind my Honda Element on Pacific Coast Highway, playing cat-and-mouse with sheriff deputies enforcing the state’s coronavirus-related beach-closure policy.

I’m a 56-year-old intermediate-level surfer who tries to do the right thing. I wait my turn in line. I pay my fair share of taxes, on time. I’ve never been arrested. But there I was, absurdly crouching in the bushes in late April alongside a fellow surfer parked in front of me — a skinny Gen Z dude with a mischievous grin and multiple neck tattoos. 

Despite the police cruiser stationed nearby, my accomplice and I plotted how to snake through the heavy brush down to Latigo Point. After weeks of quarantine, the well-hidden point break beckoned with a few set waves and an hour’s reprieve from grinding self-isolation.

In these dark days, rational people rightly wonder why anyone would think about willfully ignoring public-health directives aimed at protecting them and the population at large. Fistfights erupt at markets over shoppers refusing to wear masks. People board airplanes even though they know they have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Surfers also do dumb things, selfish things. If there’s swell, we lie to our bosses. We skip nieces’ kindergarten graduation ceremonies. We drag indignant spouses away from lively dinner parties because we have to get up at first light.

And that’s just in normal times. The initial lockdown of the state’s 860 miles of coastline left California’s 1 million surfers in a state of confusion, fear and desperation. Beaches stretched for miles with no one on them, as windswept and forlorn as the Kalahari.

Much of California stood in dry-dock with us for months — climbers staring wistfully at padlocked national parks, gym-rats pacing in cramped living rooms. Sure, we can get our 10,000 steps by walking around the block, dodging exasperated young parents and their scooter-riding charges. But barred from the sea — or the boulders or the yoga studio — we lose part of our identity, our essence. 

The state has gradually re-opened many recreational spaces with strict distancing protocols. But many parking lots at surf breaks still remain taped off like crime scenes. Popular tourist destinations, such as Yosemite National Park, have been forced to close once again after a spike in Covid-19 cases.

We outdoor enthusiasts may understand the reasoning for the regulations, but abiding by them has proven difficult.

Surfers have long had a stubborn libertarian streak. We are inherently wary of regulation and organized structure. Sean Penn’s portrayal of burnout Valley surfer Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” has morphed into meme-ready caricature. But something in his defiant, anti-authoritarian proclamations ring true, especially after obedient months of sheltering in place.

Public-health edicts have been issued — you don’t need to wear a mask in public, you don’t need to be tested if you’re asymptomatic — only to be reversed. Such flip-flops make it hard to decide which rules to follow. It’s often hard to do the right thing, especially if you’re not sure it is the right thing.

Who would’ve thought that something as simple and pure as a morning surf would become such an ethical dilemma? Californians of all walks of life face similar decisions this summer. Faced with months of “Groundhog Day”-like isolation, it’s natural that people let their guards down. What’s the real risk in attending a smallish garden engagement party for my co-worker? Can’t we just buy a few margaritas on a Saturday night and support our local cantina, which is at risk of permanent closure

The longer the pandemic drags on, the more I struggle with questions like these. I find myself thinking back about that afternoon in Malibu, which now seems lifetimes ago. 

On the drive up PCH, I felt the first pangs of guilt, like a Costco shopper deciding if he really needs 16 more rolls of Charmin. I recalled the indignant face of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who accused those who ignore stay-at-home warnings of “spitting in the face of” health-care workers. Ick.

Then the deputies spotted us in the dusty chaparral along PCH.

Conflicting thoughts ping-ponged as the officer approached. He can’t give us a ticket, I assured my co-conspirator. We hadn’t broken any laws . . . yet. The officer approached, sporting a crewcut and utterly flat expression. Strutting toward us, he exuded that cop swagger that can be off-putting. I tensed, girding for confrontation

We looked like a pair of dumb teenagers who’ve been caught throwing dirt clods from a highway overpass. My Butthead to his Beavis.

“You guys know the beach is closed, right?” he asked in a soft, childlike voice. I felt myself soften. He stood benignly as we returned boards to SUVs. After a few minutes, he drove off.

Back by the car, I fumed. I looked down at three or so surfers who had snuck down and now bobbed at the point, waiting for waves I couldn’t ride. I felt aggrieved. It didn’t seem fair.

Then I thought about grief-stricken families who couldn’t hold burial rites for their loved ones at US cemeteries due to quarantine rules. Or the millions of college seniors who lost in-person graduation ceremonies this spring. Or the dozens of law-enforcement officers on the frontline of Covid-19 response that have already died from the virus. Or local food banks turning away hungry families, many of them among the millions who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. 

After the cruiser pulled off, my new bud and I chatted a bit. He had spent the previous day in the OC, riding uncrowded waves at Trestles. It had been “epic.” We watched the surfers at the point. With a glint in his eye, he asked me what I planned to do, now that the deputy had left.

“I’m going home,” I said.

Matthew King, ’85, is the former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. He now leads May77 Communications, which advises environmental and governmental organizations on effective public engagement. Santa Monica, CA