It’s been an interesting week, hasn’t it? Here in California, we’re a month into the governor’s stay-at-home order, many cities have completely shut down their beaches under threat of $1,000 fines and huddled masses are protesting in the streets as part of “Freedom Rallies”. Some of these protesters are surfers, much like last week’s headline-grabbing Encinitas local who posted up under the Cardiff Kook with signs that said, “Commies can’t surf,” and “Give me waves or give me COVID”. Truly mind-boggling stuff.
In the past week, it seems that many surfers have turned a corner in their feelings about how we should approach the COVID-19 pandemic. And a lot of that probably has to do with the cumulative effect of a handful of viral videos on social media: police shooting at a surfer in Costa Rica, a lifeguard boat chasing a SUPer around empty Malibu, etc. Some of these scenes look terrifying, others hilarious, all of them would have been impossible to imagine happening before this pandemic. But the most pivotal of these videos was surely the one of a La Jolla grom coming into the beach as a lifeguard boat approaches, then sprinting up to the street where dozens of shoulder-to-shoulder, mask-less spectators cheer. The comment section of the post, by La Jolla surfer Derek Dunfee, went bonkers for obvious reasons—a kid can’t surf alone but a bunch of assholes on land can stand close enough to smell each other?
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People’s reactions to the video focused on the unequal enforcement, which makes sense—those pedestrians should have been told to kick rocks. But many also seemed to see that image of a solitary surfer getting chased out of the water as proof in-and-of itself that San Diego’s surfing ban was silly and unnecessary—never mind the fact that it wasn’t put in place to prevent a lone surfer from surfing, but to keep groups of people from congregating in lineups, beaches and parking lots.
The day after that video was released, we thought we’d take a poll on Instagram to see where surfers fell on this issue in this particularly bizarre moment in time and got responses from about 6,000 people. Here are the results, which we’ll try to unpack below:
Question 1: Do you live in an area where surfing is restricted?
Question 2: Do you think surfers in your area would practice safe social distancing if restrictions were lifted?
Question 3: Do you believe that surfing should be restricted at this time?
Question 4: Do you think the debate over surfing restrictions is an important one in this moment?
Question 5: Have you or anyone you know been sick with COVID-19?
Question 6: Have you lost your job or taken a pay cut due to COVID-19?
Question 7: Are you a frontline worker (heath care, grocer, food delivery, etc.)?
The vast majority of respondents clearly don’t agree with surfing restrictions (Question 3), and that probably shouldn’t be too surprising based on their responses to Questions 5 through 7. Most respondents said they don’t work on the frontlines of the pandemic, they don’t know anyone who has been sick, and they haven’t joined the millions of recently unemployed since the pandemic began—to them, COVID-19 is something that really only exists in the abstract, in other words. On the other hand, the government response probably affects their lives tremendously, as most respondents claim to live in areas where surfing’s been restricted (along with all kinds of other things, it’s safe to assume).
At least in the case of California, this probably reflects the double-edged sword of stay-at-home orders: when everyone’s at home, less people get sick, and the situation looks pretty tame if you don’t work the front lines or know any sick people. Folks Zoom with their friends and families, they make jokes about the mileage they’re getting out of their sweatpants, they binge “The Tiger King”, etc. They start to see restrictions as an overreaction to the problem. They look out the window and don’t see the world burning, so why not go surfing? It’s a false sense of security, but one that’s easy to feel if you aren’t experiencing the pandemic’s most dramatic effects first hand.
To me, the most interesting results are in response to Question 4—“Do you think the debate over surfing restrictions is an important one in this moment?—which is an almost dead-even split. Of course we’re talking about a moment when hospital workers are risking their lives to help people without the protective gear that they need. When over 160,000 people have died from COVID-19 and over 2 million have become infected worldwide. When millions more Americans lose their jobs every week in the economic fallout. It sounds callous to think that surfing is what we should be focusing on, but do I understand it to a degree. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, perhaps the most significant global event that will occur in our lifetime, and many of us can’t do the one thing that would make us feel better about it—going surfing. People are upset about that, and perhaps it’s just easier to curse the tangible impact of the government than the abstract one of the virus—even if the latter would be far more tangible if not for the former.
What’s most frustrating about this debate is the fact that most of us know we’d be able to practice safe social distancing while surfing if given the option (as illustrated in Question 2). Most surfers go from their house to the parking lot to the peak and back without getting within 6 feet of another person even during normal times. But there are always going to be the assholes who park their E-bike right next to their neighbor’s and paddle out to Lower Trestles 100-people deep. Unfortunately, responsible public officials can’t fight a pandemic effectively by creating policies based on our best behavior, they have to do it based on our worst. And right now, those officials are understandably cautious—they’re less concerned about how many waves we’ve missed in the last month than they are about keeping any more ice rinks from filling up with dead bodies.
I believe that’s a good thing. A lot of you probably agree. Some of you clearly don’t. But regardless of how we feel about the restrictions in this exact moment, the fact is they won’t last forever. As the number of new cases falls and the danger of transmission recedes, so too will restrictions. Slowly at first, and probably with some setbacks if cases spike in response, but it will happen. And then we can get back to being selfish in our normal way of just taking lots of waves without much consequence.