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Rebuttal: The NY Times Op-Ed On Surfing Lockdowns Is Misguided

Starting as a concern amongst surfing regulars and sites such like this, the issue of whether surfing should be outlawed or not has breached the mainstream. Yesterday, The New York Times published an op-ed from author and surfer, Zoltan Istvan (nah, not the dude who does kickflips), as to why the "essential" activity that is surfing should be allowed. 

While personally, I've somewhat relaxed my stance on surfing bans from a month ago, I don't see any evidence in favour of letting the masses flock to spots like Trestles, Huntington, Snapper, or god-forbid, Bondi. In a perfect world, surfers would enter the water, stay six feet apart while surfing, and not frolic around the carpark with a post-surf coffee afterwards. This, however, is far from the reality in dense, beachside cities and suburbs. Just before widespread, blanket beach closures were enforced in Sydney it was common to see three-plus individuals driving to the beach to surf amongst the already overcrowded mush. 

"Many surfers like me believe that surfing is more than just a sport; we consider it a way of life." Zoltan opens up his piece for the Times. "Being in the ocean and riding waves can be ecstatic and spiritual." While I'm firmly of the position that surfing is nothing more than a way to sun-bleach my hair, become infuriated with my lack of ability, and take that anger out on others, his 'spiritual' take on surfing isn't where the issue lies. 

Also, if you didn't do this at the height of infections, maybe things would return to normalcy a little sooner. Photo: OC Register

Writing from the perspective inside Bolinas (a town in Northern California with a population of less than 2,000), his extensions to other, more crowded spots don't quite stand. "On Instagram, you can watch a stand-up paddleboarder surfing Malibu alone for a blessed time before Los Angeles County Fire Lifeguards chase him down in a boat and arrest him." Zoltan writes forgetting to mention that normally a day like that at Malibu would garner crowds well upwards of 100. On the other hand, a garbage—yet sunny—day at Bondi will see polyethylene-wielding punters aggregating into the thousands. Just take a look at what happened when a handful of beaches re-opened around the globe – thousands flocked, cases spiked, and beaches were quickly closed once again. 

In quiet coastal spots, such as Bolinas, you can surf on a peak with a handful others, remain separated, take your waves, and head home without so much as a Covid droplet entering your safe space. In a spot like Bondi, Malibu, or Trestles on a good day, this just isn't possible. While there's no certainty around the likelihood of spreading Covid-19 in the ocean, in places like America (the country hit the hardest in the pandemic) it's probably better to be on the safe side. Yes, you can probably surf your coastal spots like Bolinas and other similarly populated spots around the world without worry, and perhaps local councils should consider re-opening beaches to surfing if social distancing rules are adhered to, but these re-openings cannot apply to all regions. 

"I prefer how Hawaii, surfing’s home, has handled the situation. While relaxing on the beach is forbidden, swimmers and surfers can go in the water so long as they stay six feet from one another. That policy seems fair and sensible." The author says, favourably, about Hawaii's stance on water activities. The difference here, however, is Hawaii's case numbers: 618 confirmed. Now compare that to California as a whole: 50,000 confirmed cases, with the San Francisco area itself having 1,500 confirmed. If your cases are low and your borders are secure, perhaps re-opening is a safe and fair idea, but when you have states like New York pushing 300,000 cases and nearing 20,000 deaths, promoting the idea of broad beach re-openings seems a tad narrow-minded. 

Unfortunately, there's also an issue in allowing less populated (and less infected) regions to re-open without proper precautions (i.e., 'border closures'). In Sydney, the places with the highest infection rates are spots in Sydney's inner-city and Eastern Suburbs. Beaches in this area are mostly closed, and while travel is meant to be for 'essential purposes only', there's not much stopping you from heading down the south coast for the day to surf some uncrowded waves. While it's true you mightn't infect anyone in the surf, you could easily pass the virus to someone at the cafe you stop at for a takeaway bean in that town with zero cases until your city slicking drove down there. 

Gold Coast points and social distancing are mutually exclusive. Photo: Azad Sellars

Gold Coast points and social distancing are mutually exclusive. Photo: Azad Sellers

Examples like the above are obviously hypothetical, but I know several individuals who have driven either south or north of Sydney since the beach closures, one of which later had a Covid scare. In theory, local beach openings are fine, and a good way for people to exercise while keeping their distance, but the reality is much trickier; a point which the author of the Times article strangely seems to agree with. "[Q]uarantine rules must apply to everyone or the plan to flatten the curve doesn’t work." A strange point considering he goes on to argue "responsible surfers" should be granted the rights to paddle out, get tubbed (read: nosedive for most of us), and head home. But with surfers spruiking 5G conspiracy theories online and surf media outlets referring to lockdown proponents as "the Gestapo", I don't like the odds of there being many "responsible surfers" out there. 

I dunno, maybe I'm wrong, but trusting one of the most selfish populations on earth to be responsible for the sake of others is going to be a little hard. 

Note: Don't come at me with the "what about the peloton cyclists?!?!" either. They're fucking stupid too. 

Note 2.0: If you live in a small, uncrowded town, go and surf your heart out. This isn't directed at you, just the lot who think surfing in the city on the brink of collapse is 'totally cool', or those piling in their cars from the city to surf an uncrowded spot a few hundred clicks away. 

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