Coastal Access Equity and Public Health During Coronavirus

UNIV 498 - Student Research Opportunity

1. Principle Investigators

  • CSUCI Environmental Science & Resource Management Program

  • William & Mary Law School, Virginia

    • Jesse Reiblich, Esq

2. Project Overview.

The coronavirus pandemic during 2020 resulted in unprecedented closures of public places, including parks and beaches. Beaches and the public’s right of access to them are protected in the United States under the common law Public Trust Doctrine, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, and at state and local levels by a variety of constitutional and statutory provisions.[i] Restrictions of access to beaches thus represent a significant curtailment of individual rights—and an individual’s power to exercise those rights.[ii] While the need (and state duty) to protect the public health and wellbeing is paramount, much public frustration resulted due to uneven and poorly communicated implementation of access restrictions. In California, for example, authority to determine closure regimes was ceded to local coastal jurisdictions,[iii] who subsequently pursued varied and often exclusionary policies to restrict access.[iv] These policies are superimposed on—and likely exacerbate—basic inequities in access to our public trust coasts.[v] The coronavirus closures are additionally significant because, as we have argued,[vi] they are a harbinger of the predicted impacts due to sea level rise and climate change to our coasts. While for some regions anecdotal data on closure implementation and enforcement policies can be found,[vii] systematic nationwide data do not exist. In the face of future health-related closures as well as changing climate, the efforts of public health officials and coastal managers are hampered—and public access, equity, and health are imperiled—by this lack of data, without which informed and coordinated planning and decision-making cannot be accomplished. Working with students from CSUCI, this project aims to address this data gap.

3. Project Central Question.

What public access restrictions due to coronavirus were implemented and enforced in each coastal jurisdiction in the United States?

4. Project Medium.

The project’s medium is virtual and contemporary. Project researchers will follow a stratified data collection strategy relying on telephone, email, and local news media to contact public health officials and beach managers in coastal jurisdictions in order to assess the nature and scope (duration, activity-based restrictions, enforcement) of their public coastal access restrictions. This project is optimized for working in a virtual setting.

5. Methods of Inquiry.

This is applied, exploratory research. By collecting “observational” data on public access management policies during coronavirus, we can analyze the breadth and depth of policies, compare them to recommendations,[viii] and do so in a geospatial context. We can further mine the data for trends, for example, are there increased instances of enforcement actions in regions where adjacent jurisdictions applied more varied closure regimes? Data could subsequently be compared to other existing datasets of, for example, covid-19 cases, demographics, political party representation to seek patterns. Together, analyses will guide development of policy recommendations.

6. Expected Findings.

We generally expect the nationwide trends to mirror those anecdotally collected for California, but in total to generate increased variance and enabling more comprehensive breadth and depth of analysis and recommendations.

7. Student Roles in Research.

Students are critical to the successful completion of this project and will be directly involved in three activities. (1) In months one and two, students will be trained and deployed (*virtually*) as enumerators of the nationwide survey of public health and coastal management officials to collect closure data. (2) In month 3, students will identify research *sub* questions based on their specific interests to individually tackle under the umbrella of the larger project research question. And (3) in month 4, they will each develop a report on their analyses that will be combined into a larger, final report to be published as an open-access whitepaper. By collecting the data (Step 1), analyzing the data (Step 2), and interpreting and communicating their data (Step 3), students will thus participate in nearly the full arc of the research process and further benefit from the fact that their combined efforts will generate relevant, timely, and actionable public policy data and recommendations. I estimate that this project will easily demand 9hrs/week of student effort; 3 of these hours will be reserved for blocked collaboration time with me to best prepare the research team and shepherd their efforts; the remaining time will be for independent research effort.

8. Benefits.

The contribution of students to this research is of existential value. Alternative mechanisms involve contracting a survey research firm, directly hiring enumerators, or even working with a team of graduate students—all are outside the scope of ESRM current resources. Without the opportunity to work with a CSUCI undergraduate research team, this project would not be feasible. Completing it will likewise support several other ongoing research projects and collaborations focused on directly related topics including coastal access equity, coastal management, and access-disruption due to coronavirus.

9. Dissemination.

The results of this research are of broad interest, both to the coast-going (and coast-loving) public and to decision-makers. Therefore, in addition to internal opportunities, including the SAGE student research conference and if possible, the ESRM Annual Research Extravaganza, our results will be disseminated broadly via an open-access whitepaper (and associated web resources, e.g., a StoryMap) and via the open-access publication of the dataset (as is an increasingly common practice): these products will equally credit the whole student research team. We will additionally be coordinating with several external collaborators and advisors, including Jesse Reiblich, JD (William & Mary Law School), Sumi Selvaraj (California Coastal Commission Environmental Justice Coordinator, and Angela Howe, JD (Surfrider Foundation)—the latter of whom is especially interesting in working to promote the results within the coastal access NGO and stakeholder community.

10. Acknowledgement

Students will be cited as coauthors of the final open-access report and dataset we produce. If, subsequently, other opportunities to disseminate the results arise (e.g., through an op-ed or in a peer-reviewed manuscript or as a capstone research project in the following academic year), students will be clearly acknowledged for their specific roles; opportunities for authorship will be decided based on student interest in additionally contributing those later efforts.

11. Budget and Justification.

The success of this project is predicated on each student having full access to a laptop computer (or sufficiently capable tablet) and a reliable high-bandwidth internet connection. Providing at-home internet service for the research team is outside the scope of CI’s role; all other software and equipment is already available to them as CI students and can be checked out from the library as necessary. Therefore, the total proposed project budget is: $0.


[i] Garcia, R., & Baltodano, E. F. (2005). Free the Beach! Public Access, Equal Justice, and the California Coast. Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, 2, 143–2008.

[ii] Ribot, J. C., & Peluso, N. L. (2003). A Theory of Access. Rural Sociology, 68(2), 153–181.

[iii] Ainsworth, J. (2020). Memorandum on Coastal Access Restrictions and Closures Due to COVID-19 (p. 1). p. 1. Retrieved from 30611 memo 3.24.20.pdf

[iv] Xia, R., Greene, S., Lu, J., & Martínez, V. (2020, September 11). Is your California beach closed? We’re keeping track. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

[v] Reineman, D. R., Wedding, L. M., Hartge, E. H., Mcenery, W., & Reiblich, J. (2016). Coastal Access Equity and the Implementation of the California Coastal Act. Stanford Environmental Law Journal, 36, 89:108.

[vi] Anderson, S., Patsch, K., & Reineman, D. (2020, April 3). Op-Ed: California’s beaches closures offer a glimpse of the likely future. That should frighten us. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

[vii] See e.g., California: fn [iv]

[viii] Surfrider Foundation. (2020). Beach Access during Covid-19: Expert Panel Recommendations. Retrieved from