It was the dawn of the Labor Day weekend and Pauline Dabbs wasn't going to let a little bacteria get in the way of her beloved end-of-summer tradition--packing up her family and heading to Surf City.
She couldn't resist the sun and the sand. And after shutting down more than four miles of shoreline due to contamination last month, health officials reopened it just in time for the holiday.
Dabbs, 56, of Las Vegas, had expected a beach crowded with people who have been deprived of access to the water.
But instead of fighting for a space on the sand or standing in long lines at the concession stands, Dabbs found the coast unusually clear. The trickle of visitors more resembled crowds in the middle of winter than at midday during what is traditionally summer's last hurrah.
"It's kind of sad. . . . It's usually really crowded. It was so crowded two years ago that we lost Nicholas," said Dabbs, referring to her husband.
The crowd at Huntington Beach on Saturday was estimated at about 40,000 people, at least half of the average number, Marine Safety Lt. Michael Beuerlein said.
Merchants, visitors and officials believe the crowd was smaller partly because people made other plans while the shore was closed for so long.
But the main reason, they say, is probably that people are still wary of the water.
"We really didn't know what to expect, given the circumstances," Beuerlein said. "But we were hoping for more."
Jessica Gaston, who works at Taxi News, a newsstand across from Huntington Beach Pier, said that although business was better than it had been over the last three weeks, it was nowhere near what it could be.
"This is basically what you would get on any given Saturday," Gaston said. "There's really no difference."
Many downtown merchants suffered financially during the closure and worried that they could be devastated if the coast didn't reopen by Labor Day weekend.
Sales usually increase about 50% during the three-day holiday.
Merchants organized sidewalk sales and other activities hoping to attract visitors just in case the beach remained closed.
As an incentive, city officials also lowered parking fees from $7 to $1.
Parking lot attendant Brooke Dietrich on Saturday barely had enough to do. She kept busy by reading a travel guide on Mexico, her next vacation destination.
It was quite a switch from Labor Day weekends Dietrich has worked in the past, when lots would be full by noon.
"I think people are scared," Dietrich said of this year's sparse beach crowd. "I don't really blame them: I wouldn't get in the water."
Richard Barnard, deputy city administrator, said Huntington Beach is among the most heavily monitored sections of the California coast and it was not possible that health officials "would open up anything just because some merchants want it open."
"It's safe for the public," he said. "It's not almost safe; it is safe."
Dorothy Ly, area manager for a swimwear shop downtown called Diane's, said she has been surfing in the water herself.
"It was clear," she said. "There wasn't a smell about it. I surfed a good hour and a half, and it was fine."
Despite efforts by city officials to reassure beachgoers that the water is safe, many remained skeptical.
Although tests Saturday continued to show safe levels, surfer Shinjuro Hori refused to ride the waves. Hori, 49, of Huntington Beach said he believed the decision to reopen the shoreline was largely due to politics.
"It's real convenient that it just opened up during the Labor Day weekend," Hori said. "I know they say it's safe, but I don't want to take a chance. . . . It's better to be on the safe side. I'm going fishing."
Shay Kearns, a biology major at Cal State Fresno who was visiting her family in Huntington Beach, also had reservations about jumping in.
"I don't think I'm going to go in the water," Kearns said. "Even if I went in, I'd make sure to take a shower really good afterward. And I'd make sure not to swallow any of the water."
Concern also spread to Newport Beach, said Lt. Jim Turner of the city's Fire and Marine Department.
"I think some people have a hard time understanding how one part of the ocean can be closed but not another," Turner said. "The public is very cautious."
Diane Roberts, 52, of Orange said the first thing she did when she got to Newport Beach was "take a good look at the water."
"You kind of have to check it out for yourself," she said. "You just never know."
Others were more nonchalant.
Rose Greve, 39, said she was aware of the bacteria problem but didn't think about it when she went swimming in the ocean Saturday. She believed that officials wouldn't have allowed the public to wade into contaminated water.
"You can't go through life being afraid of every little thing," she said. "If you do that, you'll end up missing it all."