Coastal Towns Weigh Reopening Beaches Before Memorial Day

A Clearwater police officer asks a woman who was sitting on Clearwater Beach to leave Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Clearwater Beach, Fla. The beach is temporarily closed to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

A Clearwater police officer asks a woman who was sitting on Clearwater Beach to leave Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Clearwater Beach, Fla. The beach is temporarily closed to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara


Connecting state and local government leaders

Towns with economies that rely on summer tourism are anxious to reopen, but leaders don’t know when it will be safe to do so.

Memorial Day typically serves as the official kick-off to the summer season in many coastal towns. But the coronavirus pandemic means summer is likely to start much later this year—and suntans and sand castles will have to wait. 

Along the Eastern Seaboard, leaders in beach towns with economies heavily reliant on tourism are making critical calculations about whether they can reopen by Memorial Day and, if so, how they can do so safely.

In Delaware, Gov. John Carney has ordered beaches closed except for exercise or dog walking through May 15. But towns like Rehoboth Beach have gone a step further, restricting all access to the beach and the town’s boardwalk.

As Memorial Day approaches, Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns said he expects some tourists will visit even if the town isn’t fully reopened, so adjustments are being made to  encourage social distancing. This week, the town removed benches from around the boardwalk area to discourage people from lingering or engaging in close personal contact.

“Right now, Memorial Day is in flux,” Kuhns said, unsure when the city will be able to begin incremental reopening. “It may be a substantial length of time before people feel like it’s summer.”

On Friday, Carney said he was looking to June for reopening but was noncommittal on a precise timeline for lifting beach access restrictions.

“It’s really hard to tell at this point,” he said, noting the state intends to follow the White House guidelines for a phased reopening of the economy.

The first phase of reopening requires a two-week reduction in new Covid-19 infections, but a recent uptick in infections linked to poultry processing plants in Delaware has driven up the number of infections there over the last week.

“What we don’t want to do is have a lot of people come from other states’ metros—Baltimore and D.C. in particular—to crowd the beaches during that time,” he said.

Beach closures have become a flashpoint in California and Florida, where decisions have been made on a county-by-county basis. In response to large crowds that flocked to some California beaches amid a heatwave last weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Orange County beaches to close. The Huntington Beach City Council responded by voting to seek an injunction that would block the governor’s order. 

California adopted stay-at-home mandates earlier than many other states and has had real success limiting spread of the virus. The concern is that if beaches reopen too soon and draw large crowds, coronavirus infections will spike again. 

No local lawmaker wants to draw a comparison to the fictional Amity Island mayor, of the horror movie Jaws, who opens his town’s beaches while a man-eating shark is on the prowl. But  officials are also mindful of their residents’ quarantine fatigue and the negative economic impacts of extended beach closures.    

Rehoboth Beach, for example, draws approximately 40% of its annual $17 million operating budget from parking fees collected during the summer months, Kuhns said.

“If the tourism isn’t coming, that’s huge,” he said.

In Delaware, Carney said he has been in discussion with Larry Hogan, the governor of neighboring Maryland, to try and reopen in a coordinated fashion so would-be beachgoers don’t flock over state borders if beaches in their state remain closed.

In Ocean City, Maryland, which draws the majority of its 8 million visitors each year in the summer months, local lawmakers said they will have to be nimble with their reopening game plan.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan this week renewed the city’s restriction on beach and boardwalk access through May 15 and restrictions on short term rentals through May 22, the Friday heading into the holiday weekend.

“We are doing everything we can do to be prepared when some of these orders are lifted and we can welcome everybody back and make sure everybody knows that we are going to have every safety precaution in place that we possibly can for the summer,” Meehan told WBAL-TV.

The city’s plan for reopening envisions phased reopening of small shops in late May or early June, reopening of restaurants with social distancing requirements and resumption of some public events in late June or early July.

“Our hope is that July 4th will be the new Memorial Day and that the July, August, and September portion of the season will resemble typical seasons,” read a memo on reopening that was prepared by City Manager Doug Miller.

Just because beaches are allowed to reopen doesn’t mean some communities will welcome tourists with open arms. In South Carolina, some popular beach towns have opted to remain closed to outsiders for the time being even after Gov. Henry McMaster rescinded his order banning beach access.

Regardless of when beaches reopen to the public, local officials expect some social distancing guidelines to remain in effect. It might be some time before restaurants are allowed to serve dine-in customers, or public events like Rehoboth Beach’s summer concert series resume, Kuhn said. 

“It’s going to be a different summer than what we are used to,” Kuhns said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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