This Memorial Day weekend, beach towns will lead perhaps the biggest experiment yet in reopening the economy two months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses from coast to coast. While much of the U.S. remains shuttered, state and local leaders in waterfront communities are beginning to allow beaches, boardwalks, and coastal businesses to open on a limited basis.  

What this means on the ground varies widely by state and municipality, but most reopening plans aim to give visitors a taste of the usual beach experience while still maintaining social distancing efforts and complying with lockdown orders.

Finding the right balance could prove difficult, however, as people flock to the ocean after months of quarantine. Early reopenings in both Ocean City, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Maryland, have drawn massive crowds and garnered criticism from fellow beach communities that believe it sets a bad precedent for the summer. 

"You can say what you want about manipulative photographs, but there is clear video showing how busy the Ocean City boardwalk was this last week," said Paul M. Kanitra, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, which is taking a more cautious approach. "I think some people will think twice about heading to some of those destinations if they don't feel safe." 

It may be weeks or months before the public health impact of reopening beaches is apparent. But for now, best practices are emerging state-by-state, and sometimes beach-by-beach, leading to a hodgepodge of safety and enforcement measures. 

Which measures are most effective is an open question, but the lessons learned this weekend could inform the rest of the summer. 

New Beach Rules

As sprawling outdoor spaces, beaches seemingly offer plenty of room for social distancing. But anyone who's stepped onto the hot sand with a clunky cooler in tow only to find a sea of umbrellas, fold-out chairs, and picnic blankets knows that even temporary oceanfront real estate comes at a premium. 

In order to prevent this type of crowding, Virginia Beach is banning common beach equipment like tents, large coolers, and speakers that tend to generate big gatherings on the beach. It's also prohibiting group sports such as volleyball and frisbee.

"We're asking for the privilege for us to sit on the beach and enjoy this natural asset," said Ron Williams Jr., deputy city manager of Virginia Beach, the only beach community in the state so far to be given the go-ahead by Governor Ralph Northam.

Unlike nearby Maryland, which allowed the popular resort town of Ocean City to choose its own reopening date, Virginia is taking a more top-down approach, threatening closure if social distancing isn't followed. 

"If people swarm these beaches and ignore social distancing rules or the regulations the city has put into place, I will not hesitate to reinstate Phase I restrictions or even close the beach outright if necessary," Northam said. "My message to Virginians is this, and it's very simple: You must be responsible."

California earlier this month opened beaches for "active recreation," such as running, hiking, or swimming, but they remain closed to regular beach activities such as sunbathing, setting up a blanket, or even sitting and standing around. 

The state has also taken a hard-line with overcrowding. Governor Gavin Newsom shut down beaches in Orange County after photos emerged online of large crowds of people sitting in the sand. 

Shutting down a beach after the fact is one thing, but enforcing social distancing rules in real-time is tricky. Many towns don't have the manpower or the inclination to aggressively police beachgoers for not social distancing

Virginia Beach is hiring upwards of 150 "beach ambassadors" drawn from the ranks of temporary employees who normally staff events. The ambassadors will be posted at beach entrances and offer friendly reminders to visitors to follow the new rules.  

Point Pleasant Beach, which is operating with just a third of its police force due to the state lockdown, will also have personnel dedicated to looking out for social distancing, but it's holding off on a major reopening until mid-June in order to better prepare for the big Fourth of July weekend. 

Mayor Kanitra said the next couple of weekends will shape the reputation of beach towns for the rest of the summer. 

"For every person that's out right now, there's probably two or three sitting at home who are very cautious and waiting to see how safe it is," he said.  "We want to provide the type of destination where families can come and feel safe."

Controlling the Flow

Before visitors ever step foot on a beach, local officials are taking steps to curb the flow of traffic into a given area. One measure that has been widely embraced is cutting public parking capacity in beach towns by at least 50 percent right off the bat. 

"When we see density on the beach that is getting above a ratio that is not allowing social distancing, we will actually suppress that parking," Williams of Virginia Beach said. 

The real-time monitoring will be handled by a mix of surveillance cameras set up around the main tourist areas, aerial drones, and police and safety personnel on the ground.

The city has determined that 1,600 people can fit in a block area along the boardwalk and still maintain a six-foot separation. 

The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit conservation group that manages some public beaches in Massachusetts, has taken this a step further by capping parking at 500 cars per day and requiring that visitors buy a day-pass online beforehand.

More cars could be allowed in the future, but the nonprofit will be closely monitoring the success of the current approach before entering any future phases. 

"We're testing not only how it controls volume and entry and allows for a contactless system, we're also looking to see how behavior plays out on the beach," said Alicia Leuba, vice president of the eastern region for the Trustees. 

Leuba said the Trustees will do a daily analysis of factors such as complaints, incidents, observed behavior, and visitor compliance with six-foot social distancing rules while waiting in line. 

"What we hope to see is a really positive result, and that people come to the beach and understand that this is an unusual time in our nation and our world's history and that they need to make some adjustment in order to take advantage of this incredible resource," she said. "So we're really asking a lot of people."

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