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Coronavirus pandemic | The sun-starved prepare to storm beaches. Locals are worried

Although local business owners were vocal about their concern that keeping tourists away would harm an area where most money is made in the summer, some residents said that authorities were rushing to reopen to appease business owners

May 23, 2020 / 03:16 PM IST
As beaches open, out-of-towners will bring business, but also behavior that could threaten public health. (File Image, December 2017: Daniel Arnold/The New York Times)

As beaches open, out-of-towners will bring business, but also behavior that could threaten public health. (File Image, December 2017: Daniel Arnold/The New York Times)

Tariro Mzezewa

Beaches across the United States have been closed to visitors for months. But that hasn’t stopped out-of-towners from trying to use them, sometimes running afoul of the law to do so.

In mid-April, for example, a Miami resident named Joao Ramon Perez drove his pickup truck — personal watercraft in tow — through a checkpoint intended to keep nonresidents and nonessential workers out of the Florida Keys, an archipelago of islands south of Miami. According to a sheriff’s office report, he was asked to turn around and go home. He responded by telling sheriff’s deputies that they would have to arrest him to keep him out.

He spent the night in jail.

Since two Florida Keys checkpoints went up in March, authorities have turned away nearly 15,000 cars, filled with thousands of would-be visitors who hoped to escape to the sand and sea. Some of them were tourists, but many were from nearby Miami-Dade and Broward counties.


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It’s this kind of behaviour that makes yearlong residents of beach towns nervous for the summer. As many reopen for Memorial Day weekend — or June 1, in the case of the Keys — the communities that live there are preparing for a crush of people, some of whom feel contempt for the rules that have kept these enclaves relatively safe.

The lockdown of the Keys, for example, has kept reported cases of COVID-19 low, with only three deaths, according to data from the Florida Health Department.

“It’s not that we don’t want people here or that we hate people from Miami and other places; it’s that we don’t have the resources to care for them if they come here and get sick,” Scott Pillar, a commercial fisherman and a resident of the Keys, said over the phone. “We aren’t trying to keep the beach to ourselves; we are trying to keep everyone safe. If these people coming to visit can guarantee that they aren’t sick, then, sure, they can come.”

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Rules for beach re-openings differ by state and county and are subject to change, with some beaches currently banning sitting and sunbathing and allowing people to visit only if they keep moving. Almost everywhere, tourists and local residents are expected to wear masks and practice social distancing, even at the beach.

In the Keys, hotels will have to submit sanitation plans in order to host visitors, and they can be booked at only 50% capacity. But some residents worry that by reopening, authorities are prioritizing “money before people,” one man wrote in a Facebook group for residents.

In another such group, some residents discussed concerns about potential rule-breaking tourists. One woman wrote, “I hope people will be kinder and gentler with each other and the environment ... but I doubt it.”

A Choice Between Health or Commerce

In the week since the Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, reopened, many residents have said they’ve noticed visitors refusing to wear masks or follow social distancing rules, raising fears that it’s inevitable that more cases of the coronavirus will reach the islands, which have largely been sheltered.

“The locals, in my opinion, followed the beach rules and just used it for exercise or walking your dog,” said Barbara Bell, a photographer in the Outer Banks. “When they started to let in non-resident property owners is when the beach access roads were packed.”

The towns had been closed to non-residents and nonessential workers for two months, with sheriff’s deputies at the entry points, but there were plenty of efforts to flout that rule. Some locals offered, on Craigslist, to sneak people onto the islands via boat, for a price. Some managers sneaked clients past the checkpoint on the bridge. Over one weekend in March, dozens of people tried to cross the Currituck Sound to reach the islands.

“I understand what an amazing place this is and get that when people weren’t at work, they wanted to be here, but what they were missing was the fact that they were coming from areas with a surge to an area that wouldn’t be able to handle that,” said Shelli Gates, a respiratory therapist and musician who has lived in the Outer Banks for about 27 years.

Although local business owners were vocal about their concern that keeping tourists away would harm an area where most money is made in the summer, some residents said that authorities were rushing to reopen to appease business owners.

In various Facebook posts and in interviews with The New York Times, residents of the Outer Banks towns of Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills said that they understood the difficult position of business owners — who in many cases are neighbours — but that reopening seemed like a big health risk.

“It would be nice if we could find some balance that will let people make their money for their year but also know that they are safe from the contingent of visitors who won’t be respectful and won’t follow the rules,” Gates said.

Jonathan Parker Hipps wrote in a Facebook post announcing that the islands would be reopening, “Our shelves are half-empty most of the time or completely out of essentials. Locals have been struggling for toilet paper and meats. We all want to open up, but we aren’t ready.”

The 5-Mile Rule and Other Measures

Some beach towns have adopted new rules to limit the number of people who can visit.

At Half Moon Bay State Beach and other California beaches, people are not allowed to park anywhere near the beach, in parking lots or along the road. They have to be engaged in recreational activities and cannot sit or sunbathe. They can’t bring coolers, umbrellas or chairs. (They are also reminded to take their trash with them because there is no trash collection.)

The request to stay away, many residents said, is a reasonable one, but tourists and people from “over the hill” haven’t respected it, causing frustration and tension. The arguments have been playing out in person and on social media.

In Half Moon Bay, which is about 45 minutes south of San Francisco, “locals only” signs began to pop up in parking lots in March, as did highway signs telling people who were more than 10 miles away from their towns to turn around and go back home.

(Previously, Dr Scott Morrow, the health officer of San Mateo County, issued a rule requiring those who went outside to do recreational activities within 5 miles of their homes.)

As of last week, people from beyond the 10-mile scope could visit beaches, but they were not allowed to do so by car between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

“It feels like people are using the pandemic as an excuse to keep people who aren’t from here out,” said Chris Voisard, a teacher and a resident of Half Moon Bay who opposed the 5-mile rule. “The sentiment here is very much that these are our beaches. We are lucky to live by the beach, but we don’t own the beach.”

On a Facebook group for locals, run by Voisard’s younger sister, Cathy Voisard, hundreds of Half Moon Bay residents disagreed. Some lamented that though county measures had slowed traffic, they had not kept out day-trippers.

Instead of parking where they’ll be given tickets for breaking the shelter-in-place rules, these visitors have been parking in residential areas. Because bathrooms are closed, visitors are urinating in residents’ yards and along the beach. And instead of taking their trash with them, they are littering around people’s homes.

“I am all for people’s rights to visit the beach — none of us own the beach — but this is about respect for each other during a pandemic, a crisis, not about keeping people away from the beach,” said Soula Conte, a resident of Montara, a town that is between Half Moon Bay and Pacifica and is within 10 miles of Half Moon Bay.

“There’s a sense of entitlement that visitors are displaying here on the coast as things open,” Conte said, adding that there had been “blatant disregard” for rules by visitors. “Quite honestly, it’s as if rules don’t apply to tourists,” she said.

Nearly 250 comments were left on a post in the locals’ Half Moon Bay Facebook group asking about whether reopening to non-residents was the right move. Some people said they wished checkpoints could be put up to keep away people who weren’t from the immediate area; others said they would like to see authorities enforce rules and fine people more rigorously.

Many said visitors’ behaviour now was simply an exacerbation of a disrespect for locals that already existed.

“It comes down to a lack of respect,” Emily Banker wrote. “Lack of respect for nature and the environment in leaving trash on/around the beach, urinating (and worse) in the landscape and people’s property, lack of respect for laws including no parking zones.”

Parking Tickets Won’t Keep Them Away

In East Hampton, New York, where residents have discouraged visitors from New York City, the area hardest-hit by the novel coronavirus in the United States, local authorities have stepped up enforcement of parking rules even as they planned a phased reopening of beaches Saturday.

“I can’t close the state highway that leads into town, and one of the most iconic state parks in New York is here,” said Peter Van Scoyoc, the town supervisor of East Hampton. “The town is working with our local businesses to ensure that when we invite people to visit that it will be safe to do so.”

Four beaches in the area (South Edison and Ditch Plain in Montauk and Indian Wells and Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett) will open, but only on weekends, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and only to those with permits. No daily parking passes are being sold, and East Hampton is fining people $150 if they are parked in a lot without a permit. The town is also not issuing non-resident permits. By this time of year, issuing permits is usually well underway.

The reality of living in a beach town, though, is accepting that you need tourists to survive, some residents of the Outer Banks, Half Moon Bay and the Florida Keys said. There is fear but resignation in most beach enclaves; often, tourism is one of the few ways for locals to make money. All they can do is hope for the best.

“Beach opened yesterday, and today, though chilly, the boardwalk is full of happy visitors — none wearing masks or social distancing,” one Outer Banks woman, who asked not to be named, wrote on Facebook, adding that grocery store parking lots were packed with non-resident cars. “Praying for the best outcomes.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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