Beaches begin to reopen as states ease restrictions
Editor’s note: Much of the nation has been shut down over the past two-plus months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But now the economy is reopening, and businesses of all types are quickly ramping up for what they hope will be a busy summer season that will return them to some sense of normalcy. This “Reopening” series will delve into how local businesses are dealing with getting back to a new normal. The third installment focuses on several states nationwide that feature beaches to attract tourists and summer recreation.
To some, the beginning of summer means trips to the beach. Yet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been questions as to whether those beaches would be open for people to enjoy after nearly three months of stay-at-home orders.
As mid-June approaches, the answer as to whether beaches are open is “well, kind of.”
While beaches in Ocean City, Maryland, or Alpena, Michigan report that it’s close to business as usual, other locales across the nation are still taking precautions — in some cases opening at limited capacity — as states advance through their respective COVID-19 recovery plans.
We reached out to business owners and local officials around the country to get a gauge for how different beaches are approaching the summer seasons. Here’s what we found.
At Starlite Beach in Alpena, Mich., Loni Schroeder watched as her 5-year-old daughter, Kenlea, tossed stones into Lake Huron on Thursday afternoon. The temperature had only made it to 66 that day, so they were just hanging out on the shoreline, enjoying the sun.
Kenlea was excited to be near the water, even if it wasn’t hot enough to go swimming.
“I love to go everywhere!” she exclaimed.
Her mom was enjoying the beach as well.
“It’s my happy place,” said Loni Schroeder. “I love hearing the waves crash and watching the water, and watching her have fun.”
The state is now heading into Stage 4 of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Safe Start Plan, which allows for gradual reopening of outdoor recreation areas with social distancing in place.
Schroeder has no qualms about crowds of people congregating at the beach as things reopen after the COVID-19 quarantine period.
“If you’re outside, get fresh air, don’t wear a mask,” she said. “If you have to wear a mask outside, why are you outside?”
People who go to the beach, she added, generally stay in their own groups of family and friends, so social distancing should not be a problem.
Mary Beth Stutzman, president and CEO of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said outdoor recreation, including beach-going, is a huge summer draw for northern Michigan.
“As travel begins to wake up after our recent experience, people are taking more road trips and they are looking for outdoor recreation destinations because they can maintain social distancing and be out in the fresh air and not in enclosed spaces,” Stutzman said Thursday.
The Alpena Area CVB covers a variety of Lake Huron beaches in the area, including Starlite, Mich-e-ke-wis and Thompson parks within the city limits, Ossineke and Negwegon beaches to the south, and Rockport and Thompson’s Harbor to the north.
State parks, including Negwegon and Thompson’s Harbor, are under the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ jurisdiction, while other municipalities determine their own parks restrictions, under the umbrella of the governor’s guidelines.
“We are excited to open up these resources to visitors again,” Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, said in a June 4 press release. “We can identify with the passion and enthusiasm people have for these beautiful outdoor spaces, especially during the warmer months, and we’re working hard to make sure everything is ready.”
Because Alpena is smaller than some other Great Lakes destinations, it is a great place to visit to both save money, avoid crowded areas, all while enjoying the outdoors, Stutzman said.
“It’s an excellent thing,” Stutzman said about Alpena tourism. “The three main things that we have been following, as far as predictions of what will come back first — we’ve seen road trips, outdoor recreation, and traveling to budget destinations that are not crowded. And Alpena checks all those boxes.”
She expects tourism to kick back in but perhaps not as strong as previous years because of the pandemic.
“So we will have tourism traffic this summer, and into fall and winter, as infection rates decline and everything is opened back up again,” Stutzman said. “We will see travel, but it won’t be at the level that we’ve seen in previous years. We have a long road ahead to build back up to the levels that we were seeing. But it does position Alpena in a really good light, and we’re fortunate that we have those things going for us.”
In Ohio, most outdoor spaces, such as nature preserves, state parks, trails and fishing piers, are open. Visitors still must adhere to social distancing guidelines but popular summer destination Put-in-Bay is now accessible by ferry again.
Previously, travel to the island off the coast of Lake Erie was limited to essential travel, but vacationers may now return. Hotels, restaurants and golf cart rentals are also back up and running.
Staying on the mainland, Vermilion’s Main Street Beach has seen more visitors now that the winter weather has dissipated.
Vermilion Mayor Jim Forthofer said the beach was never closed to the public but nearby playground equipment was. Playground equipment now can be used and he said they’re trying open things that are safe.
He said the beach had a lot of visitors over the weekend, but they seemed to be following social distancing.
“We’re a big festival town and they bring in tens of thousands of people,” Forthofer said. “Certainly the fish festival, we just couldn’t see our way clear to justifying bringing that many people in when the rules are no more than 10 people in one group.”
He said Vermilion is focusing more on small things to do for the community rather than big festivals.
“Things that are controllable and can be a few people at a time but still get people out,” Forthofer said. “(We want people) to have fun and get them downtown without creating a big crowd.”
He said that the initial reopening of businesses and restaurants started out slowly, but things are picking up now and restaurants are hitting their allowed capacities.
“I made a statement to the public that it doesn’t really matter whether you believe that this whole virus thing is a real thing or government hoax I don’t care, follow the rules,” Forthofer said.
He said, for the most part, people have been following guidelines set by the Ohio Department of Health.
“With the weather, people just want to get out and we’ve got some great places to go downtown,” Forthofer said.
Ocean City, Maryland
When Maryland gave the green light for businesses such as Dandy Don’s Bike Rentals to reopen May 9, owner Don Enste held off for about a week, unsure of how things would go.
In the beginning, it was a bit of a mess.
People were “not following guidelines, no masks, on top of each other,” said Enste, who has owned the business for 25 years. “As the weeks have gone on, people have settled down a lot.”
The last couple of weeks are traditionally senior weeks. In years past, those times are slower for Enste because the teens tend not to be active until around noon, when his bicycle rental business has to be off the Boardwalk, per city code. But he’s been seeing more families, some of whom are presumably off of work due to the pandemic, visiting the beach with their kids.
Even so, he said that few of his customers have been Marylanders.
“Everybody’s down here from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and all up in New England,” Enste said. “I’m actually a little bit busier than normal.”
Beaches and the Boardwalk are open in Ocean City, but visitors are still encouraged to wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, according to the city’s website.
Restaurants are open for delivery, takeout and outdoor dining.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The beaches and many businesses are open in Myrtle Beach, while the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is rising.
“Looking around, I think it looks like a typical mid-June at this point,” said Mark Kruea, public information director for the City of Myrtle Beach. “We are the Myrtle Beach that you have come to know and love; we’re just not at full strength.”
Restaurants are open, but with 50 percent capacity indoors, he said.
The popular vacation destination saw a spike in COVID-19 cases with 181 confirmed during the first week of June, according to the Myrtle Beach Sun-News, which said the rise is likely linked both to more people being out and about and an increase in testing. The following week, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control labeled Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, a hot spot for the virus.
City officials are redoubling efforts to encourage social distancing, Kruea said, adding they don’t want to see a return to heavier restrictions, many of which were lifted last month.
“Bring patience and bring a mask,” he said. “Wearing a mask is not required, but we certainly recommend that you do that.”
The social-distancing practice of keeping at least 6 feet between individuals is also still recommended in businesses and on beaches.
“Realistically, it’s fairly easy to social distance on the beach,” Kruea said.
As of June 9, Horry County had 803 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19. But SCDHEC statistics also list 4,933 estimated cases, which “are based on evidence that for every known case of COVID-19, there could be up to 9 people with the virus who remain unidentified in the community.”
The reopening of beaches for Memorial Day weekend was welcome news to Kelly Borrello, owner of Sunset Bay Beach on Lake Erie and two beach-side restaurants.
“It would have been next to impossible to keep people off the beach if we had not been open,” she said, noting the ideal weather for much of the holiday weekend. “I would have been paying people to come to work to say ‘You can’t be here’ to other people. But I wouldn’t have been making any money to cover the payroll costs.”
The private beach, for which entry is $5 for ages 11 and up, is limited to 950 people, half its normal capacity.
“When the weather’s super nice, the beach traffic has been better than a normal year at this time,” Borrello said.
On June 9, so many people turned out that would-be beach-goers had to wait to enter until another party left, she said.
Other state-imposed rules include requirements that people wear face coverings unless they are seated with family or in the water and keep at least 10 feet apart from other groups. Tossing footballs and Frisbees and playing sports like volleyball are not allowed.
“They follow them (the rules) ’cause we tell them to,” Borrello said. “They’re not happy about it.”
Some visitors, especially teens, don’t appear to be following the news and aren’t aware of the requirements, she said.
“We are selling hundreds of face coverings on a busy day,” Borrello said.
Patio dining and takeout service has kept some traffic flowing at her restaurants, Cabana Sam’s Sunset Bay Grill and Sunset Bay Deli.
“Neither one of them are really takeout restaurants,” Borrello said. “It’s really more about the atmosphere and the entertainment,” which can’t be offered right now.
In addition to being on Lake Erie, the area also boasts Chautauqua Lake, which has some private beaches but is mostly a fishing and boating draw, said Todd Tranum, president and CEO of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce.
Beaches in New Hampshire opened to the public on June 1 but only allowed recreational activities. Then, on June 5, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced sunbathing and other beach activities may resume, but people must maintain a 6-foot distance from one another.
Previously, only activities like swimming, running, walking and surfing were allowed on the beaches, but sitting, congregating, sunbathing and lounging are now permitted as well.
Chuck Rage, chairman of the Hampton Beach Village District, said about 90 percent of everything is open in the state.
“We have a lot of outdoor dining,” Rage said. “We closed the boulevard off and made the back boulevard two-way traffic and it’s giving a lot of social distancing because there’s a lot more space for people to walk around.”
Rage said restaurants will be able to host indoor dining next week at 50 percent capacity.
And while you can do more on the beach, parking restrictions are in place that will only allow 50 percent capacity at state parks.
Jeff Wynkoop starts booking up his rental home on the northern side of Virginia Beach in early March, but after the pandemic struck, 90 percent of them canceled, he said.
“We were like, ‘What’s going to happen here?'” he said.
Two weeks ago, he started getting inquiries about their cleaning procedures at the rental due to coronavirus. He’d tell them they were using the same cleaning products and procedures they’ve always used.
About the same time, people started booking five day vacations, wanting to be on the safe side and leave a day or two between whenever the last guest left, Wynkoop said. But that didn’t last long.
“All of a sudden, a week ago, we got slammed,” he said. “We’re booked. We have one week left in August.”
Most of the bookings have been young families from Northern Virginia and Maryland, he said. He suspects the bookings are because people are “worn down” by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
The state recently lifted more restrictions on beachgoers. Now, they can gather in groups of 50 people instead of 10. People are still expected to stay 6 feet away from people who aren’t family members and no sports, including Frisbees, are allowed.
People aren’t allowed to bring in large coolers, music speakers, alcohol, tents or more than two umbrellas, to discourage large groups and parties. According to a state update June 5, parking lots and garages are also limited to 50 percent capacity.
In Maui County, Hawaii, most beaches are open for local patrons, but a 14-day quarantine period remained in place for inter-island travelers until today.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige on Wednesday extended the state’s COVID-19 emergency period through July 31. Out-of-state travelers for now are not allowed into the state.
“We are working very hard toward re-opening out-of-state travel, but we’re not there yet,” Ige said in a June 10 press release. “We are being very cautious. There are new virus flare-ups in key mainland markets – including California where more than 2,000 new cases were reported yesterday. Oregon, Arizona and Texas are also reporting their highest number of new daily cases.”
The governor’s June 10 proclamation also included “the elimination of prohibitions related to beaches, boating, hiking and shoreline fishing, as these activities are being addressed through the counties in coordination with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.”
Hawaii is currently in the yellow “Act With Care” phase, which is the third and middle phase of a five-phase reopening plan. The phases went from red “Stay At Home,” to orange “Safer At Home,” to yellow “Act With Care,” to green “Recovery,” to blue “New Normal.”
Ogden Newspapers reporters Evan Bevins, Darby Hinkley, Katie Anderson, Lauren Fox and LynAnne Vucovich contributed to this report.