Beaches are reopening. If you go, please be smart about it

Beaches are reopening at a swift rate in some of the United States’ sun-soaked southern states.

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, FLORIDA – APRIL 17: People are seen at the beach on April 17, 2020 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced Thursday that Duval County’s beaches would open at 5 p.m. but only for restricted hours and can only be used for swimming, running, surfing, walking, biking, fishing, and taking care of pets. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

And whether you’re ready to pounce on the sand or are monitoring the situation uneasily from your living room, the reality of Americans getting out and about is upon us.

There’s likely no stemming the tide of openings as officials push to allow people out and restart the economy, but we can approach every loosened restriction with the kind of thought our new socially distanced reality deserves.

“What’s going to happen is going to happen,” said Dr. William Schaffner, infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “My question is, how is it going to happen?”

That’s a fair question, given the scene last week when Jacksonville, Florida, welcomed back beachgoers.

The 5 p.m. opening on April 17 prompted delight from many cooped-up residents and considerable online scorn in the form of hashtag #FloridaMorons from critics worried that lax social distancing will increase the virus’ spread.

Governor Ron DeSantis on Wednesday defended the decision made by local leaders to reopen beaches and appeared to reference the critical hashtag.

“My hats off to the people of Jacksonville and Northeast Florida for doing a great job,” DeSantis said. “And for those who try to say you’re morons, I would take you over the folks who are criticizing you any day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

Beach openings and closures are a patchwork across states, a mishmash of overlapping state and local orders that reflect the fits and starts of the wider coronavirus response.

More beaches are opening

Panama City Beach on Friday joins a growing number of Florida beaches open for limited hours.

In South Carolina, beach accesses reopened on Tuesday with the lifting of Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order, although some communities have retained local restrictions and checkpoints to limit access.

Some beaches have also opened in North Carolina, where a stay-at-home order has been extended until May 8. In Mississippi and Texas, beach openings are decided at the county level, while Alabama’s beaches remain closed.

In Georgia, beaches were allowed to stay open under a statewide stay-at-home order that went into effect on April 3, overturning some local beach closures implemented by coastal communities.

Most beaches are open for limited hours and only for non-stationary exercise such as walking, jogging or swimming. Fines for sitting and sunbathing are in effect for some locations, although the level of enforcement remains to be seen.

Yet as beaches and businesses reopen, a coronavirus model frequently cited by the White House says that Georgia, South Carolina and Florida should wait until June 8 or later to safely reopen.

The model, built by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, shows the level at which states may be able to use other containment measures — such as aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation — instead of social distancing.

The beach isn’t the problem. It’s the behaviors

The good news? In and of itself, a beach outing isn’t a bad proposition, said Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious diseases specialist at Columbia University.

“Going to an uncrowded beach with your social cohort or ‘quaranteam’ can be a safe and fun experience,” Griffin said via email. “The challenge is limiting the number of people on the beach so social distancing can be done.”

On Jacksonville, Florida, beaches last Friday, those measures seemed erratic at best.

Schaffner would like monitoring to make sure American beachgoers are following social distancing protocols. Coastal communities could employ extra people to nicely approach and remind beach visitors about masks and keeping a safe distance, he said.

“My experience of beaches is that unless the beaches are remote, you will find real difficulty in keeping to the six-foot rule,” he said.

He’s not confident that people are adhering closely enough to the measures needed to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission at beaches — or elsewhere.

How you can be safer at the beach

Thinking through any outing is key to mitigating the risks, Schaffner said, and beachgoers should be wearing masks when they’re around other people.

Parking lots can be especially problematic in terms of close proximity to other visitors.

He suggests going at an off hour, although many beaches are only open for several hours in the morning and evening.

“You arrive, you put on your mask as you get out of the car to make sure you won’t encounter anybody and then you go down to the beach. If there’s nobody there, you can take your mask off,” he said.

“Do your exercising, and as you walk back to the parking lot, put it back on until you can get into your car safely again.”

This new normal is going to be with us for a very long time, Schaffner said, and adopting these practices is part of increasing our safety.

“I’m a realist. I recognize it can’t be done perfectly. But can we do it as best we can, imperfectly?”

From his observations, he’s not so sure.

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