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Social-Distance Surfing and Crowded Coasts: What Beaches Look Like as COVID-19 Frustrations Mount

By Maggie Fuller

May 1, 2020

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Many look to beaches as an important escape during these uncertain times, but you still need to social distance along the shore. 

Courtesy of Unsplash

Many look to beaches as an important escape during these uncertain times, but you still need to social distance along the shore. 

As the weather warms in the Northern Hemisphere and people get restless worldwide, beaches have become a hot spot: a place to exercise and a place to see bad behavior. What can we do to share beaches while social distancing?

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After more than a month of house-bound isolation, people around the world have been returning to the beach—in some places, in droves. In New Zealand, where COVID-19 is almost completely eliminated, surfers sought out waves on Tuesday morning. Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach reopened to swimmers and surfers on Tuesday as well, despite the area having Australia’s highest concentration of COVID-19 cases. In the United States, certain counties in northern Florida opened their beaches again. In Southern California, some 80,000 people crowded the sand at Newport Beach, while crowds flocked to Huntington Beach and Long Beach to escape a heat wave. 

But we’re nowhere near business as usual when it comes to playtime on the coasts. 

Even as some beaches begin to open, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered new closures of all state and local beaches in Orange County, following the social un-distancing that happened last weekend.

In areas with open beaches, increased access comes with a laundry list of restrictions. At Sydney’s Bondi, people can only enter during daylight hours, can’t linger on the sand, and are expected to continue social distancing. There’s a coronavirus testing tent nearby due to the high rate of infections locally, and signs direct surfers to enter and exit the waves through designated paths to help control the flow of traffic. 

A sign tells surfers to leave once they have finished surfing at Bondi Beach in Sydney.

In Florida, beaches have limited hours, sometimes closing during peak hours in the middle of the day. Officials have also prohibited towels and chairs to discourage beachgoers from relaxing and congregating in groups. Beaches should be used for “swimming, running, surfing, walking, biking, fishing, and taking care of pets only.”

Is it safe to visit a beach during the coronavirus pandemic?

These reopenings may feel like a glimmer of hope for would-be beachgoers, especially with summer fast approaching. But along with that comes a cadre of questions: Can I catch COVID-19 from the ocean or its spray? Does sunlight actually weaken the virus? 

A few weeks ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times speculated as to whether the COVID-19 virus could enter the waterways through raw or poorly treated sewage (yes, gross as it may be, there is sewage in your ocean) and then spread through ocean spray and coastal breezes. The newspaper published a follow-up article, after the initial one sparked controversy and, frankly, freaked a lot of people out. While not a retraction, the new article did highlight a very recent study showing that the virus doesn’t appear to remain infectious in fecal matter. 

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In a deep dive into the subject of COVID-19 and the ocean, the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the ocean, waves, and beaches, affirms that there’s just not enough information out there right now to know whether the COVID-19 virus can spread through sewage and thus be picked up by ocean swimmers and beachgoers. 

We’re nowhere near business as usual when it comes to playtime on the coasts. 

There has also been recent speculation that you can catch the new coronavirus from runners or bikers passing by. But while a recent study by MIT’s Dr. Lydia Bourouiba found that coughs and sneezes can release clouds of particles that can travel as far as 26 feet, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told Vox that, “the risks of virus transmissibility in the air outdoors is likely quite low in those contexts, although this risk hasn’t been definitively measured.” Rasmussen points to sunlight, wind, rain, ambient temperature, and humidity as factors that can decrease the virus’s infectivity and transmissibility.

“The primary concern,” Dr. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, tells AFAR, “which we’re already seeing, is overcrowding and that overcrowding will result in increased community spread, setting back the progress that we’ve already made on flattening the curve.”

How can I visit the beach responsibly right now?

Surprising as it may be, some of the most ardent advocates of beaches and ocean sports are the ones staying away. The Surfrider Foundation, an organization that has fought for 35 years to protect ocean recreation, beach access, and surfing, launched the #StayHomeShredLater campaign earlier this month, urging surfers to respect shelter-in-place orders. 

“It’s a mixed bag,” says Nelsen. “My sense is that most of the public and beach communities are respecting the stay-at-home orders and are really working to do what’s best for their communities. On the flip side, people want to get out and recreate and a lot of people use our beaches to do that. But there’s certainly a concerted effort.”

In addition to following the CDC’s guidelines, here are a few ways to balance your desire to go to the beach and the need to do so responsibly:

Respect beach closures and guidelines

Right now, beach access varies from state to state and sometimes even county to county. Even as beaches in northern Florida reopen, the mayor of Miami-Dade County tweeted on Sunday that there is no timeline for reopening beaches in the southern part of the state

Not only could you risk a fine or arrest if you’re caught on a closed beach, but you could also get seriously injured with no one to help—remember, a closed beach means there’s no lifeguard on duty. 

These days, an empty beach is a safe beach.

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It’s also important to follow any new restrictions at beaches that are starting to open up. Nelsen points to San Diego as a county with a good plan for reopening its beaches: “It’s a phased approach, starting with passive recreation—the idea is that beaches are going to be open for people to get exercise with the expectation that they’re going to follow physical distancing requirements, wear masks if they can.” But he stresses that if the public doesn’t follow the guidelines, it could cause a spike in infections and result in longer closures of our beaches. 

Check online with your state or county parks website to see what’s open. Nelsen points out that there’s a lot of confusion about what’s open, when, and where. 

Avoid the crowds

Most of us try to avoid the crowds at the beach in a normal summer, but now it’s more important than ever. All of those facts about the virus having a low risk of transmission outside go out the window in a crowd. The CDC still strongly recommends against gathering in groups

Finding crowd-free beaches is even more challenging if some beaches in your area are closed. Last weekend, the crowds at Orange County and Ventura County beaches were compounded by visitors from nearby Los Angeles County, where the beaches are still closed. 

It’s a heartbreaking prospect, but if you show up at a beach and find it crowded, turn around and go elsewhere. 

Stay local

Now is not the time for a beach road trip or even a day trip. If it’s a beach worth traveling to, chances are you will be among throngs that have had the same idea. Additionally, traveling to other areas can put those communities at risk.

Be conscious of where you need to social distance

Finding a bubble larger than six feet while walking on a wide beach is one thing, but there are a number of other places on a beach where your social distancing abilities may be challenged. Parking lots can be crowded, entrances can get clogged. Bring a mask, of course, and if you can’t move to your beach of choice with a very wide, effortless berth, it’s probably a sign it’s too crowded. 

Nelsen believes that to safely open up our beaches this summer, cities and the public are going to have to work together: The cities will have to set up rules to encourage good behavior, and individuals will need to be smart. He acknowledges it’s not going to be easy, especially in densely populated areas. “I think the reality is that we’re not all going to be able to do everything we want. As things open up, we’re going to have more opportunities. [But] we’ve gotta play the long game here.”

The Associated Press contributed some images and some reporting for this story.

This story appeared online on April 29, 2020. It was updated on May 1, 2020 to include new information.

>>Next: A Safe, Practical Guide to Getting Outside While Social Distancing

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