As climbing temperatures herald summer’s return, cities and states around the United States are beginning the stilted process of reopening. In many places, that means a chance to return to the beach. Texas state beaches were ordered to reopen on May 1; now state beaches in Florida, Oregon and California are also starting to reopen. On the East Coast, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut recently announced plans to reopen state beaches by the Memorial Day weekend, though with limits on capacity and other measures. (Cities, counties and other municipalities may have different restrictions; New York City’s 14 miles of public beaches, for example, remain closed.)
For those concerned about their safety during the coronavirus pandemic, the current consensus is that socially distant outdoor activities are some of the safer ways to re-engage with the world.
Professor Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in the airborne transmission of infectious diseases, agrees that a beach visit should be fine — as long as you are able to maintain social distancing.
But no activity is going to be completely risk-free.
“The steps you take are not going to be one-size-fits-all; it depends on your individual risk tolerance,” said Dr. Adalja.
Here are five things to keep in mind when planning a beach day.
Read up on local rules and regulations
Like most things in the time of Covid-19, rules governing beach access, use and safety change frequently and likely differ depending on your state, city and even your beach.
“We’re in a very dynamic place right now in terms of beach access,” said Dr. Chad Nelsen, chief executive officer of Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has been compiling resources and providing recommendations regarding water quality and beach safety with regards to Covid-19. The group also works with coastal communities on opening beaches safely.
Start by learning the regulations of your area and your beach by accessing government websites for your city or county. And consider how far along your local area is in terms of reopening.
“If your community is still in active mitigation mode, plan on being extra cautious,” said Christine Stratton, president and chief executive officer of the National Recreation and Park Association, a nonprofit organization that recently published guidelines for phased re-openings of public spaces, including beaches.
You should expect new rules this season. Picnicking might be allowed, or beach access may be for recreation only. Masks might be required and entries may be timed. Parking lots, public bathrooms and concession stands may or may not be open, or offer only limited access.
Other resources to tap include websites for your local parks and recreation or public health department, the local beach manager or your local lifeguard department.
Consider your day, and your beach’s geography
The varied regulations are because of the diversity of beaches across the United States and the likelihood of crowds.
“Local context matters,” Dr. Nelsen said. “The U.S. coastline is hugely varied in terms of its geography and population. You could go up to Oregon, or Northern California, and be at a beach all day alone. Urban beaches in Southern California or Miami are a different story.”
Densely crowded beaches make maintaining six feet of distance more difficult, and increase the likelihood of more sustained exposure to the virus. You may need to navigate a crowded parking lot, or take a narrow path or stairway to access the sand.
“Make an informed judgment: ‘Does it seem like the beach is on the busy side?” Ms. Stratton said. “If you’re pulling up to a beach and the parking lot is full, our recommendation is that you find a less-populated spot.”
Professor Marr suggests vetting beaches beforehand via a webcam, if possible, to assess the crowd.
Safety at the shore
Stay moving or stay far away
Keeping your hands clean, avoiding touching your face and, of course, maintaining at least six feet of social distance are as paramount at the beach as they are anywhere else.
“If it’s a crowded beach with people playing games, or parties mixing with other parties, there is always a risk of transmission,” said Dr. Adalja. “There will be people who think that risk is acceptable, others who don’t, especially at at-risk populations.”
“If you’re out swimming or paddling, walking or running, it’s going to be easier to avoid the packed towel-to-towel beach crowd,” Dr. Nelsen said. A recreation-only policy is currently in place in Los Angeles County; similar policies tend to prohibit beachgoers from bringing chairs, umbrellas, coolers, barbecues and other gear (again, check on the latest status at your local beach before going).
Dr. Adalja agrees that being on the move is, over all, a safer proposition: “If people are running by each other, the virus can’t magically transport from one person to another,” he said, noting that the highest risk for exposure comes from spending anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes within six feet of another person.
When you are in and near the water, there may be fewer lifeguards than usual, or none at all.
“Many of our parks and rec agencies are already affecting budget cuts, there’s a real risk of not being able to staff beaches with required lifeguards,” Ms. Stratton said. “There may be continued beach closings, both out of concerns for public health, and because of limitations of staffing, recruiting and training.”
“We’re trying to keep the lifeguards up in the stands as much as possible, and in a safe, socially distant place,” said Tom Gill, vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association. “The less they have to interact with the public, especially in an emergency situation, the safer everyone’s going to be.”
Enjoy your swim and your own beach gear
While much about transmissibility of the coronavirus remains unclear, waterborne transmission appears to be less likely.
As for other surfaces you might encounter at the beach, such as rental beach chairs and kayaks, or even beach toys, Ms. Stratton urges caution in all regards.
“We strongly discourage sharing equipment outside of your household — throwing a Frisbee, or tossing a ball around,” she said. “Before you rent equipment, ask the question: was this item cleaned and disinfected in between uses? If not, the recommendation would be to not use equipment.”
Your own chairs should not be an immediate risk factor — assuming six feet of social distancing can be maintained — as there is no evidence pointing to easy transmission in the sand. To be safe, clean your beach equipment with household disinfectants when you return home.
And take your garbage home too. Single-use plastics have been on the rise, and beaches are taking the hit — after some in Florida reopened, nearly 12,000 pounds of trash were left behind according to news reports. But pandemics don’t render environmental concerns irrelevant. If there is no trash collection or it appears to be overwhelmed, take your trash home with you to dispose of accordingly.
“Our municipalities are going to be incredibly challenged from a budget perspective,” Ms. Stratton said. “Rather than leave trash in receptacles that are overflowing, do your part and carry it out.”
About those restrooms …
Public restrooms are a tough topic these days. They have high-touch, frequently shared surfaces, and some reports also cite a possibility of transmission via an aerosolized “toilet plume.”
Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public restrooms include guidelines for regular cleaning and disinfection, operational toilets and well-stocked handwashing supplies. But beachgoers should check out facilities when they first arrive, to see if restrooms are clean and can allow for social distancing.
“We, of course, are recommending that municipalities and parks and recreation maintain facilities, but beachgoers should not assume that that’s the case,” Ms. Stratton of the N.R.P.A. said.
It’s always wise to bring hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, wear a mask, close the lid of the toilet when you flush, if possible, and thoroughly wash your hands.
The safest course: Keep your beach visit short enough that using public restrooms won’t be necessary — use the bathroom, and change into your swimsuit, before you leave home.