Pandemic’s Burden May Limit Access to Town Beaches

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Beaches , COVID-19

Employees and customers observed masking rules at Friends’ Marketplace last week.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS — The global pandemic wants a reservation for every other parking space at Nauset and Skaket beaches.

Town officials have recommended to the park commissioners that, effective immediately, the beach lots “will be closed once at 50 percent capacity or less based on beachfront availability and discretion of the Natural Resources Manager,” according to an April 30 memo from Town Administrator John Kelly, DPW and Natural Resources Director Tom Daley, Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears, and Facilities Manager Ron Collins. The selectmen met as park commissioners last night (May 6), after The Chronicle’s deadline.

Available parking spaces “will be reduced to provide adequate room on the beachfront so that beachgoers may practice physical distancing,” the memo states. “Staff will be responsible for directing vehicles to park ‘every other space’ to promote distancing in the lots. All staff will be provided with gloves, masks and disinfectant.”

According to the memo, beach operations would begin as usual, with entrance fees being charged weekends only starting May 23 and full-time June 20, when lifeguards begin working.

At its May 4 meeting, the board of health voted 4-1 to endorse the recommendation. Luke Chapman, who voted against the measure, said the town would be doing “a major disservice to society” by telling people “they can go retail shopping with a mask on but beach parking is” half-closed. “There’s no evidence this is in any way something that will help prevent transmission. It’s a major overreach on our part to be making decisions that aren’t evidence-based.”

“The parking lot is not my main concern,” Sears said. “It’s the front of the beach, and the facilities we provide. If we maintain standard operations and allow full capacity at the beaches, I’m not confident we’re gonna be able to keep the restrooms clean enough, or keep the food trucks orderly enough. You’re talking thousands and thousands of people at Nauset Beach. I’m not saying we have to restrict the parking and lock ourselves into 50 percent. What I’m saying is that staff and myself need the discretion to close down that lot when it’s being overwhelmed and we don’t have a handle on the situation.”

“Nate’s looking for some operational latitude,” member Sims McGrath said. “He’s not looking for a specific number. It could change day to day: one day a tremendously conscientious crowd, another day a bunch of people ignoring protocols as a means of protest.”

Chapman suggested that people could spread out farther along the beach to maintain social distancing. Staff could tell people that “the guarded area is full, so if you want to park today, walk past the guarded area,” he said. “It’s a totally reasonable requirement to put in place. I’d prefer, Nate, that you hire employees to disinfect the bathrooms every hour, that we maybe don’t need to enable food trucks at all. There are things that are much higher-risk...”

“I agree there are much higher risks,” Sears said. “Those are sharks… When someone comes through the gate, the last thing I want to do is send them farther down the beach to some remote section where I can’t have eyes on them… The oversand vehicle program has its challenges as well. All the kids are out of school. It looked like spring break out there a couple of weekends.”

Also Monday, the board, which had been considering a local masking regulation, instead adopted Gov. Charlie Baker’s latest statewide requirement, which went into effect Wednesday. That means anyone older than 2 who’s in a place open to the public and not maintaining social distancing of six feet must wear a mask or other face covering. That includes all workers and customers of businesses, including grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retail stores. Authority to enforce the order is vested in the state department of public health and local boards of health, which may call on the state or local police. A non-criminal fine of up to $300 is noted.

Police Chief Scott MacDonald, who attended the virtual meeting, told the board that specific guidance on enforcement is anticipated, and that he expects it will be similar to that for previous orders, which included an initial warning before any fines were imposed.

At its next meeting, the board will discuss a list proposed by Chapman of minimum cleaning standards for all accommodations ranging from hotels and inns to short-term rentals. “A lot of these items are new,” he said. “I think they should be put forward as best practice for vacation home rentals whether by homeowners or companies.”

Health Agent Bob Canning said the state housing code is silent on cleaning or sanitizing units between occupants. “You cannot have filth, but it does not say you have to sanitize or disinfect surfaces,” he said. In addition, the town has not taken jurisdiction over weekly rentals of single-family homes; such a step would require an emergency order.

As everyone waits for the governor’s words on what will happen after May 18, the health department is encouraging established restaurants to submit plans for opening without the requirement of a pre-inspection. “We’ll go out and do routine inspections as soon as we can,” Canning said. A pre-inspection will be required of new establishments. Given the cancellation of ServSafe food handling and similar classes for employees to renew their certificates, restaurants will be allowed to open with the expectation that workers with expired certificates will take classes as soon as they are offered again.