Chatham Wrestles With Policies For Public Beaches

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Beaches , COVID-19

Barnstable County developed this poster for Cape towns to post at beaches.


CHATHAM — When it comes to safely managing the town’s bathing beaches this summer, officials are weighing more than just the public health implications of COVID-19. They have to consider a key source of town revenue and a major driver for the town’s economy.

“The number one thing that everybody wants when they come here is the beaches,” said parks and recreation commissioner Kimberly Robbins, who also operates a summer rental business. If the town decides to close access to visitors, “we might as well just cancel the summer,” she said.

Robbins spoke in a joint meeting of the commission, the health board and selectmen last week.

While town beaches have remained open during the pandemic, lifeguard service, paid parking and other services are slated to begin at the beaches on June 26. In response to guidelines issued by the state, Barnstable County has printed a new sign Cape towns can use to explain the rules for social distancing and use of masks. Under those guidelines, beachgoers must maintain six feet of social distancing and 12 feet of distance between groupings of beach towels or beach chairs. Games like beach volleyball are banned, as are gatherings of more than 10 people. People are required to wear masks when walking to and from their beach sites, but can take them off while sunbathing or swimming.

“Do we allow nonresidents to use our beaches?” Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Seldin said. Saying the town should put the safety of its residents first, Seldin said he opposes selling one-day beach passes used by short-term visitors, acknowledging that doing so would have “a profound effect on the business community.”

Robbins said while weekly rental reservations are down this summer, people are still renting vacation homes for longer periods of time, and if daily passes aren’t sold, it will hurt visitors who come to stay in hotels and inns rather than longer-term rentals.

“That would kill the economy,” she said.

Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin said the only town he’s aware of that opted against issuing daily beach passes this summer is Wellfleet.

Seldin made a motion to limit access to the beaches to residents and nonresidents who are staying in town for a month or longer, but his motion failed to receive a second.

Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said if the town opted against issuing day passes, it would create an economic disparity that favors wealthier visitors who can afford to stay in town longer. A member of the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, Davis said the town needs to consider what such a restriction might do to beaches in adjacent towns.

“There’s all kinds of ripple effects,” Selectman Cory Metters agreed.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Meredith Fry said the decision is a difficult one, and because of the town ban on meetings of non-regulatory boards, the commission has had little time to weigh its options for managing the beaches.

Selectman Peter Cocolis said that while Harding's Beach might be conducive to social distancing, “I can just see Jackknife Point,” where beach stickers are not required, social distancing will be difficult, and there are no staff members present to monitor the use of masks.

“We, as a town, are going to have to have some type of beach monitoring,” health board Chairman John Beckley said.

In that case, the town will need additional staff to serve in this unique role, Tobin said. “I don’t want to call it ‘social distancing police,’” he said. “That could not be the function of the lifeguards.”

On one day of the Memorial Day weekend, “Schoolhouse Pond was wall-to-wall people,” Tobin said. “And that’s a resident-only parking lot.” If the required social distancing were enforced on the beach there, it would likely accommodate only about four parties of beachgoers, he said. It’s hard to imagine enforcing the rules in a place like Harding's Beach, Tobin said.

“It will take personnel to manage those situations and to make this work effectively there,” he said.

Resident Elaine Gibbs said the debate about allowing day passes at the beaches is a debate between safety and revenue. Many people in town are not wearing masks when they are required to do so, she said, and it makes sense to restrict beach access to residents only this summer. “I don’t think we owe one-day visitors anything,” she said.

Resident Florence Seldin agreed that many people are now flouting social distancing rules, and enforcing them on the beach will require additional staff.

“You cannot rely on the goodwill of the people,” she said.

Selectmen granted permission for the parks and recreation commission to meet, and commissioners were expected to continue discussing beach management when they meet today, June 4.