CHATHAM — Judging from the crowded parking lots, busy shops and restaurants, and the steady traffic on roadways and waterways, the Independence Day weekend was a busy one – despite COVID-19.
As of early this week, there had been 150 deaths from the novel coronavirus in Barnstable County, with a case count of over 1,500 people since the start of the pandemic.
“The public health data continues to show us positive trends on many of the key metrics,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday. “We all need to continue to do the things that have made such a big difference in Massachusetts,” like practicing social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks and staying home when sick, he said. Meanwhile, the virus is surging again in parts of the country that reopened their economies prematurely.
Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said local officials are watching those trends, weighing “what impact we may or may not see from the influx of summer visitors.” Last week, Gov. Baker lifted the quarantine advisory for people traveling to Massachusetts from other New England states, New York and New Jersey, and that reciprocal travel is something public health officials are monitoring closely. Care must be taken to keep “new cases from being imported from other areas around the country,” Duncanson told the board of health Monday.
While Chatham has not yet hired any staff to help beachgoers comply with COVID-19 regulations, it seems that many people are policing themselves. An aerial survey of dredge work at the Stage Harbor entrance channel on June 27 also produced some photos of crowds on Harding's beach, and “frankly, it was great,” Duncanson said. “Everybody was well spread out.” State rules require parties of beachgoers to maintain 12 feet of spacing between towel groups. “We saw no real issues,” he said.
In his visits to downtown Chatham and the fish pier observation deck, two mandatory face mask zones, Duncanson said it seems that around 95 percent of people have been complying with the rules. Compliance was not as good at the Lighthouse Overlook, where masks are required on the sidewalk and stairs leading to the beach. In response, town officials moved an electronic message board to the parking lot to remind people to wear masks, “and compliance is better. It’s still not as good as it is at the fish pier and on Main Street,” he said. “But I think the word’s getting out.”
Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin said the cool, cloudy weather kept people from crowding the beaches last weekend, not the coronavirus. In one sense, the weather was fortuitous; the new permitting system that allows people to buy beach parking passes online has had some connection problems, he said.
“It’s slow, and we’re trying to do some things to improve that.” People attempting to buy passes at the gatehouse were frustrated by the system’s slowness, but officials hope software adjustments will ease the problem. “We’re still figuring things out,” Tobin said. Still, when the system was launched on the previous weekend,660 permits were sold, bringing the town about $35,000 in revenue.
Last Wednesday, the town announced the reopening of playgrounds after a contractor was hired to carry out weekly cleaning of the equipment. Users must maintain six feet of social distancing and wear masks when distancing is not possible, and adults are responsible for ensuring their children follow the rules. People are prohibited from using the playground if they are ill, and should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after using the equipment.
Under Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening plan, which began Monday, the previous ban on gatherings of 10 or more people was replaced with more detailed requirements. Now, indoor gatherings of people are limited to no more than eight people per 1,000 square feet of space, not to exceed 25 people in a single enclosed space. Outdoor gatherings in non-enclosed spaces are not limited, provided that people practice social distancing and meet other requirements.
Phase 3 also allowed the lifting of certain additional business restrictions, and permits the opening of health clubs and gyms. Chatham’s three health clubs were notified of the rules, health Agent Judith Giorgio said.
“We were having an issue with a gym in Chatham previously,” Duncanson told the health board. BodyStrong Fitness opened in defiance of the governor’s order and received a series of fines and ultimately a cease and desist order from the state’s Department of Labor Standards. It was unclear whether the state intended to continue pursuing sanctions now that the business can operate legally, and a spokesman for the state agency could not be reached this week.
Town officials report a variety of minor problems over the holiday weekend, unrelated to the pandemic. Police in all area towns received an extremely high number of complaints about illegal fireworks, and found themselves able to curtail only a tiny portion of the activity. A large number of boaters were on the water, with the usual conflicts and mishaps. A sailboat of between 40 and 50 feet in length became grounded in the North Inlet at low tide, guided there by boat owners from Vermont who were unfamiliar with the local waters.