CHATHAM — At Schoolhouse Pond bathing beach, crowded conditions are nothing new. The small stretch of sand, which gets smaller when the water table is high, is Chatham’s only residents-only beach. But during the pandemic, those close quarters are a public health concern.
State regulations designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 require beachgoers to maintain six feet of social distance, and groupings of beachgoers must keep 12 feet between towel groups. Masks are required except while swimming or sunbathing, and beach games like volleyball are prohibited. Were the rules to be followed at Schoolhouse Pond, leaving adequate space around the lifeguard stand, there would be room for less than half a dozen groups of people — perhaps as few as two.
“It’s really hard to meet the distancing requirements there,” Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin said this week. Overcrowding prompted the beach supervisor to call the town’s emergency operations center several weeks ago, and on beach days, the area experiences a “saturation” of visitors, he said.
“It wasn’t a huge problem over the weekend,” Tobin told the parks and recreation commission Tuesday, “but again, the weather wasn’t there.”
“We have gotten a number of complaints about Schoolhouse Pond,” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen last week. Selectmen rejected a proposal by the parks and recreation commission to prohibit parking on Sam Ryder Road as a means of limiting use of the beach, and in the small beach parking lot, town officials have used cones to restrict the 13 available parking spaces to six.
“People just simply moved those cones and parked in those spaces,” Duncanson said. “That is going to be an issue.” Many of those who use the beach walk there from their homes or come by bicycle.
On several occasions, people could be seen just three to four feet away from others on the sand, and few were wearing masks.
“The only other option, quite honestly, would be to have a discussion with the board of health, and they could potentially order that the beach be closed,” Duncanson said. But the health board met on Monday and made no mention of the beach.
Tobin said there are no simple solutions to the problem.
“If we close the beach, that’s going to create its own set of concerns,” he said. Closing the beach would require the police department or other town staff to continuously monitor the area to enforce the closure, Tobin said. And closing the beach would mean removing the lifeguards, which would pose new safety risks, he said.
Parks and recreation commission Chairman Meredith Fry recommended making no changes, “and we’ll continue to monitor the situation,” she said. She asked Tobin to have the lifeguards submit daily reports documenting any problem, “so we know how to go forward.”
Speaking as a private citizen, Selectman Cory Metters predicted that the situation won’t be going away on its own.
“Schoolhouse is going to be one of the biggest tasks this summer,” he said. Restricting parking spaces with traffic cones won’t help, he added, since people will find different places to park.
“The reality is, all we’re doing is pushing those cars out to the streets,” Metters said. In the past, the police department has conducted parking enforcement at the beach, ticketing cars that don’t have residents-only stickers. Metters suggested increasing up that enforcement. “That might be a step in the right direction,” he said.
Tobin said overcrowding at the beach comes and goes, based largely on the weather.
“I think people, in general, try to comply,” he said. But when too many people are trying to use the same small space, problems arise. The health department is aware of the situation and will continue to monitor it, he noted.
“It’s going to be a very tricky topic all summer long,” Metters predicted.