Our View: Close Schoolhouse Pond Now

Editorial.

It’s true that sometimes it’s not overly crowded at Schoolhouse Pond, the town’s only residents-only swimming beach. But other times the beach is packed beyond capacity and people are unable to follow social distancing rules. People, many of them children, are regularly exposing themselves to an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. It’s happened more than once, and more often than town officials would probably care to acknowledge.

Closing the beach is a headache. The decision will upset some regular beachgoers, and might rile one or two members of the board of selectmen. A beach closure would also be a challenge to enforce. But it can be done. Empowered with statutory authority, boards of health are designed to be above the fray of public opinion, particularly during public health emergencies. They don’t have to worry about politics, parking regulations, traffic, or signs. Their focus is the public health.

In Chatham, the health board has a heritage of making brave decisions when lives were on the line, banning smoking in restaurants and on beaches, and pushing back against flavored e-cigarettes. It’s time for another bold decision. Actually, it’s past time.

The board of selectmen, the parks and recreation commission and the board of health have been passing the buck on Schoolhouse Pond for weeks now. A parking ban was proposed. Selectmen rejected it. It was proposed again and implemented. It was being ignored by the public. Boards asked for more enforcement. As of this week, they’re looking for additional no parking signs and concrete blocks to take the place of cones and wooden barricades, which eager beachgoers keep moving. It almost seems like we’re running out the clock until the end of the beach season.

The board of health should meet immediately and vote to close Schoolhouse Pond Beach to the public until further notice. The parking lot should be chained and padlocked, at least between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., when crowds are the largest. Police could enforce the closure; they’re already visiting frequently to ticket cars without stickers.

One might argue that the risk is negligible, or that it’s not possible for the government to protect people who are resolved to put themselves at risk. Actually, whether it’s the police who issue speeding tickets, the lifeguards who watch the beaches, the building inspector who makes sure houses are safe, or the harbormaster who issues citations for unsafe boating, protecting public safety is one of the most important functions of local government. Even when the risk seems low.

So rather than reducing parking, simply close the beach. Otherwise, by the time the three boards find the perfect solution, the swimming season will be over. Or, heaven forbid, there will be a new COVID-19 cluster for the town to deal with.