COVID Beach Rules Confuse Some, But Deter Few

By: Alan Pollock

Cars queue at the Harding’s Beach gatehouse Tuesday morning. Staff have had to turn people away on peak days this year, not because of a lack of parking but because the beach itself was becoming overcrowded. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — While sunbathing and swimming is a bit more complicated than it used to be, thanks to rules designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, those rules don’t seem to be keeping people from heading to the beach.

Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin said sales of beach parking permits are on par with ordinary years, and the town has already sold more weekly permits than any other year in his memory. At Harding’s Beach, the town’s largest bathing beach, staff have actually had to turn people away on several occasions this year because, while there were still spaces in the parking lot, the beach itself was becoming overcrowded.

Herein lies a source of confusion for beachgoers, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross said. The chamber has surveyed visitors and found that many didn’t understand the rules designed to prevent overcrowding.

“There was a lack of clarity about the 12-foot distance between beach gatherings,” she said. While beachgoers are expected to keep six feet apart and wear masks while walking to and from their beach towels, those groupings of towels need to be 12 feet apart from one another.

Northcross and other members of the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force are publicizing a “Beach Well” campaign to clarify those rules, with details posted at ReopeningCapeCod.org/beaches. The website also includes a tide chart, since new visitors sometimes find themselves frustrated by the lack of available sunbathing spots at high tide, especially at Cape Cod Bay beaches. At Skaket Beach and other bay locations, visitors who come at low tide find plenty of room for social distancing, but then jostle for space as the tide comes in. The Beach Well campaign advises people to come three hours before or after high tide when more space is available.

The goal of the campaign isn’t just to help visitors enjoy themselves; it’s to prevent overcrowding that might prompt towns to close down beaches or limit access to residents only.

“We need to get that message out and keep our beaches open,” Northcross said.

After struggling to recruit staff, Chatham has hired additional beach gate attendants who serve as COVID-19 monitors. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the monitors were in place on a busy beach weekend in early August, and it was “a pretty high-tension weekend.” Town staff worked diligently to help beachgoers comply with the rules, and “most people are very nice and compliant. Others, not so much,” she said. Goldsmith urged people to be patient and understanding.

“Our town staff is trying to do their job and nicely inform people of the various COVID protocols,” she said.

Tobin agreed that most visitors have been cooperative, but said the particular point of friction is the new online beach parking system, put in place to minimize contact between visitors and gate attendants. Particularly at the Harding's Beach gatehouse, where cell phone reception is lacking, visitors often find it difficult to purchase their parking passes on their smartphones.

“It’s not a customer-friendly system that we have,” he said. Provided that there is cell reception, the process takes about five minutes to complete, “and that’s if everything goes well, and you’re comfortable purchasing things on your cell phone,” Tobin said. When the process is delayed, vehicles sometimes stack up at the gate, or beachgoers have to be issued traditional paper passes – defeating the goal of having hands-free transactions. Still, the process does work for a majority of users, and it was devised by town staff with very little preparation time.

“It was a good rabbit out of the hat for this summer,” Tobin said, but he favors experimenting with different software should the system be employed for future years.

Earlier this month, Chatham town officials issued an advisory reminding the public to follow all previous rules – and the new ones related to COVID-19 – on North Beach Island. The island appears to be more popular than ever with people seeking to enjoy the beach with a maximum of social distancing. But because of its remote location, the island is difficult for the town to patrol, raising worries about the potential for large beach parties like the one traditionally held there on Labor Day weekend. Goldsmith said the town is encouraging people to visit North Beach Island.

“It’s an amazing resource, and we just want them to do that responsibly,” she said. It is key that people on the beach need to maintain social distancing and wear masks when they are in proximity to people who are not in their own family groups, or there is a risk of another COVID-19 spreading event, she said.

At the board’s Aug. 4 meeting, Selectman Dean Nicastro asked whether the town had considered visiting the beach to distribute fliers that outline the beach rules.

“I just don’t want us all to wake up on the day after Labor Day and find there was another unfortunate situation,” he said.

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the challenge is that most people who visit North Beach Island travel by individual private boats, so they would have to be met on the beach as they arrive. Any handouts would soon be discarded, worsening the problem of trash on the island, he added. For that reason, fliers “would probably be my last choice,” Duncanson said.

Harbormaster Stuart Smith said that boat traffic has been very heavy on the weekends, but the apparent increase in boats and beachgoers along North Beach Island probably doesn’t represent an overall increase in people and vessels, but rather a shift from South Beach driven by erosion.

“I think a lot of people are not able to go to South Beach anymore because South Beach is disintegrating,” he said.

Tim Wood contributed to this story.