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Ocean City to reopen its beach and boardwalk as leaders confront restart decisions

An empty Ocean City beach last week. The beach and boardwalk will open to visitors starting Saturday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Leaders in the greater Washington region wrestled with the uncertainties of reopening their economies Tuesday, balancing residents’ desires to resume a more normal life as summer approaches against the continued spread of coronavirus infections and deaths.

Mixed messages on the wisdom of continued closures emerged as the region’s death toll from the pandemic reached 2,367, with more than 52,000 known infections. A day after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he expects to ease some restrictions on nonessential businesses by mid-May, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) warned in television and radio interviews that it was too soon for District residents to begin letting down their guard.

Meanwhile, officials in Ocean City, Md., announced they would reopen their beach and boardwalk to the public Saturday, a week earlier than expected.

The contrasting pronouncements gave a taste of what is likely to come in the region — and across the country — as shutdown measures are eased in the weeks and months ahead. Without a centralized, national policy on pandemic containment measures or clear guidance from the federal government, state and municipal officials have resorted to a patchwork approach.

The potential of such measures to sow confusion was evident Tuesday after Ocean City’s announcement. The town of 7,100 year-round residents draws about 8 million visitors a year to its inlet and boardwalk but for more than a month has closed those areas to everyone but locals.

As states begin to reopen and ease coronavirus restrictions, populated beaches have become a focal point in states like Florida. (Video: The Washington Post)

The areas will be reopened Saturday to the general public, including nonresidents. But town officials are walking a fine and perhaps untenable line, simultaneously discouraging visitors from other parts of the state or region, travel that could be interpreted as violating Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order.

“We are not encouraging people to travel, and we are not encouraging people to violate any order that Governor Hogan has in place,” Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said.

Meehan said he hopes people who do visit the beach and boardwalk will practice physical distancing of at least six feet and avoid congregating in groups of 10 or more. He said the decision on whether to wear a mask would be left up to visitors.

Town officials will be counting on voluntary compliance, he said, but will reassess and alter course if the reopening isn’t going well — for instance, if densely packed crowds develop similar to the now-notorious scenes on the beaches of South Florida early in the pandemic.

“We’re going to have to rely on people doing the right thing,” Meehan said.

“Is it perfect? No, but these are unprecedented times and I’m not sure that we can really make the judgment in advance that any initiatives are going to be without some difficulty,” he said.

Reopening D.C., Maryland and Virginia: What the latest metrics tell us

Speaking in Richmond on Monday, Northam offered a cautiously optimistic look forward, saying the state’s stay-at-home measures had worked and that hospitals had not been overwhelmed as feared.

But he also said his hoped-for easing of restrictions would depend on those trends continuing through May 14. And he acknowledged that his counterparts in neighboring Maryland and D.C. — which, like Virginia, have seen their economies devastated by the shutdowns — would have to make their own judgments.

Virginia has had the lowest per-capita death toll from the virus among the three jurisdictions, whose combined, known infections reached 52,695 on Tuesday. There have been 27,117 cases in Maryland, 20,256 in Virginia and 5,322 in the District. The number of virus-related deaths reached 1,390 in Maryland, 713 in Virginia and 264 in the District.

“Each state has their own situation, their own challenges,” Northam said. “We’re probably not going to do everything on the exact day, but we’re working as close as we can.”

In the District, Bowser hit more somber notes in interviews.

“We don’t have a cure. We don’t have a vaccine,” she told WHUR-FM (96.3). “Any phased reopening is going to trigger an increase in infection.”

She urged her constituents to continue to take the risks of the virus seriously.

“People in D.C. have to understand their vulnerabilities,” the mayor said. “You can infect your household and end up in an emergency room, in an ICU or on a ventilator.”

Speaking on NBC4, Bowser said the city’s infections probably would not peak until later this month, accompanied by more hospitalizations, and that city officials are watching for “a sustained decrease in our positive cases” before beginning to lift restrictions on residents and nonessential businesses.

In one D.C. family, a woman, her mother and her brother all died of covid-19

The Family Drive-In Theater was one of many drive-in theaters that opened in Virginia the first weekend in May. (Video: The Washington Post)

Asked about Virginia’s plan to reopen some businesses, Bowser said, “There is concern about community transmission if people are going out for nonessential business and bringing the virus back to your household.”

But she said Northam has to “look at what’s on the ground for his jurisdiction.”

Maryland’s Hogan (R) has said he hopes to begin lifting restrictions this month if the state meets certain benchmarks, but he has not announced an update to the current measures. On Tuesday he said the state had launched an online platform where manufacturers of personal protective equipment can connect with buyers.

The two governors and mayor were scheduled to confer by phone Tuesday, an aide to Northam said.

Their deliberations come as other parts of the country begin to reopen, sometimes in defiance of public health experts. Georgia, Texas, Indiana and Florida are all moving forward with the easing of virus-containment measures. Adding to the confusion, President Trump has cheered them on even as they appear to be violating his administration’s guidelines for states to restart their economies.

Speaking on CNN on Sunday, Hogan addressed the difficulty of staying the course amid Americans’ weariness with restrictions.

“Unfortunately, the pressure is to do it in a not-safe way,” the governor said. “And that’s something that we’re very concerned about and one of the reasons we’re being cautious and trying to do things in a slow, safe and effective manner.”

Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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