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10 questions about visiting the beach during the pandemic, answered

Summer has never been more confusing. As the season synonymous with vacation approaches, the coronavirus pandemic continues to derail nearly every part of our lives. Those lucky enough to live near a beach, or who’ve planned to visit one in the future, may be trying to decipher the ever-changing regulations regarding beach access.

As beaches reopen or stay closed across the country, headlines emerge of beach-related controversies. To clear up at least some of the coronavirus-related confusion, we spoke with six experts to answer your questions about visiting the beach this summer.

Is it safe to visit the beach?

Even though beaches are reopening, it doesn’t mean the threat of coronavirus has lessened, according to Tania Elliott, an immunology expert and the national spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Elliott said that while you may be safer outdoors than you are in public indoor spaces, beach visitors should avoid close contact with others by staying six feet apart at all times, wearing face masks and resisting the urge to gather in groups.

“We don’t have a vaccine,” she said. “We still are kind of blind to who is infected and who isn’t infected. So it’s just really, really important that if you are going to reintroduce people [to public spaces], that you decide to take the appropriate precautions and measures.”

How do I know what beaches are open?

Every beach is on its own reopening timeline. Because the rules about visiting beaches vary by location and change all the time, Gloria Sandoval, deputy director of public affairs of California State Parks, recommends doing your homework before you leave the house.

“The first thing that people can do is check the website to make sure that they’re aware of what restrictions or guidelines are in place, or simply if the park is closed,” Sandoval said.

Why are some beaches staying closed?

While officials are eager to get beaches reopened to the public, there are still issues of crowd control.

“Our beaches are not available to the public, in large part because the volume of crowds we would attract would make compliance of social distancing impossible," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. “This is a pandemic and it’s spread through crowds of people who aren’t practicing social distancing.”

The situation in Miami Beach is far different from that of a place such as Virginia Beach, where restrictions are loosening up.

“Our beaches, because we have a renourishment program, are some of the widest on the East Coast,” Virginia Beach deputy city manager Ron Williams said. “And so we have that ability for proper spacing for everyone to enjoy.”

What happens if I break beach rules?

Local and state governments are setting up different ways to deal with beachgoers behaving badly. Local authorities may distribute citations — or in extreme cases at more popular beaches, make arrests — to make sure visitors are following new protocols.

“If we have any scenario where we have a gathering that is not really a safe environment, then we’ll have [beach ambassadors] ask for police support on that,” Williams said.

What can I bring to the beach?

As many beaches are open for exercise only, you’ll want to avoid bringing most beach gear during a visit.

“We’re not allowing coolers, umbrellas, shade tents, barbecues or chairs to be taken to parks,” said Sandoval, from California State Parks. “This guideline was implemented because we really want to make sure that people are [staying active] in the outdoors.”

Do bring sanitation equipment when you’re visiting a beach. If you’re visiting one that has an open public bathroom, most won’t have soap available, and you’ll need to clean your hands after touching its common surfaces.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Can I exercise on the beach?

The primary reason the public can access some beaches at this time is to exercise.

“We recognize the importance of outdoor activities and exercising,” Sandoval said. “But we need to do it in a very safe and responsible manner.”

If you decide to use public exercise equipment at beaches, such as pull up bars, make sure you wash your hands before and after touching the communal surface.

Do I have to wear a face mask to the beach?

Our experts recommend wearing a face mask if you’re going out in public, whether that’s a beach or the grocery store.

“You should be wearing your mask so as not to run the risk of contaminating somebody who’s medically fragile,” said Robert Quigley, who holds a PhD in immunology and serves as an executive at International SOS, a medical and security services company.

“You could very well be an asymptomatic carrier. So I say to everybody, just assume you’re infected. Just assume everybody in your household and your workplace on the street is infected.”

Can I travel to a beach out of town?

Experts warn against traveling long distances for a beach getaway during a pandemic, even if you’re going to a beach destination that’s now open.

“The act of getting [to the beach] on vacation, there’s risk boarding an airplane, being in airports, being on public transportation, all that’s risk,” Elliott said. “If you’re driving, you’re stopping at gas stations and you’re stopping to eat. At every point on the way, there’s still risk.”

In Quigley’s opinion, driving or flying to a beach for summer vacation is irresponsible.

“These guidelines are just as unpleasant for me … but that doesn’t mean that I want to get cavalier or become irresponsible just because for whatever selfish reasons I want to get a suntan or frolic in the water,” Quigley said. “I have to be respectful of the laws, and I’ve got to be respectful of my fellow man and woman.”

Are vacation rentals safe?

Some argue that a vacation rental is a better idea for an escape during the pandemic than visiting a hotel (if you insist on leaving your home).

The Outer Banks, N.C., region is made up of 100 miles of coastline, and most of the lodging is vacation rental homes.

Lee Nettles, the executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau said these accommodations allow for visitors to control their environment better than other vacation options.

“They can bring in groceries and supplies and then just prepare their own meals and have a self-contained experience, then just walk out on the beach and and have their own space,” he said.

If your vacation rental hasn’t been canceled, be mindful of sanitizing it when you visit. Wipe down anything you plan on touching during your stay.

“You just have to remember that nothing has changed about the virus. It could still live on surfaces for up to three or four days depending on the surface,” Elliott said.

Can I play beach games?

Experts have the same concerns about using equipment as they do with staying at a vacation rental. Touching common surfaces will put you at risk for contracting or spreading the coronavirus, so disinfect any rentals militantly.

“I wouldn’t recommend renting stuff right now,” Elliott said. “If you have your own stuff, you’re the only one that touches it, I think that it’s okay to use it.”

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