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Mass. beaches reopening in the age of coronavirus

A woman and girl ran between dunes on Bank Street Beach in Harwich Port on Thursday. The rituals of going to the beach are changing, but the draw and the joy of the ocean remain.
A woman and girl ran between dunes on Bank Street Beach in Harwich Port on Thursday. The rituals of going to the beach are changing, but the draw and the joy of the ocean remain.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Twelve feet between beach blankets. No spikeball, no water fountains, no changing rooms. And brace yourself for face mask tan lines.

Come Memorial Day, a slate of new rules and regulations hit Massachusetts beaches, promising to dramatically change sun-worshiping at the unofficial start of the first coronavirus summer.

The three pages of guidelines Governor Charlie Baker released as part of his reopening plan, which include opening beaches for wider use Monday, touch everything from games (Kan Jam and volleyball are out) to sand-side clam shacks (takeout only).

Layer on statewide orders requiring masks in public and capping groups at 10 people, and the summertime rituals that define sandy havens from Cape Cod to the North Shore will undoubtedly look and feel different this year.

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The safety measures, public health and local officials say, are to be expected, especially as a highly infectious virus has replaced shark sightings as the No. 1 fear for beachgoers.

“We should view this as a privilege,” Joseph Allen, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said of venturing back to beaches, parks, and other places being reopened. “And one that can be revoked quickly if we demonstrate we’re unable to abide by these rules. . . . We should expect that things will be very different this summer."

How different remains to be seen. With the allure of warming weather — Monday’s forecast shows sun and temperatures in the 60s — will people flock to the state’s shorelines after months of being cooped up inside? Will they ignore or accept the new requirements? Or will the prospect of crowded beaches during the COVID-19 pandemic leave people to seek summer solace elsewhere?

In many cases, changes are already taking root.

In Wellfleet on Thursday, Katie Driscoll, surfboard in hand, emerged from the cobalt waters off White Crest Beach, where she was one of about a dozen people surfing. The 34-year-old therapist then strapped on a mask.

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“Everyone was keeping their distance; there was a wave for everyone,” Driscoll said. “We’ll see how crowded it gets this summer, but if I have to be around people, I would prefer to be outside on a beach.”

Town and state officials are bracing for others to want to do the same, in many instances crafting plans built off Baker’s recommendations.

Under those guidelines, beachgoers are required to stay 6 feet away from others — and wear masks if they can’t. They also “should” put 12 feet between them and other groups on the sand. Indoor showers and changing rooms are closed for at least the next several weeks, as are any shuttle services beaches use to ease their jammed parking lots.

To be sure, the public has been allowed on most beaches across the state, albeit with restrictions, since Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10.

Baker had for several weeks ordered parking lots at state beaches closed, and limited activity there to “transitory use,” such as walking and running. Yarmouth officials, for example, closed beaches for nearly two months before town selectmen voted to reopen them a few weeks back.

Public health experts say a beach’s outdoor setting, where winds can naturally dilute virus particles, makes it a safer place than many indoor locations. But hordes of people crammed onto a spit of sand can be a problem, including in the haphazard ways people navigate blankets and coolers to find their slice of the beach.

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That’s prompted a variety of efforts to scale back crowds. Baker’s regulations do not set limits on how full parking lots can get, but in places such as Wellfleet, officials are capping them at 75 percent capacity, with warnings that spots could be sliced further if “beachgoers fail to observe social distancing.”

Some towns are allowing only residents in, beaches included. For the first phase of Baker’s reopening plan, only those living in Gloucester will be allowed at Good Harbor Beach, for example, and the city has no plans to sell nonresident beach stickers at all this year.

Swimming is allowed most places statewide, but in Manchester-by-the Sea, it’s prohibited at the popular Singing Beach, which, come Monday, will open to residents only and on weekdays. Residents between the ages of 12 and 65 must also present a “walk-on tag,” which costs $20 at the beach.

Beachgoers are even being told to expect few or no trash cans in many popular spots, including across the 40 miles and six beaches that make up the Cape Cod National Seashore. Superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who oversees destinations such as Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and Race Point in Provincetown, said he removed garbage receptacles “when it all started.”

“It’s going to be a different experience,” he warned of going to the beach. “Everything is now.”

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Lifeguards are also being told to keep their distance from people. That means they may leave parents with the duty of offering aid for the occasional jellyfish sting, said Daniel Knapik, Yarmouth’s town administrator.

But the unofficial dawn of summertime also brings twinges of uncertainty. Towns are leaning on educating the public about the rules, with the hope that heavy-handed enforcement isn’t necessary. Baker’s order governing access to state beaches said the Massachusetts Environmental Police and State Police will help enforce the rules, with the potential for criminal penalties or civil fines.

In Worcester County, Webster Police Chief Michael Shaw said his department has sent officers to the shores of Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg over the last few weekends. They haven’t had any issues, and Shaw said he hopes this weekend will bring more of the same.

“It all comes down to common sense,” Shaw said. “If we all adhere to the guidelines . . . people can go out there and have a great time.”

It doesn’t mean there isn’t trepidation. Patti Machado, the recreation director for Barnstable, said some longtime beach employees chose not to return this year, fearful of dealing with anxious, and in some cases angry, people rushing to the town’s 14 beaches after enduring months of restrictions on daily life.

“Everywhere I’ve gone, it seems like people are ready to pounce. There’s a lot of pent-up anger. That worries me, that worries my staff,” Machado said. “I want people to understand, we want them to come, we want to have a good day. But if we can’t do all that we need to do, we all lose. I don’t want the governor to come back out, and say, ‘It’s not working, shut it down.’ ”

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She’s also expecting it to be busy. Barnstable officials have been tracking how beaches have fared in warmer-weather states. In many cases, she said, more people are going to the beach “that have never gone to the beach,” while at-risk populations, like the elderly or those with underlying health conditions, have kept their distance.

“Beaches that always fill up are obviously a concern no matter what,” Machado said, pointing to Kalmus Beach. “We open at 9 and by 9:30 we’re full. It might be 9:15 now.”

Back at White Crest Beach along the Outer Cape, only a few visitors ventured down the bluff and onto the white sands of the narrow beach Thursday.

At one point, Bob Noonan and his wife rolled up to the bluff on bicycles, taking in the view from the sparsely filled parking lot.

Speaking through a red bandanna, he said the virus wouldn’t keep them from returning regularly to the beach — the reason they moved to Cape Cod. But they were grateful that local officials were requiring visitors to stay apart and take other precautions.

“We’ll be here," he said, “but we’ll be keeping our distance.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.