NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Gaze out at the roaring surf, and you could almost pretend that this was the beginning of another timeless summer.
You could forget that on this Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer in Rhode Island, state officials only dared open two beaches, as they tested how much of a normal life we can safely resume in the dark days of COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll in Rhode Island over the last three months. More than 14,000 residents have tested positive. More than 600 have died.
This is the reason the young parks employees and environmental police had their faces obscured by masks. This was the reason for signs urging visitors to keep a social distance and wear face masks in public areas. This was why state officials limited parking at Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett and East Matunuck in South Kingstown, to prevent the usual blanket-to-blanket stretches along the sand.
The start of the season came quietly on Monday’s opening day, when clouds hung low over the horizon and the air was barely warmer than the waves hitting the shore. The state had prepared for a few thousand people at each beach, but by midday, there were only a few hundred.
It was a tradition for some, no matter the weather. Just being there, unpacking the beach chairs, setting up the umbrella, rolling out the blanket, provided a sense of comfort at time when it feels like most of life has gone off course.
There were the teenagers, whose prom was celebrated in the family’s backyard in East Greenwich. The nurse from New Jersey, who waited months to see her toddler granddaughter in South Kingstown. The college student in East Providence, who babysits her young siblings so her mother can work at a psychiatric hospital.
Finally being at the beach “felt freeing,” said Juliana Cherry, 18, as she sat with her grandmother, Rita Kane, at Scarborough. The two drove down from East Providence to keep their decade-old tradition of welcoming each new summer at the beach. They wore face masks until they found their spot, at a distance from other beach-goers, then pulled down their face coverings and breathed in the salt air.
“I love the beach,” Kane said, huddled under her hoodie. “We’re really scared [of the virus] but this is our opportunity to be here.”
At East Matunuck, Nicole Tickner of South Kingstown watched her mother, Judy Vit, with her 2-year-old daughter, Gracen, along the shoreline. Vit, who is a nurse in Southern New Jersey, hadn’t been able to see them since early March.
Now, Vit held Gracen’s hand as the toddler stomped at the incoming waves. From her blanket, Tickner took their picture. It was as timeless a scene as any on the beach. “Every day there is a little more normalcy,” Tickner said.
That’s what Bill Klika and Kerry Walsh were seeking when they pulled into the Scarborough parking lot with their sons and family friend.
Three months ago, Klika was teaching sports management at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. Their three sons were in school. The oldest, 18-year-old William, was graduating from St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and planning to travel to Italy with his girlfriend, Celia, whose father is stationed with the Navy in Naples.
Then the coronavirus closed schools and sent everyone home for virtual learning. When Celia couldn’t get to Italy, the Klika family took her in.
They pulled together and tried to make their lives as close to normal as they could, even holding a “prom” in their backyard on Sunday night for William and Celia. He rented a tux, she wore a gown, and they had music and streamers and take-out Thai food, and Zoomed with Celia’s parents so they could join in.
“Last night I said, I am so lucky,” said Walsh. “We are all together.”
On Monday, there was no need to improvise. They’d packed their Chevy Suburban with beach chairs, blankets, boogie boards, bathing suits, and a huge cooler. They planned to stay for hours, as they always do.
Ten-year-old Walker couldn’t wait to play on the beach, and Winslow, 14, declared, “Things are returning to normal.”