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PANDEMIC SUMMER

When vacationing at the beach during COVID-19, there’s an undercurrent of nervousness

Rogue sneezers. Unmasked sunbathers. At what price serenity?

Beach-goers at Nauset Beach last month. There's plenty of signage there reminding people of proper safety measures.
Beach-goers at Nauset Beach last month. There's plenty of signage there reminding people of proper safety measures.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Summer vacation in Before Times held the promise of sandy beaches, sunshine, and sleeping in. Now a trip anywhere beyond home seems like a last, dystopian grope toward freedom.

And so in May, having been quarantined with my children for two months, I signed up to rent a friend’s Cape Cod cottage. I wanted to give them a dose of normalcy as safely as possible. However, I soon discovered that COVID-19 vacations are also a fraught proposition that involve Clorox wipes, Purell, and glaring like a feral animal ready to pounce at mask-free humans who wander within a 20-foot radius of my young. The smell of sunscreen has been replaced by the scent of Lysol.

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We headed to Dennis Port on a Sunday. We zipped down in about 80 minutes — a record, I think. We breezed over the Sagamore Bridge, and I was quietly relieved that my 3-year-old didn’t demand to stop at a bathroom — a public bathroom! — on the way. Plus, our car looked like we’d just robbed a Target. We packed the usual stuff, like sand toys, but we also had a week’s worth of food; a suitcase stuffed with our own sheets and towels; a bag brimming with cleaning supplies; and a mask-filled glove compartment. We weren’t going on vacation so much as switching fortresses.

The cute cottage was already spotless, but I wiped down every surface to soothe my own paranoia. Normally my kids jump on the beds when we enter a new place to mark their territory. “Do not touch the bedspread!” I yelped at my preschooler as he began discoing. I stripped the sheets and replaced them with our own. I placed tubs of Purell in the car and in the kitchen as if they were floral bouquets. I sprayed Lysol in random corners. Only then could we rest.

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Or could we? A nearby friend had texted me, stressed: A mask-less family had plunked down next to her crew at the beach, forcing them to scuttle sideways like crushed snails lest they risk confrontation. What was wrong with people? Dennis helpfully tweets which beaches are full, and we made our way to Mayflower Beach with high hopes. Everything was fine until the tide lapped in, mouth-breathing sunbathers began squishing together, and a game of volleyball came claustrophobically close to our little unit. My husband and I looked at each other: We had seen the enemy, and we needed to flee. My kids reflexively affixed their masks, and we trudged back to the parking lot. It was fun while it lasted.

We had better luck elsewhere. Nauset Beach, in Orleans, was a public health official’s dream: perfectly spaced groups, nearly everyone in masks when walking to and from cars, and plenty of signage reminding people of proper safety measures. Truro, too: nothing but dunes, sandy expanse, and a drooling fox carrying a dead mouse in its teeth. (Somehow, the prospect of other humans threatened everyone more than the hungry wildlife.) We made s’mores with friends at dusk, from a distance, a bag of marshmallows sitting next to a canister of Clorox wipes as the sun glinted off the water. The poetry of summer 2020.

Speaking of food: a moment for the teens at Sundae School who combine military precision with ballet-like grace and the attitude of a stern neighborhood crossing guard. Your chipper young ice cream scooper is now equipped with a mask, flashlight, reflective vest, and baton — and, sometimes, reinforced by police — so please tip accordingly. The outdoor lines stretched for blocks (nobody seemed to want to order inside, even though they could); everyone was masked and 6 feet apart, marked with taped X’s on the pavement like some kind of deranged choreography for a Broadway show. There was a sense of communal goodwill in the (germ-free?) air. When my rogue toddler scrambled across a filthy picnic table, a nearby diner chimed in.

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“I have Clorox wipes in my car,” she offered. I would have accepted them, except would I then need to Clorox her Clorox?

At Kream ‘N Kone in Dennis, there is a system: Phone in your seafood order, and they’ll call you back when ready. Do not enter the premises until summoned, and when you do, you’d best look like Hannibal Lecter — no mask, no service. A lobster roll tastes even better when you’ve prepped for it.

Pirate’s Cove in South Yarmouth, too, was a model of efficiency. Normally a free-for-all of sticky children and gaggles of families nipping at the heels of sluggish mini-golfers, now everyone kept their distance. There was no crowding, no antsy hoards clamoring to play through. This didn’t stop me from wiping down every ball and golf club, of course. I felt momentarily insane until I glanced toward the parking lot and spotted another parent doing the exact same thing. And at the Wellfleet Drive-In, the list of social distancing precautions was as long as the movie itself.

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Which is also why it’s nice to be home. Overall, we had a wonderful time. My kids had a blast. They didn’t complain about their masks or about my dousing them in Purell every hour. The beauty of the beach endured: a gauzy orange Truro sunset doesn’t know we’re in a pandemic. But in my own home, surrounded by my own germs, I could finally let down my guard. No more mental calculations of 6 feet versus 5 feet; no more droopy masks; no more Purell. No more worrying whether I infected someone or whether someone infected me. We’re all in a perpetual state of risk-benefit analysis. The benefits of going away definitely outweighed the risks, but it’s so nice to stop doing the math and to stop internally apologizing for trying to protect myself all while evaluating the danger of everyday situations that used to be so innocuous. In a pandemic, what is rational? What is paranoid? Where is my lobster roll?

Vacationing right now — going anywhere now — carries an undercurrent of awkward guilt. Occasionally, someone would come perilously close without a mask, and I was forced into fast mental gymnastics, calling up the endless diagrams I’d seen calculating danger: We were outdoors! Interaction was minimal! The clueless child who began spitting into the sand near our umbrella was likely fine; the unfortunate fellow who had a sneezing fit in a parked car several spaces down from us probably wasn’t possessed of industrial-strength aerosols. And, really, what would I say if he were? There is no etiquette handbook for a virus. For a society that is mostly kind, polite, and diplomatic, the thought of asking someone else to please stand back or to put on a mask requires a strong tropical drink. At the beach, it’s tough to make waves.

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Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.