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How Beach Towns Are Preparing for the Summer Swell

Popular destinations look to balance protecting livelihoods and lives

Outer Banks beach houses

Barry Winiker/Getty Images

Beachfront homes in Nags Head, NC.

En español | A small cluster of businesspeople stood by the bridge in Kitty Hawk that carries mainlanders to North Carolina's Outer Banks, holding signs saying “Welcome Back” and “Happy to See You.” Their point on this Monday morning in early May: to express appreciation for the out-of-towners heading back to the bucolic beach destination to get their vacation homes ready for summer.

The summer-home owners had been prevented from visiting since March 20, when the county closed itself off to outsiders due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Officials and residents in the Outer Banks and other summer hot spots across the country — from Cape Cod to Wisconsin's Door County — are trying to find ways to accommodate economy-sustaining visitors while maintaining the safety of both tourists and locals concerned that the crowds will lead to more cases of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend Americans “stay home as much as possible” and “don't travel if you are sick or travel with someone who is sick.”

But that guidance may not stop top beach destinations from seeing a swell in population this weekend and in the summer weeks that follow.

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Emphasizing the need for visitors to follow rules for mask wearing and physical distancing, officials note that allowances for activity in their regions will be scaled back if visitors don't follow the rules meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"We really need people to be following the [county's] public health guidelines,” says state Sen. Julian Cyr, representing Cape Cod in Massachusetts, which has been hit particularly hard by the outbreak (with about 88,000 cases and 6,000 deaths). For those who don't follow the rules, he adds, “not only are you actually putting yourself and your own family members and other people at risk, but you're also putting the economic viability of an entire region at risk."

It's anyone's guess whether visitors to these summer havens will take the restrictions seriously. Alisa Justice, 46, who's heading to the Outer Banks with her family for a week in mid-June, says that she certainly will — and that renting a home makes it easy to follow social distancing guidelines. “You are secluded and you have full control of your environment,” says Justice, 46, who lives in Westminster, Maryland, and will be joined by her husband, three teenage children, three of their children's friends, her mother, her in-laws and the family's dog in a five-bedroom house with pool that she booked last November. They've rented bikes, kayaks and paddleboards that will be delivered to the house, located on the sound in the town of Corolla, before they even arrive: “The plan really is to stay at home, cook at home, maybe get some takeout once in a while,” Justice says. “We're going to be very responsible."

Here's how four popular beach destinations are trying to keep both their economies afloat and COVID-19 at bay.

families purchase ice cream from a boat on shore in Cape Cod

William DeSousa-Mauk

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Cape Cod makes most of its annual $1.3 billion in tourist revenue in the summer. But the area's 213,000 permanent residents include a large number of retirees, many of whom are concerned about catching the coronavirus if the usual hordes of visitors from New York, Boston and beyond descend on their small villages. In April, some residents unsuccessfully petitioned authorities to prohibit nonresidents, even homeowners, from crossing the two bridges that lead to the cape from mainland Massachusetts.

As a result, there's been no small pressure on health officials in Barnstable County, which governs the cape, to “save lives and livelihoods,” as Cyr, a member of the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, put it in a media call this week.

On May 18, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a four-phase reopening plan, with each phase expected to last at least three weeks. It's now in the first phase, which includes allowing some manufacturing to start up again and houses of worship to reopen. Phase two — when short-term rentals and hotels will again be able to accept guests and restaurants can allow seated dining — won't begin until June 8 at the earliest, and will depend on keeping the numbers of COVID-19 cases down. (By May 19, Barnstable County had tallied 1,177 cases and 96 coronavirus-related deaths.)

The rules: Beaches, including Cape Cod National Seashore, have been open and will remain so, though many public restrooms are not. And visitors will be asked to keep a 6-foot distance when they're walking to the beach or where they'll be sitting on the beach, as well as a 12-foot space between different groups’ blankets and towels. Groups of more than 10 aren't allowed to gather on the beach, or anywhere in Massachusetts.

Visitors and residents alike are expected to cover their nose and mouth when they can't be apart from others; wash their hands and surfaces often; maintain distance from others; and stay vigilant to symptoms that might indicate illness. Restaurants are takeout only.

people riding horses along Cape Hatteras

Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

Outer Banks, North Carolina

Residents in North Carolina's Dare County, home to the Outer Banks — a 200-mile string of barrier islands dotted with small villages — found out May 6 that non-homeowners would be able to visit beginning May 16. Since then, “It's been gangbusters” for the vacation home rental market, says Doug Brindley, 63, who runs a rental agency, Brindley Beach Vacations, based in Corolla. He notes that while he's had a huge number of cancellations — 600 in recent months — for the 4,000 properties he manages, the company is now receiving a surge of requests to rent many of the prime beachfront homes that normally would need to have been booked a year in advance.

But some of the 58,000 or so full-time resident are not thrilled by the prospect of possibly infected mainlanders arriving on their pristine shores. Newspapers reported that some visitors in cars with out-of-state plates had received flyers under their windshields saying, “The residents of Dare County do not want you or anyone from out of state here during this pandemic!”

Business owners like Brindley insist that the naysayers are in the minority, and point out how easy it is for visitors to spread out safely. “We're perfectly situated for having to social distance,” says Brindley, noting the miles of beachfront peppered with small, low-density communities, including the 70-mile-long Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is open to visitors with some restrictions. And there may be reassurance in the fact that nearly all visitors arrive by car — a less risky form of transportation, when it comes to transmitting the coronavirus, than airplanes or trains.

The rules: With North Carolina also still in phase one of reopening, restaurant service on the Outer Banks is still takeout only. On beaches, officials request that visitors maintain the usual 6 feet between themselves and others. In the next week, restroom facilities will open at the Wright Brothers pavilion and Cape Hatteras beach, and lifeguard services will be offered at some popular beaches, including Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Beach, Frisco Beach and Ocracoke Beach.

The National Park Service site for the seashore, which you can check for status updates, asks people to “remember the 3 Ws": wear, wait and wash (wear masks, wait 6 feet apart, wash hands thoroughly).

beach chair on a deck along shore in Door County

Destination Door County/

Door County, Wisconsin

A charming summer destination on a rural thumb-shaped peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, Door County sees more than 2.5 million visitors every year -— many from the Chicago and Milwaukee areas, and most during summer and early fall. Though the county is currently under safer-at-home orders, residents are awaiting new guidelines from the state (part of the Badger Bounce Back Plan) this week, according to Jon Jarosh, the Destination Door County's director of communications, who adds that social distancing will remain a must. Jarosh says that the tourism board surveyed the recipients of its newsletter, and that 87 percent of the 10,000 respondents said they'd be willing to wear face masks while visiting.

There so far have been 33 positive cases of COVID-19 and three deaths from it among the 27,000 residents of Door County, and residents, naturally, hope to keep it that way.

The rules: Much of the safety precautions here follow the more general advice given by the CDC about social distancing. There are no specific regulations for visiting the area's more than 50 public beaches, for instance, beyond the CDC advisories. The same goes for bike trails and parks. Restaurants are offering only takeout service, but many plan to set up well-spaced outdoor seating, says Jarosh, depending on how state regulations evolve.

Some hotels are voluntarily adding infection-prevention measures to protect and reassure staff and guests. Greg Stillman, whose company Foremost Management oversees four hotels in Door County, says their new procedures include requiring employees to wear face masks, installing partitions between guests and staff at check-in, setting up hand sanitizer stations for guests as soon as they enter the lobby, eliminating daily room cleaning, and maintaining a 24-hour period between guests in each room to allow for thorough disinfecting.

It will definitely be a different experience for any returning visitors, says Stillman: “We're trying to adjust expectations.”

People get out on a cold blustery day to walk the Ocean City, MD boardwalk

The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ocean City, Maryland

Ocean City, Maryland, is a classic beach town centered on a 3-mile-long boardwalk lined with french fry and frozen custard stands and arcades, with hotels and condos towering above. Home to 7,100 year-round residents within its 4.5 square miles, it sees 8 million visitors in a normal year.

Day-trippers already have been pouring in; one gorgeous sunny day brought crowds of people, many in masks, and a long line of customers waiting — at 6-foot intervals marked with orange cones — for greasy goodness at the landmark Thrashers French Fries, says Jessica Waters, communications manager for the Ocean City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We are really encouraging people to practice physical distancing and be respectful of the people that are around them,” she adds. “I think that personal responsibility is certainly going to go a long way this summer, not only in Ocean City, but across the country."

The rules: The city is gradually loosening its coronavirus restrictions: Gov. Larry Hogan's Roadmap to Recovery now allows for Maryland's beaches to open. Ocean City's beach and boardwalk opened to visitors May 9, and on May 14 Mayor Rick Meehan announced the lifting of the prohibition on nonessential visitors in hotels, home rentals and other short-term lodging. The city is still prohibiting social gatherings of more than 10 people — a statewide regulation — and seating at restaurants will be prohibited until the state enters stage two, which will occur only if there is no spike in cases.

Restaurants are getting ready for the loosened restrictions by voluntarily implementing new safety measures: Buxy's Salty Dog Saloon, a sports bar and restaurant that's a favorite of Pittsburgh Steelers fans, has installed plexiglass between booths, for instance, and some carryout places have added plexiglass dividers between customers and cashiers.

Meanwhile, miniature golf and other family amusements familiar to Ocean City tourists remain closed. “It's a different way of doing business here in town,” says Worcester County Commission President Joe Mitrecic, “so when [people] come here they'll have to understand that.”

Any other advice he'd offer prospective visitors? “If they don't feel well, stay home."

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