Less than a week out from Memorial Day, usually one of the biggest beach weekends of the year, Jersey Shore beaches are beginning to reopen.
But Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley urges all Philadelphians not to go.
“Don’t go to the beach,” Farley said. “It’s very tempting. You might have gone to the beach every Memorial Day Weekend for years. But this is not the time to do that.”
Gov. Tom Wolf was recently quoted saying that he won’t be headed to the beach anytime soon, and anyone who goes to a place where people aren’t wearing masks puts themselves at risk of contracting the virus.
“I’m not sure why the governors of Maryland and New Jersey have opened their beaches,” the governor said, “but they have.”
There are a lot of reasons not to go right now — to stay home and get your exercise done closer to where you live. Medical experts weigh in that it’s just too soon.
“We’re still seeing a lot of patients coming to the hospitals who are sick. We’re not back to normal by any stretch,” said Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of infection prevention and control for Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “So this becomes a matter of weighing that risk with your mental health benefits of getting out.”
If you do decided to head down the Shore during the coronavirus pandemic, here’s what you should know.
What’s open and what’s allowed?
It depends. Not all beaches are open, but more are beginning to welcome visitors, which not everyone thinks is a good idea.
What you’re allowed to do there is another story. Currently, which activities are permitted vary from beach to beach, and all of them require social distancing.
“Remember, in the absence of a vaccine, or even proven therapeutics for #COVID19, our only cure is social distancing,” said Murphy after announcing on Twitter the 30-day extension of the state’s public health emergency.
Many beaches are only open for exercise, which is allowed under stay-at-home orders as an essential activity. These include those in Avalon, Ventnor, Margate, Cape May City, Long Beach Island, and Stone Harbor. What’s allowed? Activities like running, walking, and fishing. Wildwood Crest is open for exercising, and also reopened its bike path and basketball and tennis courts.
Wildwood and North Wildwood were among the first beaches to reopen for people to sit — so sunbathing, reading, and laying on a blanket are all possible. (This was never restricted in Atlantic City.) No large groups are permitted — a mandate for all beaches right now. And again, you have to stay at least six feet away from others at all times, which could get challenging if a lot of people start showing up.
As with Atlantic City, the Wildwood and North Wildwood boardwalk will also be open for running, walking, biking, and any other activities where you can follow social distancing rules. Some restaurants are open for takeout.
As of May 16, beaches at Sea Isle, Ocean City, and Strathmere will be open for sitting and laying out, but swimming is prohibited. Ocean City’s boardwalk is also open. Beach patrols will return to the three beach areas on Memorial Day, when swimming will be allowed to resume.
Delaware will lift restrictions on the state’s beaches on May 22 at 5 p.m. Beachgoers must follow social distancing guidelines, and face coverings will be required on boardwalks. Masks are also encouraged on the beach.
Am I allowed to travel to the beach?
You’re not supposed to. If you’re in a county, like Philadelphia, where stay-at-home orders are still in place, you’re supposed to stay home unless traveling for an essential reason.
The reason: Staying home is still the best way to keep from getting sick and from getting other people sick. Flattening the curve and keeping it flat will mean that restrictions can be lifted sooner.
Yet you won’t get pulled over if you do decide to head to the beach. But if you do, it’s at your own risk, said Wolf. The governor acknowledged that the commonwealth can lay down as many rules as it wants, but ultimately it’s residents who are going to make their own decisions about traveling.
“We’ve got to keep in mind this is not any formal governmental injunction. This is a virus,” Wolf said. “If we ignore the virus, we do so at our peril.”
» READ MORE: Social distancing dos and don’ts
Going is not risk-free. Remember: You can have the coronavirus and spread it even if you don’t show symptoms. And if you choose to travel, you should be careful to follow social distancing guidelines: wear a mask (and at the very least, have one on you), stay away from others, wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face.
One important thing to remember: Going to the beach isn’t just going to the beach. You may stop for gas, need to use a restroom, or encounter other people in the parking lot. And all of those are opportunities to get infected or infect others.
You’ll want to bring a bottle of hand sanitizer in your car — which might be useful before you even arrive.
“At the gas station, again, you want to maintain distance, and I’d wear a face mask and have a bottle of alcohol sanitizer in the car to use after,” said Sachinwalla.
Can I hang out with friends at the beach?
It’s not a good idea. With so much still unknown about the coronavirus, it’s better to be cautious. And until official restrictions are lifted, experts advise against hangouts with friends who live outside of your household, even if you stay six feet away from each other.
Adding other people to a beach trip increases risk to you and to them. Even if you do stay six feet apart, it’s easy to accidentally touch the same objects, like the cooler, which can lead to spreading the virus. Add alcohol into the equation and those chances become even higher.
“How well are you realistically able to social distance? You might initially think you’ll just sit far apart from one another, but there’s always a potential to drift,” said Sachinwalla.
Are bathrooms open and safe?
Bathrooms will be open at some beaches. But because they are another time you will come into contact with people and high-touch surfaces, better abide by the “go before you go” motto, and try to avoid them if you can.
“If you really have to go, wear a mask, clean your hands carefully, and avoid touching surfaces that you don’t need to,” said Sachinwalla.
Use a paper towel to turn all bathroom doorknobs and faucets, and apply an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after you exit.
Can I wash my hands in the ocean?
If you don’t have sanitizer, will the ocean’s saltwater do the job? Don’t rely on it.
“Soap has detergents that help get the virus off your hands,” said Sachinwalla. “Is the ocean better than nothing? Probably, but an alcohol-based hand rub is your next best bet.”
Is it safe to swim?
We don’t know. Scientists don’t know how the virus behaves in saltwater. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not addressed swimming in the ocean (but confirms that the virus has not been detected in drinking water). The CDC also says there’s no evidence that the virus can be spread to people through water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas that follow proper operation and maintenance standards. But we’re still learning about the virus, so there could be a risk.
While the risk of swimming in the ocean is unknown, many experts say the biggest concern at the beach is the crowds.
“There are still a fair amount of new cases being diagnosed every day, and when you’re around other people, your chances of getting infected are simply increased,” said Sachinwalla.
Do heat, humidity, and sunlight affect the spread of coronavirus?
We don’t know this either. Scientists are working on these questions, but right now, the evidence is somewhere between mixed and murky.
So is it safe to go?
The answer is complicated, but one thing’s for sure: Don’t expect it to feel like last summer.
“This isn’t going to be the normal beach weekend, where you’re setting up those big popup tents and camping out for a whole day with multiple families,” said Sachinwalla.
If you do go, Sachinwalla advises to make it a quick trip, spend most of your time walking or exercising, and keep a mask with you in case socially distancing becomes challenging. If you do want to lounge (in areas where it’s permitted), social distancing is key — which means if beaches start to become packed, get yourself out of there.