Updated May 21
With Memorial Day close at hand, beachgoers will find themselves in atmospheres unlike anything experienced on the Vineyard before. Friends and family together on towels, under umbrellas, or on folding chairs will be spaced differently. Dozens gathered to enjoy a bonfire or clambake will be the stuff of last summer’s memories. And forget the pale silhouette of your sunglasses: Facemask tan lines are going to be the new reality. Volleyball on the sand? That’s just not going to happen.
As Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian put it, it’s fine to “run, swim, surf,” but “but no congregating.”
The novel coronavirus has not quite become the shark in “Jaws,” but themes from that film might be at play. The tourist-dependent economy of the Vineyard has certainly struggled to ramp up after being menaced by something unseen from Mother Nature. While restrictions on hotels and restaurants are still in place, the draw of beaches could help to jump-start the season and get folks out of the doldrums of their homes.
Several Vineyard towns, notably the down-Island ones, haven’t been game to articulate how to get people onto the beaches safely, and instead have waited for Gov. Charlie Baker’s office to hand down beach guidelines. Those guidelines came Tuesday.
Brian Packish, chair of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, was underwhelmed by the guidelines, and described them as “about as clear as a glass of mud.”
The guidelines, which in many places rehash previously issued guidelines, call for anyone over the age of 2 years old to wear a mask if they can’t maintain a distance of six feet from other people. A minimum distance of 12 feet is recommended for blanket and towel areas on beaches. They forbid groups of more than 10 people. Games and sports such as “volleyball, Kan Jam, spikeball, football, soccer, Kadima, and bocce” are prohibited.
“Parking lots, people entering the beach, or other factors should be managed, if necessary, to limit beach capacity to accommodate adequate social distancing based on an assessment by the beach manager,” the guidelines state.
West Tisbury had a few beach regulations in place before the Baker administration guidelines were announced. Among them, the town sought to regulate the path to Lambert’s Cove from early May.
At Lambert’s Cove Beach, “people are required to wear a mask and remain single-file while on the path,” the town rule states. “On the beach, a mask is required if the six-feet social-distancing requirement cannot be maintained.”
Tuesday afternoon, several people walking that path followed the rules the town set forth. However, one group of three young men walked shoulder to shoulder instead of single-file while heading out to the beach, and none wore masks. West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson, who later arrived at the beach to spot-monitor, said the place has been busy on weekends. He noted the parking spaces have been reduced by 50 percent. And while notices were posted along the path reminding folks to social distance, Johnson said, a large sign will be installed shortly at the head of the path to make that message more visible.
“All of our beaches, including Norton Point, are currently open to pedestrians,” Trustees of the Reservations stewardship manager Chris Kennedy said. He added that overland vehicles are permitted back on certain beaches too. “The Trustees follows the state guidelines requiring all our visitors to wear masks when in parking lots, going to and from the beach, and when social distancing at six feet cannot be maintained,” Sam Hart, Trustees of the Reservations director for Nantucket and the Vineyard said.
Tisbury DPW director Kirk Metell said Tisbury has no signage up yet, and “no rules in place yet.”
He said he hoped to hash out some proposals with Tisbury health agent Maura Valley to bring to the board of health and the board of selectmen, ahead of the lifeguards’ arrival on Memorial Day. That hasn’t happened yet. But Metell later said a Porta Potty and hand-sanitizing station will be placed at Tashmoo Beach.
“We’re going to make our rules based on what the governor says,” Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty said ahead of Baker’s announcement. Following it, he said he expected the town would follow those guidelines.
Chilmark selectman Bill Rossi described pandemic beach rules as “a fluid situation.”
Much like West Tisbury, he said, he expects the town to “scale back capacity in terms of cars and capacity to some degree.” That transpired with a 50 percent reduction in beach parking spaces.
Beach committee chair Clarissa Allen told Chilmark selectmen Tuesday night that officials are wondering whether further actions should be taken at the beaches to create social distancing. Allen said the idea of alternating days based on license plate numbers or parking stickers is being weighed.
Dukes County has yet to adopt rules for its beaches, including State Beach.
In late April, county manager Martina Thornton pitched Department of Conservation and Recreation rules for its beach properties.
Those rules permitted “passive recreational activities that only involve transitory movement — walking, jogging, running, etc. And for solitary beach fishing.”
They prohibited “sitting, sunbathing, and other stationary recreational activities,” along with athletic and other recreational activities “that bring participants into close physical contact.”
The commissioners were undecided on what rules to impose, and have not implemented any.
Commissioner ChristineTodd advocated for uniform regulations for all Vineyard beaches.
“It’s insane to expect our community to adhere to [different] rules on every beach,” she said.
Updated to add comment from Sam Hart. — Ed.