If Memorial Day weekend was the country's first taste of how to mix summer vacation with coronavirus, the fourth of July weekend is about to bring the issue to a head. As America gears up to celebrate the holiday weekend, coronavirus cases are rising again.
In places like Los Angeles County, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach, that means closing beaches for the weekend. But in places where beaches remain open, there are ways to attend safely, within reason.
The risk of getting the coronavirus outdoors remains lower than getting it indoors, explains Charles Gerba, a professor of virology at the University of Arizona. But beaches may close because they're places where crowds may congregate.
"It's about the density of people," he tells Inverse.
Los Angeles' County justifies the closure of beaches, piers, parking lots and bike paths "to prevent overcrowding." In a statement announcing the closure of beaches in Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said that "the only prudent thing to do to tamp down this recent uptick is to crack down on recreational activities that put our overall community at higher risk."
In places where beaches remain open, the key to lowering the risk is to stay as far away from people as possible.
Gerba walked Inverse through a few things to consider if you're planning a legal beach day.
In places where the beach is closed, there's just one tip: stay home.
1. Take social distancing even more seriously – Social distancing means staying at least 6 feet away from the next person. In the case of a crowded beach, Gerba suggests setting up camp at least 12 feet away from the next group of people. That's to account for the fact that people often move around within their own picnic areas.
That also means putting a pause on group sports at the beach. Often that's specified in state or county-specific beach reopening guidelines. For instance, over Memorial Day weekend, New York's beaches reopened for swimming but group sports like football or volleyball were still prohibited.
Gerba also advises that social distancing applies offshore as well:
"Just looking at the news media, people are spaced out on the beaches more than they are in the water. You can still sneeze and cough on someone if you're in the water," he says.
(That said, the water-based transmission of Covid-19 is not a huge concern, he notes).
2. Avoid highly trafficked areas – In a typical urban beach, there may be crowded parking lots, narrow paths that lead to the beach or other gathering areas like boardwalks. Those are the places to avoid, says Gerba.
Simply put: "don't go to the snack bar area," he says.
That also includes avoiding the public restroom, if it's open. If there's no avoiding the restroom, Gerba suggests bringing hand sanitizer.
3. Wear a face covering, or bring one – In some places, like Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, it is now mandatory to wear a face-covering while on land, but not in the ocean. Gerba also suggests wearing a face covering while on land, especially if there's absolutely no way to avoid a crowd.
"That's about the best you can do – but try to stay far away from people," he says.
Pete Stauffer is the Environmental Director of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal advocacy group that has been working with communities to reopen beaches safely. He seconds the importance of wearing masks on land, but not at sea:
"Masks should not be worn in the water, but physical distancing should still be practiced,” he tells Inverse.
"Don't go to the snack bar area."
4. Bring your own drinks and snacks – In order to best avoid places where people may congregate, Gerba suggests planning ahead: if you plan to stay at the beach bring your own food and drinks to avoid standing in lines.
In some situations, setting up a picnic may not be the best way to visit the beach in the first place.
It depends on the beach in question, but some beaches may only be open for recreational activities only. That was the case in Santa Monica in early May. Guidance released by the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal advocacy group that has been working with communities to reopen beaches, advises that in those cases, it's best to keep moving. Solitary sports like running, surfing or swimming are fine, but setting up a picnic is not.
The best way to know if your beach is open to all kinds of activities is simple: start with googling your local beach, says Stauffer.
5. Know when it's just too crowded – Because population density is the biggest factor, it's important to be open to leaving the beach if it's clear that social distancing is impossible.
"From what I saw in the pictures from California and Florida, I was surprised at how many people were on those beaches," says Gerba. Sometimes a packed parking lot sends a clear message: social distancing may not be possible.
"If you find yourself at an overcrowded beach, we recommend seeking alternatives that may be less crowded," says Stauffer.
Sometimes, a beach is simply too crowded to risk it, and it's worth trying again another day.