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Reopening the beaches

Galveston has opened its beaches again.

Galveston beaches were reopened to pedestrians Monday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. after being closed for nearly a month due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The Galveston City Council voted 4-3 on the partial reopening on April 23, allowing people to surf, swim, fish and access the jetties during these hours. The beaches will remain closed all other hours. Vehicular traffic and the setting up of chairs, tents or beach picnics will still be prohibited, with beachgoers required to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing.

Ever since the city of Galveston closed its beaches on March 29, many residents have complained about no longer having a vital outdoor recreational space, especially since the city also shut down local parks and playgrounds in an effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. The fact that the city acted to close beaches independent of coastline managed by Galveston County or other localities like Jamaica Beach created scenarios where Galveston residents who wanted a day of surf and sand could still hop the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula or drive across San Luis Pass to Brazoria County, where beaches also remained open.

The staggered beach openings came to a head on Saturday and Sunday, when traffic for the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula extended from the ferry landing all the way to the seawall and peninsula beaches were significantly more crowded as a result.

Darrell Apffel, a Galveston County commissioner whose precinct includes Bolivar Peninsula, said local law enforcement had eight two-person teams patrolling the peninsula and enforcing social distancing. He said he was not concerned about keeping peninsula beaches open while Galveston beaches are closed because law-enforcement officers are well- equipped to handle crowd control on beaches.

“These large crowds are still not to the tune of Jeep Weekend or Memorial Day,” Apffel said. “They’re large crowds in the sense that people got out and enjoyed the beautiful weather.”

You can get a peek at what Bolivar looks like here. As with eating in restaurants, I’m not ready to hit the sands any time soon. However, I have sympathy for the people who want the outdoors outlet, especially if other parks are closed at this time. Henry Grabar makes the case for beaches as a low-risk way to let people be outside again, with the mental and physical health benefits that brings.

Until we are able to halt widespread community transmission and begin testing and contact tracing, it’s too soon to “reopen” the economy in the way Donald Trump envisions. But we can get more Americans—and even businesses—safely outdoors.

Those Florida beaches aren’t so different from Central and Prospect parks in New York City. Frederick Law Olmsted’s two “green lungs,” the American city’s quintessential public health infrastructure, are offering New Yorkers critical physical and mental respite during their city’s darkest hour. And why not?

“I would not worry about walking by someone,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “Even in a health care setting, contact is defined by being near someone for a certain amount of time. I would not worry about these fleeting encounters. The virus isn’t airborne—droplets need to get from one person to another.”

The issue, Adalja added, is that beaches tend to be places where people don’t keep their distance. Any additional open spaces where people interact even in passing, he added, create the potential for new cases.

But what little we know about the coronavirus suggests you have little to fear from brief encounters with other human beings outside. Dr. Edward Nardell, an airborne-infection specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said outdoor transmission was “possible but improbable.”

“It bugs me to see these restrictions on people being outside,” Nardell said. “Mental health means something as well, and I can’t imagine you’re in a better place than outside if you’re going to have any contact anywhere.” Nardell, who survived a recent battle with COVID-19, said that if he were in Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s shoes, he would go ahead with opening the state’s beaches—but with strong signage reminding people to keep their distance and under park ranger supervision.

Nardell’s colleague Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist, wrote a more general case for public spaces in the Washington Post last week.* “Closing parks and public gardens should be a temporary, last-resort measure for disease control,” he and his co-authors wrote. “The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.” Wear a mask, keep your distance, have a ball.

Grabar spoke about this and added some more data on a recent episode of The Gist. What stood out to me was his statement that contact tracers basically ignore people’s encounters with passersby on the streets, in part because they have no way of tracking them down short of ubiquitous cellphone location tracking, and in part because they deem the risk of transmission to be negligible. As I said, it’s not for me at this time, but I buy the idea that this is worthwhile, as long as social distancing is still being observed.

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3 Comments

  1. Joel says:

    Florida beaches reopened awhile back. What do their data say about the result?

  2. brad says:

    Data says surge in confirmed coronavirus cases. More death.

    Anyone surprised?

  3. […] here for some background. I can’t wait for some local Hotze to file a lawsuit claiming that […]