How beaches are preparing for Memorial Day during the pandemic

Originally Published: 21 MAY 20 16:53 ET

(CNN) — Memorial Day marks the symbolic start of summer with its barbecues, outdoor gatherings with friends and trips to the beach.

But this weekend, with the novel coronavirus still spreading throughout the United States, most beaches have issued social distancing restrictions and capacity limits, a sort of middle ground to allow people to venture out while still trying to mitigate the virus’s spread.

The risk is not about the beach itself but about the gatherings, health experts say.

“Going to an uncrowded beach with your social cohort or ‘quaranteam’ can be a safe and fun experience,” Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious diseases specialist at Columbia University, said in an email last month. “The challenge is limiting the number of people on the beach so social distancing can be done.”

Beach-adjacent locations like picnic areas, public bathrooms, volleyball courts, retail shops, restaurants, bars and public transportation will have more people and so could pose risks. Workers in those locations for hours on end could be at higher risk, too.

On an individual level, health experts have recommended washing your hands with soap, staying at least 6 feet from others, wearing a mask, and avoiding enclosed spaces for a prolonged time. On a community level, experts have said that testing, contact tracing, sufficient hospital bed space, and low hospitalization rates all help limit the consequences of any positive cases.

Here’s what some of the most popular beaches in New York, New Jersey, Florida and California are doing this Memorial Day weekend.

Capacity limits and mask-wearing

Several coastal states and beach communities plan to open beaches while limiting the number of people who can go.

In a joint announcement, the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware announced that public and private beaches will open Friday with certain restrictions

“A trip to the beach is a treasured past time for New Jerseyans on Memorial Day weekend just as it is for residents in our neighboring states,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said. “By aligning our social distancing policies for beaches, we can bring some semblance of a ‘new normal’ to our region ahead of the first weekend of the summer season.”

Murphy said that state beaches must limit the number of visitors allowed there while maintaining 6-feet social distancing. The restrictions will be enforced except for family groups, household caretakers or couples.

Shower pavilions, changing areas and restrooms will also reopen at beaches. But organized contact sports, events and beachfront summer special events like concerts, festivals and fireworks will be prohibited. Restaurants must continue to offer take-out and delivery options only, while amusement parks, playgrounds and visitor centers will remain closed.

Masks, Murphy said, are recommended but not required.

“We are not ordering it but we highly recommend that you wear a face covering, particularly when social distancing is difficult to maintain, such as while waiting in line for a slice of boardwalk pizza,” he said.

New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, will have slightly stricter rules. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that masks will be required when not able to social distance, gathering areas like picnic benches will be closed, and there will be no concessions. Beaches will be limited to 50% capacity, a number that he said could be reached by 10 or 11 a.m. on Monday.

In New York City, beaches will be closed for swimming and there will be no lifeguards on duty, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. Still, he said people will be allowed to walk on the beach — but the beaches could be fenced off if social distancing isn’t followed.

Beaches in neighboring communities, including Long Island, have expressed concern that city residents will leave the city and venture to one of the open beaches.

“My advice to people is to keep it simple, keep it local, less is more,” de Blasio said Thursday.

Some Florida beaches are still closed

Most Florida beaches are open, but beaches in Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade County, two of the hardest hit areas in the state, will remain closed. In much of the rest of the state, beaches are open with social distancing restrictions in place.

While Fort Lauderdale beaches are closed, lifeguards are still working in case of emergencies and as beach bouncers, CNN affiliate WPLG reported last month.

“We do help the police department enforce the beach closure,” said Chief Alex O’Connor of Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue. “People do try to sneak on, they are getting stir crazy. It’s been a month since the beach has been closed so people want to get out here.”

In Jacksonville Beach, restaurants saw large crowds when they reopened at a lower capacity earlier this month, CNN affiliate WJXT reported.

Similarly, in California, most beaches are open but with some restrictions in place.

For example, beaches in Los Angeles County are open for active use like walking, running or swimming, but sunbathing, picnicking and organized sports are not allowed. In addition, people will have to stay more than 6 feet from other groups, and face coverings must be worn when out of the water and around others.

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