Is It Safe to Go to the Beach This Summer? Experts Weigh In (Video)
If a beach is open near you, here's what you need to know before you hit the sand.
Undeniably, there is one travel story that’s top of mind right now: When can we get outside? Of course, we haven’t forgotten about getting on planes and back to our favorite hotels, but for the present, escaping even 20 minutes away and getting some much-needed vitamin D and a change of scenery is sounding wholly appealing to sequestered travelers.
With summer on the horizon, and stay at home measures starting to lift ever so slightly in some areas, heading to the beach has started to become an actual possibility. Beaches in the coastal states are in the process of welcoming guests (slowly and distantly) back to their powdery, soft-sanded shores. However, they are doing so with serious safety regulations in place and the overarching reminder that practicing social distancing in the era of COVID-19 is still crucial.
Under ordinary circumstances, we’d be first in line to the beaches, hats and umbrellas in hand, and sunscreen pre-applied. But in light of coronavirus, we want to exercise extreme caution while still supporting local tourism efforts (when possible to do so safely). Here are all the questions you have about health safety at the beach this summer, answered.
Is It Safe to Go to the Beach This Summer?
We consulted experts from both Harvard Medical School and Keck School of Medicine of USC to understand the health implications of heading to the beach. Harvard medical professor James Whitney, PhD, says it’s safe to head to the beach, but only “with a lot of precautionary measures that no one would normally want to undertake at the beach.”
He thinks it’s a good idea if you can follow social distancing and hygiene best practices (including wearing a mask at all times). “Sunlight is good for you; vitamin D is important for a healthy immune system,” says Professor Whitney. “But you should wear masks even if that gives you a bit of an unusual tan line.”
Professor Whitney says that while keeping distance at the beach is crucial, figuring out how to get there safely is just as important. “Avoid public transportation in general if it's feasible. If you can go in your private family car, that’s a much better idea,” he said.
Dr. Armand Dorian, MD, chief medical officer and emergency medicine physician of USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, agrees that “it is important for physical and mental health to find ways to go outside for fresh air.”
That being said, he reminds the public: “Until there is a vaccine, people are ultimately safer at home. If you are going outside, do not gather in crowds.”
The name of the game, in terms of trying to ensure your health and the health of others, is to keep six feet of distance, wear a mask, and frequently wash your hands. “The virus is transmitted through droplets released when people breathe, cough, or talk, and may linger in the air or travel an estimated distance of six feet before landing on surfaces or dropping,” says Dr. Dorian, a message that it’s important to reiterate as we start engaging in outdoor activities again.
Ultimately, beachgoers need to remember that visiting the “beaches [is] possible because hospitals are projected to manage COVID-19 cases, but it does not mean the virus has gone away,” says Dr. Dorian.
How to Prepare for a Beach Getaway, and What to Know in Advance
First, it’s important to understand that we are all in phases of staying at home and reopening, and no phase is likely to be permanent. That principle applies to visiting the beach and other outdoor areas, as well. Local governments are routinely evaluating the situation, and while beaches are currently open with distancing protocols in place, that’s subject to change at any time. Jeffrey Vasser, executive director at New Jersey Division of Travel & Tourism, says that as tourists and residents of the Jersey Shore start heading to the beach, “Governor [Phil] Murphy, alongside local law enforcement, will be actively monitoring conditions and compliance at New Jersey’s beaches, similar to how they are continuing to do at state parks and golf courses.”
Vasser says this continued evaluation is essential for the health of the state and will help “determine the best course of action and if [the beaches] can remain open.”
And as Professor Whitney brought up, it’s not just about behavior when at the beach — it’s about how the public gets to the beach. Professor Whitney advocates for only “going to the beach as a family unit.”
Of course, he’s not saying you can only go to the beach with your immediate family members. He’s encouraging us to only head to the beach with a small unit of people, preferably those you share a home with. By “vacationing in mini cells of people” and “keeping only to your family unit,” you’re reducing your chance of exposure. To get to the beach, he advocates driving in the family unit’s private car.
If you want to make a weekend of heading to the beach, the next question of course becomes, where are you staying? We’re, of course, eager to return to our favorite nearby hotels for staycations, but it’s best to do so only after you’ve verified the hotel’s COVID-19 hygiene policies. Montage Laguna Beach, a property with direct access to the beach, is welcoming guests back to the resort, as their beachfront is “now open for exercise seven days a week,” says general manager Anne-Marie Houston.
That being said, Houston stresses that while they have a “tremendous amount of enquiries across the summer” from guests itching to check into the Montage Laguna Beach ocean view rooms, they are “implementing an enhanced prescriptive health and safety protocol program” all based on the guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and recommendations from medical experts. As part of their heightened health and safety offerings, the hotel will offer complimentary hand sanitizer and masks for all guests.
Advice for When You’re at the Beach This Summer
Consider walking along the beach rather than sunbathing.
“When people walk along the beach, social distancing and wearing masks to limit air droplets, the risks of catching or spreading the virus are low,” says Dr. Dorian. “However, when people sunbathe in one spot for a long time, especially when the beach is crowded, they are at higher risk for coming in contact with these droplets and could be infected if someone around them has COVID-19.”
Set an example and be responsible.
Vasser says the state of New Jersey is depending on residents and tourists to “enjoy responsibly.” He wants visitors to follow social distancing protocols, saying, “We are looking to each visitor and member of the local community to be responsible and follow the guidelines set by Governor Murphy and the CDC.”
Seek out less congested beach spots.
Dr. Dorian’s concern isn’t with getting outside, which he encourages, but rather with the possible crowds heading to the beaches “with many people experiencing ‘quarantine fatigue.’” He says that, ultimately, “crowds make social distancing difficult and puts people at risk of infection.” Therefore, if you do want to lay out in the sun, make sure to scope out a spot far away from other people (other than those in your family unit).
Skip the beach volleyball and exercise extreme caution when swimming.
As of now, the CDC says to not “participate in organized activities or sports.” The CDC specifically advises against things like recreational sports, because organized activity usually requires “athletes who are not from the same household or living unit to be in close proximity, which increases their potential for exposure to COVID-19.”
Wear a mask, don’t touch your face, wash your hands, and keep social distancing.
As Dr. Dorian said, the way to transmit the virus is through airborne droplets, so the best thing to do is maintain six feet of distance and always wear a mask — even if, as Professor Whitney points out, it gives you some questionable-looking tanlines. And don’t forget the all-too-common but no less crucial refrain: “Avoid touching your face and wash your hands thoroughly before eating or entering your home.”
Eat outside and don’t share food.
One of the best parts of heading to the beach is indulging in the quintessential beach snacks, whether that’s grabbing a burger, fries, and a shake from the kiosk by the pier, or going out to a seafood dinner. Obviously, that’s less of a possibility this year, though many beachside restaurants will be open for socially distant takeout. Professor Whitney says if you want to (and are able to) dine in at a restaurant, “Outdoor dining is a much better idea. Try to be distant from other folks using the restaurant and facilities.” He advises only eating with the “mini cell of people” you’re vacationing with, and to maximize social distancing whether eating in or taking out. Finally, he reminds diners to avoid the temptation to share food.
States Reopening Their Beaches Near You
Is there a beach open near you? And if so, what rules must you adhere to when visiting? Keep in mind, every beach may have its own policies — some will require masks, others are just for active use (swimming, walking, fishing, and surfing), and many have closed their parking lots. Below is a list of the states with beaches in various stages of reopening.
Beaches in many parts of Florida reopened — with restrictions — starting at the beginning of May. Some counties waited until right before Memorial Day Weekend, while other counties, like Palm Beach, opted to only open some of their beaches. However, Miami-Dade County has not opened their beaches yet, and they’re currently hoping to reopen some beaches and hotels on June 1.
As of now, New York City beaches are closed. On Long Island, Jones Beach State Park and a handful of other beaches will be open to the public, while select beaches will be open to residents only, including Long Beach and Nickerson Beach in Nassau County. Capacity restrictions will also be enforced. A few beaches in Westchester County — Playland and Croton Point — are now open, though only to residents.
North Carolina and South Carolina
North Carolina and South Carolina beaches are open. They even started to lift restrictions ahead of Memorial Day Weekend. Some counties are opening select beachside parking lots (which were previously closed to discourage crowding) and are starting to allow short-term rentals on the beach.
“Beachgoers and families can gather together but must remain six feet apart from other groups while on the beaches,” says Vasser. “These precautions are to ensure we are all promoting and maintaining social distancing while also enjoying the Jersey Shore.” Masks are recommended but not required on the New Jersey beaches and boardwalks. Vasser says rules will vary by beach — some will limit beach tags or have additional regulations put in place by local authorities.
Beaches across California are tentatively reopening with restrictions in place. Los Angeles County beaches just opened as of May 14, while in Orange County, they are extending beach hours as of Memorial Day Weekend. The LA County beaches are open for active use only, which means the public can’t picnic or set up beach chairs in the sand. Some popular piers and walking routes (like The Strand) remain closed, as do the parking lots surrounding Los Angeles beaches. Reduced beach hours has become a popular practice in California; In the Bay Area, Santa Cruz County is only allowing access to the beach between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island have all opened select beaches with restrictions, with New Hampshire tentatively looking to reopen some of its beaches as of June 1. Massachusetts requires masks and for beachgoers to come in groups of less than 10 people. Rhode Island will not allow access to public bathrooms or changing rooms, and there will be no life guards or open concession stands.