Beach Towns Are Reopening Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

While the coronavirus pandemic has had negative effects on all parts of society, it has especially devastated beach towns because they rely heavily on the tourism industry to survive.

When measures like physical distancing are maintained, going to the beach is not a particularly dangerous activity in terms of coronavirus transmission. The issue is that many of the activities typically associated with beach vacations such as partying, eating at bars and restaurants, walking on crowded boardwalks, and going to entertainment destinations like arcades and amusement parks can easily transmit the coronavirus. At the same time, tourist traffic from many of these activities is crucial to beach communities’ economies, with businesses at risk of going bankrupt if restrictions are put into place. Because of these factors, it has been difficult for beach towns and cities to strike a balance between coronavirus safety and economic health. Different beach towns have taken drastically different approaches to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

With the onset of the coronavirus, at first, beach towns closed beaches entirely. This was an incredibly popular approach at the beginning of the pandemic when little was known about the virus. Initially, even when beaches were open, people were afraid of visiting them. The early closings also had little effect on the beach town’s finances because March and April are not part of most American beach towns’ peak season, which happens between Memorial Day in May and Labor Day in September. Some beach communities even went as far as cutting access from visitors entirely. For example, in mid-March, Dare County, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, set up checkpoints on the two bridges connecting the county to the mainland; only locals were allowed to cross the bridges.

While closing off access to beaches and beach towns worked at preventing coronavirus transmission, these measures proved to be unsustainable for local economies. In Dare County, the placement of these checkpoints faced pushback from business owners and prospective vacationers alike, leading to their removal in early May. Overall, while closing beaches entirely is a responsible tactic, it was not widely supported or adopted because of the problems it creates for businesses and tourists. That being said, as coronavirus cases surged throughout much of the country, some governors, such as California’s Gavin Newsom have resorted to ordering beach closures again, even in the middle of peak tourist season.

Checkpoint leading to Dare County in March (Kari Pugh/OBX today)

The second approach beach towns took to address the coronavirus was partially reopening beaches and the amenities around them. This involves allowing visitors onto the beach, but with mandatory mask policies where social distancing can’t be maintained. Restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues are either closed or open with capacity restrictions, which vary on a case by case basis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many towns reopened their beaches to only runners, bikers, and exercise swimmers, preventing people from spending too long at the beach and crowding it. Restrictions were progressively eased in most beach towns throughout the U.S.

At this point, practically every beach town in the U.S. has adopted some version of a partial reopening, however, the success of these reopenings varies widely from town to town. In less dense beach communities, where accommodation is mainly through vacation homes, rather than hotels and apartments, the beaches are never really full enough for social distancing to be impossible, so coronavirus transmission stays low. Also, because of accommodation in houses, people don’t come into as much contact with others outside the beach. Meanwhile, in denser, often more party-oriented beaches, many of these social distancing measures have been far harder to follow, due to the sheer number of prospective beachgoers and crowded housing. This has resulted in a drastic disparity of coronavirus transmission rates between these two types of beach settings. For example, during the period from Aug. 1-Aug. 7, Virginia Beach, a dense beach with many buildings, bars, and restaurants, recorded an average daily caseload of 19 per 100,000 inhabitants, while nearby Dare County, North Carolina recorded an average daily caseload of just 3 per 100,000 inhabitants, even as both places applied similar mask-wearing and social distancing policies.

Monday, June 29, 2020, in Virginia Beach (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Enforcement measures of physical distancing and mask-wearing policies are also an issue. While some cities have deployed successful enforcement measures, like North Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, which has been using drones to make sure people are physically distanced, others haven’t been enforcing physical distancing and mask-wearing policies at all. As a result, beachgoers haven’t been observing social distancing rules or wearing masks.

In many of the counties where beaches have reopened without any significant enforcement of anti-coronavirus transmission policies, cases have surged. For example, in Miami Beach, where mask-wearing enforcement has been lacking, coronavirus cases have reached a whopping daily average caseload of 43 per 100,000 inhabitants over the week of Aug. 1-Aug. 7 .

Overall, most beach towns have had reasonably similar responses to the coronavirus, with various policies aimed at slowing coronavirus spread. However, the success of these responses has been mixed, with adherence to the aforementioned policies varying widely from town to town, largely as a result of stark contrasts in different municipalities’ densities, as well as their enforcement practices for these policies. This has led to drastic discrepancies in coronavirus transmission rates between different beach towns.

As the coronavirus progresses, it may be necessary to take more drastic measures in more of the popular beaches experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases, such as closing beaches entirely. Perhaps officials also need to monitor all beaches to prevent danger to public health.. Either way, this year’s beach season will end soon, so coronavirus transmission in beaches will not be a significant problem for too long. Businesses, however, will not be out of the woods.

Even though there were crowds of people seen at beaches this season, the outcome was still far smaller than prior years, with businesses’ revenues significantly lower, something that many establishments did not prepare for. Fortunately, federal aid packages promise to help support businesses, possibly saving many of them from bankruptcy..

In any case, as a coronavirus vaccine remains on the horizon, we can only hope for a relatively normal 2021 beach season.

Through Teen Lenses: Should beaches be open during a pandemic? What steps do you think beach towns should take to keep people and the economy healthy?

“ I think that beaches are a big part of summer fun and people should still be allowed to go right now, because the beach is technically “outside in nature.” However, I also think that the number of people should be somehow limited so that people can still safely social distance while they’re at the beach. Maybe the entrances to beaches could be monitored or something like that and then if the number of people at the beach fills the “max capacity” of the area, then people would wait until some of the people currently at the beach left and it was their turn to go in. I also think that businesses should file for federal support or smth so that they can support themselves with their decreased business.” – Rachel Huang, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School, Alexandria, Virginia
“A lot of people use the beach for healthy things, like running, yoga, etc… A beach is [generally] an area with a lot of people, especially considering the time of year that we’re in… I think they should create regulations on so-called [less essential] beach activities like swimming [which generally take up more time at the beach]” – Nikhil Kuntipuram, 14, Rising Freshman at South Lakes High School, Reston, Virginia
“I think towns should close down attractions including beaches, and businesses in danger of going bankrupt should receive monetary support from the federal government.” – P. Agrawala, 15, Rising Sophomore at Oakton High School, Oakton, Virginia