As the weather warms, Californians will likely feel the urge to flock to the beach and dip their toes in the water. And in most places, they’ll be allowed to.
Despite concerns about overcrowding on the Southern California coast, Gov. Gavin Newsom did not move to close all state beaches Thursday. But he did order Orange County beaches to shut down.
Over the past few weeks the governor has introduced steps the state would need to take to reopen, and a phased approach for how that might happen. Newsom said the state would need to increase its daily testing capacity to more than 60,000 a day before lifting some restrictions.
Public health experts say whether people can hit the beach comes down to how crowded a given beach is. When people are less than six feet from one another, the virus can easily spread through droplets in the air. As counties make decisions about which types of outdoor recreation to green-light, health officials are paying special attention to crowded waterfronts.
Dr. Lee Riley, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley, said over-full beaches are an example of “a breakdown in maintaining social distancing.”
“The whole point is really to avoid crowds and crowding, and avoid people you don’t really know,” he said. “If you say ‘you can do these things’, people will do it, especially as the weather gets better.”
Restrictions on outdoor areas are already beginning to lift. While bathrooms, picnic areas and parking lots are closed at many state and county parks, trails have mostly been fair game.
In Sacramento County, spokesperson Ken Casparis says waterfronts at county parks will remain open, including the beaches along the American River. And he says picnic areas are becoming available May 1 as part of the county's updated stay-at-home order, but only to people eating with members of their household. Park activities such as boating, tennis and disc golf are newly allowed.
He says summertime river rafting will be off limits because “it’s impossible to properly social distance.”
“People need outdoor activity,” he said. “They need fresh air, sunlight, exercise. We kept the parks open to give people who might not have an area to enjoy the outdoors in, to give them an area to be in during the public health order.”
But Bela Matyas, public health officer for Solano County, said parks should only be used for exercise.
“The concept of inviting people to the park by virtue of it being open for business is what we’ve been trying to avoid, because that’s a signal to gather,” he said.
Solano is considering bringing back activities such as tennis. But he says swimming and sunbathing are a different story.
“There are a number of leisure activities that in theory would pose no risk of transmission if handled correctly,” Matyas said. “It’s a little bit tougher to contemplate how to do that with a beach … when they’re in the water, there’s no way of assuring that they stay physically separate. It’s a less controlled environment, especially when it involves families with children.”
As far as beaches go, Casparis says rangers are onsite to monitor overcrowding and are prepared to close them down if they become too packed. He says last weekend they had to close the lot at Tiscornia Park, which is located near downtown at a confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.
Dean Winslow, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University, said the risk of spreading COVID-19 at a beach is “significantly lower” than being in a crowded indoor space, but that “the risk is not zero.”
“A strong breeze, that ideal ventilation that you’d have at the beach, is a good situation for actually dissipating and evaporating these droplets,” he said.
He says people can go to beaches with their families, but they should aim for uncrowded beaches, and stay away from others.
“Ultimately it really does boil down to the density of people within a fairly small area,” he said.
Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, or widespread diagnostic testing, public health experts say social distancing guidelines should stay in place. Because anyone can be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, the best way to prevent a spike in illness, and reduce impact to the health care system, is to physically separate yourself from anyone not in your household.
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