Colonial Beach will open the stretches of sandy municipal beach it has along the Potomac River this Memorial Day weekend—but not quite as open as some hoped.
The town’s mayor, Eddie Blunt, said that after a conference call Wednesday with state officials, he’s able to announce that the beaches will now be open on weekends for the first time since being totally shut down early in the pandemic.
But instead of being open for each and all possible activities, as in Memorial Days past, the beaches that just this week reopened on weekdays will now be open seven days a week: but just for exercise or fishing.
Since Virginia Beach got a special dispensation from the governor to open its beachfront for most activities—with a list of restrictions—by Memorial Day weekend, Colonial Beach officials had been pushing for clarification on their options.
When the mayor and Town Manager Quinn Robertson spoke with Virginia’s secretary of natural resources on Wednesday, they learned Virginia Beach will be the only locality reopening this weekend for more than fishing and exercise.
Blunt said he appreciated and understood the guidance and guidelines from the state, but hinted that there’s a bit of wiggle room in just how you define the word “exercise.”
“There’s really, quite frankly, nothing definitive if you look at Gov. Northam’s order” pertaining to beaches, he said. “There’s nothing there that spells out exactly what exercising is. If you’re sitting in a beach chair moving your feet back and forth, is that exercise? I can’t really say.”
What Blunt and other town officials can explain with a great deal more specificity are plans put into place to keep visitors and town residents safe on, around and near its stretches of sand.
“We’ve decided to train what we are calling ‘Beach Ambassadors,’ who will have handouts that explain ways people need to behave to stay safe,” he said. “Included in the handouts are guidelines for things like the need for social distancing, that there can be no gatherings of 10 or more and other ways to stay safe.”
There will also be an increased police presence.
Blunt said town leaders are also ramping up sanitation and cleaning of bathrooms and bathhouses, and making available hand sanitizer and other items.
“People have been cooped up for a long time, and need to get out,” Blunt said. “We understand that, and are proud that members of our community have been patient about getting back out on the beach. They’ve done a really good job at being careful and being safe.”
Robertson, the town manager, noted that Colonial Beach has been focused on safety since it was one of the first localities to close its beaches early in the pandemic.
“That’s partly because so much of our population works or has contact with people in D.C. and in Northern Virginia, which were hot spots for the virus early,” he said, “We also did that because we have a high percentage of retirees and older citizens here in town—real concerns with the spread of the virus.”
And there were the visitors from Maryland.
“We had one weekend of really nice weather and a ton of Maryland vehicles ended up here because beaches there were closed,” said Robertson. “We were cognizant of the possibility of big spikes like that going forward.”
Matt Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, said he’s been talking to officials of several Virginia localities with beaches and understands why most are interested in reopening them for as many activities as possible.
He said Virginia Beach is getting special consideration because officials there have been working with state health officials since May 1 to come up with a plan with limits and controls on gathering and behavior.
“Generally, we’re looking to Phase II or the reopening plan for a broader beach access across the state,” said Strickler. “I’ve been working through the lists of localities with beaches and most folks seem comfortable with that.”
Strickler said it’s still a little unclear exactly when the next phase of reopenings will be rolled out.
“As has been the case for all reopenings, the numbers will dictate when it’s safe to move to the next phase,” he said. “The trends need to be moving in the right direction in terms of numbers of cases, hospitalizations and community spread.
“We’re looking at the phases in 14-day chunks,” he said. “Dependent on hitting the right thresholds, my guess is that we could be looking at an early June time frame for the next phase.”
Strickler said his definition of exercise when it comes to beaches can be anything from running to walking to yoga on a mat, as well as tossing a fishing line into the surf.
“But I wouldn’t say it would include going to the beach with your friends, chairs and a cooler,” he added.