'Free again': New Yorkers, virus in mind, head back to their beaches

New York opened its beaches for swimming on July 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - After more than a month of closed beaches - and pitched battles over access to the ocean - Rachel Thompson, a schoolteacher, finally frolicked in the surf at Rockaway Beach in Queens.

"Yay!" she said. "It feels fantastic to have Rockaway open, to have lifeguards so kids can swim safe."

New York, transformed by the coronavirus and the protests in support of Black Lives Matter, has been cooped up, and a good, old-fashioned swim "takes the edge off", Ms Thompson, 45, said.

She was at Rockaway on Wednesday (July 1) as New York City opened its beaches for swimming - just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, when even more people are expected to pack the sand.

Still, several beach-goers that morning, Ms Thompson included, were feeling a bit jittery about the city's gradual reopening.

An hour after the ban on swimming was lifted, the mayor announced that indoor dining at restaurants would not resume Monday as anticipated, citing the virus' rapid spread in other large states.

Even as Ms Thompson shed her face mask, she called it sensible to slow down indoor dining. "Out here, there is a breeze," she said. "You know, there's air moving."

Mayor Bill de Blasio, worried that large crowds might risk transmission of the coronavirus, had kept the city's 14 miles (22km) of beaches closed even as temperatures rose - along with frustration from long-quarantined New Yorkers.

"This is something people have been waiting patiently for - maybe not always patiently for - but it's here," Mr de Blasio said at his Wednesday news briefing.

The mayor also said that in late July the city would open 15 of its 53 free outdoor pools in communities "hit hardest" by the virus and furthest from beaches.

It was a partial reversal of his announcement in April that the pools, a vital cooling option in many lower-income neighbourhoods, would not open.

Even as suburban beaches opened for swimming on Memorial Day weekend, Mr de Blasio emphasised that the city's beaches - which include such well-known spots as Coney Island in Brooklyn and Orchard Beach in the Bronx - were uniquely vulnerable to virus transmission.

With an estimated one million visitors total on a hot day, they are some of the country's most crowded shorelines, and people largely access them via subways and buses.

The beaches at Coney Island were only partially full Friday morning, and the water was even less crowded.

Ms Olga Vlasenko, 35, a home health aide, splashed around in a black swimsuit and a pink New York Yankees hat.

"It's wonderful, I feel that I'm cooling off, refreshed, that I have a little more freedom," she said.

However, the spectre of the coronavirus kept her, "a little bit nervous", she said.

"But we keep distance," she said. "You can see we don't crowd each other."

Brighton Beach was more crowded with sunbathers and swimmers than Coney Island on Friday, which made it more challenging for Mr Paul Hirschorn to swim with his four-year-old daughter, who asked him repeatedly about sharks.

"There's no sharks, sweetheart," he said as she played in the surf. The horror movie was not Jaws but Contagion. "It's not as comfortable as it would be without Covid," said Mr Hirschorn, 38, a chief technical officer who lives in Brighton Beach.

"It feels just quasi-normal."

On Wednesday at Rockaway Beach, the air smelled of sea salt and suntan lotion before thunderstorms rolled in.

Mr Ed Westley, 76, of Queens, took his first swim of the season and saw a pod of dolphins breach and frolic in the water.

Mr Kasey Gustaveson, 18, a surfer from Queens, said that being in the water, "you feel like corona never happened".

Still, worries lingered about a possible backslide in New York state, where, after reining in the virus, there have been a few alarming outbreaks, such as those at a house party and graduation party in the suburbs just north of the city.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is requiring visitors from more than a dozen states, including the nation's three largest - California, Florida and Texas - to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in New York.

"I just hope it's safe. We'll see how it plays out," said Mr Dragan Jenovac, 53, a crane operator from Queens visiting Rockaway Beach on Wednesday.

"I'm a little concerned it's coming back."

Nearby, Mr Sal Cirone, 38, a baker from Queens, said the beach afforded him the opportunity to shed his mask and gloves and feel "somewhat normal".

"We're in the open," he said. "We're not really next to anybody."

Still, he said of the pandemic, "It's always in the back of your mind."

As the first deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Parks, Mr Liam Kavanagh put it, "The beaches are going to look different from what they normally do."

Lifeguards will patrol the shoreline in masks and carry waist packs containing a face mask, gloves and hand sanitiser.

Hundreds of city workers, deployed as social distancing ambassadors, will hand out masks, keep space between beach-goers, tally beach-goers to prevent overcrowding, tend beach entrances to limit capacity and, if necessary, direct people to less crowded sections.

Beach-goers must keep at least 6ft (1.8m) apart and wear face coverings when on the sand or the boardwalk.

"We don't want it to turn into heavy-handed enforcement," Mr Kavanagh said, adding that education, not discipline, was the goal.

Restrooms will operate at half-capacity, and boardwalk concessions must offer to-go service only.

In May, when the city was an epicentre of the outbreak and still under lockdown, Mr de Blasio, citing concerns that crowds could lead to the spread of the virus, said beaches would not open for bathing but would be available for limited visits by local residents.

Once the mayor hinted, around Memorial Day, that beaches might open late, "it turned into a sprint" to open the beaches, Mr Kavanagh said, and city officials began working furiously behind the scenes to prepare for a possible opening.

Beach preparations typically begin in January with the recruitment, training and certification of lifeguards, and expand in March with beach preparations.

"All that was thrown up in the air because of the coronavirus pandemic," Mr Kavanagh said.

A main challenge was coming up with enough lifeguards to open beaches before the Fourth of July, said Mr Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the union that represents parks workers.

"You don't just flip a switch and open the beaches," he said.

Finally, the city certified 512 lifeguards.

More than 600 are usually employed, Mr Garrido said, and this season's shortage could mean a reduction in swimming areas.

But Mr Kavanagh said: "There's plenty of space for everyone. There's plenty of ocean and there's room to spread out."

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