(Courtesy of Old Saybrook Parks and Recreation)

Town Leaders Along the Shoreline Mull Beach Closures as Summer Approaches

With sunny days and temperatures in the 60s forecast for this weekend, towns around the region are facing decisions on whether to keep their beachfront parks open against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are struggling with what to do with our beaches,” East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson told his town’s Board of Education at a Thursday night Zoom meeting. “We’ll figure out something in the next couple of days. We’re going to see how the weekend goes. Beaches around us from both sides — Waterford and Old Lyme — have closed. The state’s [beaches and parks] are staying open. We’re moving in the direction [of] probably resident-only beaches through the season once we start collecting beach passes, but we’re struggling through that. That will be some of the toughest decisions that we make.”

Currently in East Lyme, the town’s beaches remain open, but foot traffic on the town’s main boardwalk is limited to one direction, according to an announcement from Nickerson earlier this month.

“Please understand that failure to follow this directive may result in the closure of the boardwalk until the COVID-19 virus is behind us,” reads the statement on the town’s web page.

In Brendon P. Leydon v. Town of Greenwich (2001), the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the first article of the state constitution prohibit municipalities from prohibiting out-of-towners from using municipal parks and beaches, although several shoreline towns in Connecticut charge out-of-town residents more than double (or more than five times as much in the case of Westport) for beach passes than they do town residents.

Old Lyme’s First Selectman Timothy Griswold announced earlier this week that Old Lyme will close its public beaches effective Saturday. Griswold’s decision comes weeks after Waterford indefinitely closed its community center, parks, and recreation programs.

“Using history as a guide, we believe that leaving the beaches open would severely compromise our social distancing practices and therefore we must close the beaches in order to protect the health of our residents and the general public,” reads the Wednesday night announcement from Griswold’s office.

Griswold’s announcement said that the town government would not regulate the activities of Old Lyme’s private beach associations at this time, but added that town staff does “urge private owners to be vigilant and ensure social distancing procedures are in place and followed.”

Frank Pappalardo, chair of Old Lyme’s Sound View Commission, emphasized in a Thursday phone interview that this “wasn’t a targeting” of Sound View Beach and also covers the town’s two other public beaches: Hains Park and White Sands Beach.

“Whether you believe it’s an overabundance of caution or there’s a legitimacy to it, this is happening and it’s happening all around the country… I think it was a difficult decision for the selectmen to make and I understand why they made the decision as they did. There may be some other ways of accommodating [social] distancing in the future so we’re just going to have to see how it plays out,” Pappalardo said.

Pappalardo added that there will still be parking spaces open for visitors to the businesses on Hartford Avenue, but he acknowledged that this season is likely to be hard on those businesses, especially if the closures — and resulting drop in foot traffic — continue into the summer. 

“The businesses down there pretty much have to make the bulk of their sales for the year in eight to ten weeks starting on Memorial Day,” Pappalardo said.

Old Saybrook First Selectman cautions “the few” not to “spoil it for the many”

In neighboring Old Saybrook, beaches and parks remain open, but First Selectman Carl Fortuna said in a Thursday email that this depends on all visitors to the beach respecting “the greater good” by wearing face masks and following social distancing.

“If the Governor’s Executive Orders on social distancing and/or face mask wearing are not followed, the few will spoil it for the many and it is possible we will have to close the beaches for a period of time,” Fortuna wrote.

He noted that hospitalizations related to the virus in Connecticut have trended downward now for seven days.

“The stronger this trend becomes, the sooner our town and state will be able to open up our businesses. We may not all agree with what the Governor has ordered but we must live it until the order is lifted. A cooperative public in the month of May will lead to a far more regular summer in June, July and August,” Fortuna wrote.

In Groton, Director of Parks and Recreation Mark Berry said by email Thursday that the town’s open spaces, fields within parks, and trails remain open, but the town’s senior center, skatepark, playground, tennis courts, basketball courts, and picnic areas are closed.

The town’s community gardens are open, but Berry said gardeners have been “reminded about safe practices [and] Common touch points (shovels/wheelbarrows etc.) have been removed.” The town’s Esker Point Beach is open at least while the use is lower during the spring, but he said “we are considering deploying Park Ambassadors to monitor some recreational facilities as they gradually reopen to ensure compliance with Executive Orders.”