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As Summer Nears, Seacoast Grapples With Extended COVID-19 Beach Closures

When New Hampshire reopens parts of its economy in the next couple of weeks, the public beaches on the Seacoast will stay closed. It's sparked debate in seaside towns like Rye over what restrictions are warranted.

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Last Sunday, on the first warm weekend of spring, the coastal Route 1A or Ocean Boulevard in Rye looked almost like nothing unusual was going on. There was a steady crawl of cars with windows down, motorcycles revving their engines, cyclists and pedestrians on the seawall. 

Rye Police Chief Kevin Walsh was out patrolling, trying to keep people off of the beaches and out of barricaded parking areas. 

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Pedestrians cross the closed parking lot at Jenness State Beach in Rye on May 3.

“Until people start to follow the mitigation plan, it’s not going to be healthy for us to open the beaches,” Walsh says.

In the past couple months, Walsh says his department has given out more than 260 parking tickets, plus 21 moving violations and, most recently, a handful of trespass notices for people on the sand.

He's been especially frustrated to see so many drivers from Massachusetts, which, like New Hampshire, is under a stay-at-home order in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. 

“If you're supposed to be sheltering in place and staying in your own neighborhoods – please think of somebody else,” Walsh says.

But not everyone thinks these closures are fair. Erik Cannon is a surfer from nearby Hampton. He says the state should treat the Seacoast beaches the same way as its other parks, which are still open.

“Getting outside and exercising has been listed as essential activity throughout this process. We just want to be able to practice our form of exercise, whether it's going for a walk on the beach, a run on the beach, going surfing, going swimming,” Cannon says. “All of those, we look at as part of the reasons why we chose to live on the Seacoast. How is that different than what anyone else is doing?" 

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Cars, cyclists and pedestrians travel along the Route 1A seawall on May 3, 2020.

Unlike some surfers, Cannon says he hasn't been breaking parking restrictions to try and catch a wave. He says he supports the parking ban, and he can ride his bike from home. He thinks that kind of beach use – by locals – should be allowed. 

“We do have to stay home, we have to stay in our communities, we have to minimize travel – which is exactly what we want to do,” Cannon says.

He and hundreds of others have sent a petition and letters to local and state officials, asking them to reopen the beaches for swimmers, surfers, joggers and walkers.

Massachusetts has allowed those “transitory” uses of its beaches throughout the pandemic, and New Hampshire state park officials have also floated the idea

Walsh, the Rye police chief, thinks that would be too hard to enforce – as would the idea of just opening the beaches to state residents. That will largely be the case at campgrounds and golf courses in the coming weeks

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
A state trooper speaks to two motorcyclists pulled over in a closed shoulder on Route 1A, May 3, 2020.

Other locals are skeptical of that solution too. Lobsterman Marc Tosiano was out last weekend unloading a vessel on Rye's commercial pier, and says he can't imagine how New Hampshire could keep Massachusetts residents away from its beaches. 

“What are you gonna do, put the National Guard at the state border?” Tosiano says. “One, I don't think we can do it. Number two, it'll just tick people off, and eventually we want them to come back when the economy's booming so they come up here and they spend their money up here in New Hampshire.”

This kind of economic strain is a big reason the state wants to reopen some businesses as much and as soon as possible. But that’s causing even more tension in towns like Rye. 

Last Sunday, the parking lot was packed at Petey’s Summertime Seafood, one of the only local clam shacks that’s stayed open for takeout. Owner Peter Aikens, Jr., says they're trying to make patrons wear masks and line up six feet apart.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Cars fill the lot of Petey's Summertime Seafood in Rye, May 3, 2020.

He thinks it should be up to his customers to handle it – he doesn't think the current beach and parking closures are effective.

“They gotta open up [Route] 1A,” Aikens says. “People are gonna park somewhere – they’re getting back on the road with alcohol to go and food in the car, and they're doing it behind the wheel. It’s ridiculous.”

Aikens guesses he's losing hundreds of thousands of dollars running only his to-go window. But at the same time, he knows more visitors from points south are on their way – no matter the restrictions.

“Memorial Day's coming, Mother's Day – after that, it's time, people are coming. It's hard to stop,” he says. “Hopefully people will stay their distance and everything will be fine.”

Aikens wants to see the beaches and parking areas reopen. He says his town's economy may depend on it. 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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