Race, wealth and public spaces: US beaches are a new flashpoint of the lockdown

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As Florida’s beaches shut down in April, part of the state’s pandemic stay-at-home order, Josh Davis noticed something strange in Palm Beach county.

“A lot of that beach crowd just kind of moved on to the road and the sidewalk. People set up lawn chairs on the grass,” said Davis, an ocean rescue lifeguard with the county. “If the goal was to keep people from congregating, all it did was really push them a few feet away.”

On Monday, when the beach officially reopened, it remained calm. Beachgoers trickled in, keeping their distance from each other, though not usually wearing masks. Davis was relieved.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, beaches – like testing and lockdowns – have become a polarizing issue. When photographs of a newly opened and crowded Jacksonville Beach in northern Florida flooded social media, critics tweeted #FloridaMorons. In New York City, residents are angry at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s previous decision to keep city beaches closed during Memorial Day weekend.

Beaches tend to evoke more reaction and anger than parks and other public spaces. It’s in large part, experts say, because the US shoreline is increasingly private, and controlled by fewer, and richer, people.

“We went from a time, prior to WWII, where much of American shorelines were treated as public land, to a frenzy of privatization where the shoreline was gobbled up,” said Andrew Kahrl, a professor at the University of Virginia who wrote The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South.

Earlier in the 19th century, US beaches were largely public and inhabited by working-class coastal communities, many of them African American watermen, Kahrl said. The coastline wasn’t coveted property, since it was hard to maintain in the face of natural forces like hurricanes and high tide, and it was groups like the Gullah, who were the keepers.

By 1970, however, over 95% of US coastlines suitable for recreation were closed to the general public. To add to those restrictions, many municipalities imposed parking fees and tolled roads to limit entry.

The result is that our public beaches have become smaller and more crowded, while a small group of affluent elite hold the keys to the rest of the coastline. “The public’s ability to enjoy the shoreline has decreased in direct proportion to our increasing inequality,” Kahrl said.

During the pandemic, this dichotomy has become even more obvious. Public health officials promote exercise and fresh air during citywide lockdowns, and virologists have said it’s largely safe to be outside as long as people observe physical distancing. But, as the Guardian reported earlier this week, 100 million Americans, especially people of color and poor communities, don’t have access to a decent park or public space, which includes beaches.

Neighborhoods in New York suffer from this lack of access, said Meg Walker, an architect with the Project for Public Spaces, including many of the neighborhoods in the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx that were hit hardest by Covid-19. “There’s many people in these densely populated neighborhoods who have high asthma rates and poor air quality,” she said, risk factors for the virus.

Walker also pointed out that public beaches, even more than parks, tend to bring together people of different backgrounds, especially around holidays. The diversity on a public beach lies in stark contrast to that of a privately owned beach, which tends to skew white and upper class.

The increased policing on beaches burdens black communities, who are more likely to have tense interactions with law enforcement. Already this year, in Los Angeles and Miami, the NAACP raised an alarm when black beachgoers were reportedly aggressively accosted by police.

During the pandemic beaches have been caught in the political divide between Republican states that have loosened restrictions early and Democrat-run states, who have been far more cautious. In this case, states like Florida and South Carolina, which have long coastlines and Republican governors, opened their beaches as people in the north-east, governed by Democrats, remained at home.

Now, as many communities in the north-east start to open up, they have decided to keep their shores closed to outsiders. In Connecticut, home to what Kahrl calls the country’s most “exclusionary coastline“, beaches are requiring residential passes to park near the shore. In Long Island, a cluster of suburbs near New York City, county officials have made it clear that people from the city are not welcome.

Oyster Bay, a quiet hamlet on Long Island with private beaches, normally allows non-residents to visit the beach on weekdays, but not on weekends. Throughout the pandemic, however, all of its beaches have remained closed to outsiders.

Joseph Saladino, the Oyster Bay supervisor, said the hamlet has erected barriers at the local train station, and entry points to the beach to make sure that only residents can enter. “We understand the beach offers a place for recreation but also an emotional renewal of sorts,” Saladino said. But he said the restrictions were necessary to keep the capacity under 50%, and protect the residents who pay taxes in Oyster Bay.

Public space advocates agree there is a real risk of beachgoers posing a threat to public health – young people in Miami during spring break in March, for example, ended up spreading Covid-19 to other parts of the country because the beaches were completely unregulated and had no distancing restrictions.

Unlike parks, many beaches have also been at least partly closed throughout the lockdown, and when they open people might seize the opportunity in droves. “I think there will be a flood of users,” Walker said.

But the solution, she said, is not restricting access to beaches. It’s continuing to open more public spaces, like pedestrian roadways, and coming up with community-driven, creative ways to remind people to take precautions. In Detroit, for example, there was a project to open urban beaches for residents. And Walker pointed out artists making public health signs instead of law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Davis in Palm Beach was preparing for a surge of Memorial Day beach visitors because public beaches in nearby Miami and Broward counties remained closed.

“We’re wondering what it’s going to look like this weekend,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned we’re still maintaining our primary objective – making sure people are physical distancing.”

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