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No sunbathing or sand castles? What to know before you go to the beach

Should you wear a mask? Can you catch the virus in the water? Experts weigh in.
/ Source: TODAY

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer as usual, but it won’t be the usual trip to the beach in the age of the coronavirus.

Some shores are still closed. At those that have reopened, beach goers may face a wide variety of new rules.

Being outside and enjoying nature is good for physical and mental health, so opening up is important — as long as people remember how the virus is transmitted and continue to take precautions, said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“Going to a beach unfortunately lulls us into this sense of normality, particularly if around you, people are just acting like nothing is going on,” Levine told TODAY.

“We can’t assume that we’re back to normal, because we’re not… we still have no treatment and no vaccine and therefore, this virus can still cause disease and death.”

Even though there's much more space to be 6 feet apart, the concern is people spend much more time at the beach and socialize more, said NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres.

“With some people, alcohol is involved and once you start drinking, it is easy to say, ‘Hey, I’m just going to go say hi to my friend real quick, I don’t need this mask, I can hug my buddy, it’s going to be OK,’” Torres noted. “That is the concern with a lot of experts.”

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself:

Is it safe to go to the beach right now?

Yes, as long as people stay away from each other, said Dr. Joseph Vinetz, an infectious disease doctor at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

“No mosh pits at the beach,” he advised. “The beach is fine, outside exercise is fine — you just have to stay away from closely packed people.”

Both Vinetz and Levine noted that the virus is diluted outdoors where there’s a lot of air circulation. Plus, ultraviolet light from the sun inactivates the virus quickly.

But people at risk for the severe form of COVID-19 — those over 65 or with underlying health conditions — should think twice about going to a beach where it may be hard to control physical distancing, Levine said. Anyone with symptoms should also stay home.

Follow the guidelines at your local beach

Restrictions may differ widely.

New York City beaches are closed, for example, but those run by the state will begin to open Friday — at 50% capacity, with added precautions and mandated social distancing. Organized games and contact sports will be prohibited. Beaches in New Jersey and Connecticut will have similar restrictions.

In California, Los Angeles County beaches reopened May 13 for activities like swimming, surfing, jogging and walking — but not sunbathing, picnicking or volleyball. Orange County has banned sand castles, umbrellas and grills.

Florida and South Carolina reopened parts of the coast in April, but some communities have strict rules. Naples, Florida, for example, allows walking, running, swimming, fishing and paddle boarding, but prohibits chairs, tents, umbrellas or coolers on the beach on weekend mornings.

Beware of choke points

The shore itself offers a lot of open space. Getting there is another story. The parking lot and entry ramps to beaches where people have to funnel in and out could be very crowded.

“If you’re going to go to a beach and you see that the parking lot is full and the beach is jammed, I would say turn around and go home or find another beach,” Levine said. “Because if you cannot maintain your physical distancing, then you’re putting yourself at risk or you might be a carrier and potentially putting other people at risk.”

Social distancing is still key

Keep at least 6 feet away from people who are not part of your household. The drill should be familiar by now: The virus is spread primarily through close contact with people who are infected. They may not show any symptoms.

“If people don’t stay away from each other, then all bets are off,” Vinetz warned. “If people are close together, talking together, shouting together or singing together in close proximity, that’s clearly a risk for getting an infection.”

Assume everybody is infected, even though few people actually are.

Have a face covering available

It’s usually not necessary to have a face covering on when there’s nobody very nearby (unless local rules require it all the time), but have a mask handy to put on at any moment — in those crowded choke points or when others get too close for comfort, Levine advised.

“If you see groups of people coming at you, it might be good to mask up at that point,” she said.

Keep social distancing in the water

The general thinking right now is that it’s safe to swim in open water, which will dilute the virus, Levine noted.

But infected people may release the virus into the water if they submerge their face so it’s best not to swim very near someone, said Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology and immunology at The University of Arizona in Tucson.

As a general rule, don’t swallow the water — not just to potentially avoid COVID-19 but also because of pollution and water-borne diseases.

Bring wipes and hand sanitizer with you

Have the option to clean your hands after touching a surface that others have frequently touched, like the lock of a stall in a public bathroom. Wipe down any rental beach equipment — like shared lounge chairs or umbrellas — though it’s best to avoid using such communal items in the first place.

Remember: We're all in this together

"It's not just about doing it for yourself, it's about us being part of a cohesive community that dealing collaboratively against a really difficult issue — something that we don't know how long we'll have to live with," Levine said.

Don’t forget about sun safety

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a good reminder to use sunscreen, shade and protective clothing to shield yourself from UV radiation. There's concern people are so focused on coronavirus that they will forget about the other potential health hazards, Levine said.