Holiday draws crowds to beaches set to reopen

05/27/2020

Visitors to the coast, undeterred by signs warning of closed beaches, streamed into West Marin over Memorial Day weekend, encouraged by 80-degree weather and clear blue skies. 

With most parking lots closed, drivers parked wherever they could, lining the highway and clogging neighborhood streets. But soon towns will no longer bear the full load of visitation: Beaches and coastal parks are set to reopen on Monday as part of Marin’s phased recovery plan. Details of what exactly will reopen, and how, are not finalized, but land managers are preparing to allow vehicle traffic once the county gives the green light. 

Summer camps, office spaces and outdoor retail will also be allowed to open on June 1, as long as business owners fill out a site-specific protection plan and follow guidelines that will be posted at MarinRecovers.com.

Last weekend was the first in more than two months that stores could open for curbside retail, though visitors were more interested in eating than in shopping. Lines at the oyster farms on Tomales Bay saw hundreds of people, and grocery stores managed steady crowds outside. Visitors found creative ways to access the beach, setting up chairs and laying blankets in unusual spots.

Stinson Beach was particularly overwhelmed by travelers parking in town and walking to the beach. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper coming from the south, cars lined the highway north past Stinson Beach School, and some neighborhood streets were reduced to one way by illegal parking. Visitors left behind trash, relieved themselves on private property, and most people were not social distancing or wearing masks, Stinson Beach fire chief Kenny Stevens said. Worried that illegal parking could block a fire hydrant or prevent first responders from accessing an emergency, Chief Stevens believes the 1,200-spot Stinson Beach parking lot should be opened, since visitors come regardless. On Monday morning, he filled four trash bags with litter.

“These people, they don’t have any respect for our area,” he said. “I’m surprised we haven’t had any fistfights.” 

Sergio Vergara, the co-owner of Stinson Beach Market, said he closed his grocery early because of the risk to his employees. He limits capacity to 10 customers at a time, with one shopper per group.

“We enforce a lot of rules and C.D.C. guidelines, so inside the store everything is beautiful,” he said. “Downtown Stinson Beach, the beach itself, it is just chaos—trash, people without masks, no social distancing, drinking alcohol. The parks are packed.”

Deputies with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office issued 369 parking citations from Friday through Monday, bringing the total number of citations to 1,658 since parking restrictions began.

Even with the traffic, shops that reopened saw far less business than usual. At Live Water Surf Shop, income was down roughly 75 percent compared to a usual weekend, manager Kimmy Haines said. At Stinson Beach Books, local customers have been calling owner Bonnie Sullivan to buy specific books, but the people who like to browse can’t look around. Without those customers, Ms. Sullivan said business is unsustainable.

Shops in Point Reyes Station are in the same boat. Most have signs on their doors to call to arrange a purchase, and the few that did reopen with tables out front did not come close to making enough money to sustain the business. 

David Clarkson, the owner of Point Reyes Jeweler, sold about $100 worth of jewelry on Sunday, though he normally earns between $500 and $800. At Susan Hayes Handwovens, income was down 80 percent compared to last Memorial Day weekend, owner Kim Wallach said. 

Still, she said shoppers were grateful to be shopping again, and both she and Mr. Clarkson are hopeful more customers will come through when the Point Reyes National Seashore fully reopens. “But it’s hard to gauge how they’re going to spend,” Ms. Wallach said.

Governor Gavin Newsom has allowed some counties to permit indoor retail, but Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer, said that the county will not follow suit just yet, as the county is still favoring outdoor activity for its lower risk of transmission. 

For businesses preparing to open, Marin has created a site-specific protection plan template. All businesses are required to fill out the nine-page form before reopening, with a grace period for those already operating. The document includes several checklists pertaining to physical distancing guidelines, cleaning protocols and individual health screenings. Business owners must name who is responsible for implementing the plan, describe training practices and create schedules for disinfecting high traffic areas. Businesses can reopen when their industry is allowed to, as long as the completed form is posted at the entrance of the worksite.

Marin is moving at a cadence of relaxing its shelter order every two weeks, when the impact of the previous modification becomes clear. Positive cases have spiked over the last couple of weeks, but Dr. Willis attributes the jump less to an outbreak and more to targeted and expanded testing of health care workers and essential workers and the people they come into contact with. Almost half of the county’s 420 confirmed cases have occurred in San Rafael, and fewer than 10 people have tested positive in West Marin, according to county surveillance data. Hospitalizations remain stable, at around four, and the most recent death was reported on May 5.

The county has achieved its goal of 200 tests per 100,000 residents each day, which equates to 500 daily tests. The goal was met through a state-sponsored testing site in San Rafael, the addition of lanes to a county drive-through testing site, and expanded testing by medical providers like Kaiser and the Coastal Health Alliance. 

Public health officials are calling on all businesses and employees working during the pandemic, especially where workers have frequent contact with the public, to utilize free testing options. You can contact your health care provider to schedule a test.