The photos from Ocean City this weekend have been jarring to many.
Throngs of beachgoers crowded the city’s iconic boardwalk. Few wore masks. Many appeared to be standing closer than the recommended 6 feet apart.
Lauri Dixon was there.
“What I was surprised at was the amount of people that weren’t wearing their masks or weren’t social distancing,” said Dixon, an Edgewater resident who has owned a condominium in Ocean City for the past decade with her husband, Leroy. “They congregated without masks. I was surprised to see that many people. I understand people wanting to get out. But they need to do physical distancing and wear their masks.”
As Maryland and other states take continued steps toward reopening, the realities of how that is playing out on beaches, boardwalks and other tourist destinations is prompting concern among some residents and public health officials. From Ocean City to Florida to the Ozarks to Delaware, the first Memorial Day in a COVID-19 era played out differently in different jurisdictions.
For Dixon, the self-proclaimed beach lover’s usual euphoria turned to moments of anxiety this weekend by the sea of beachgoers crowding the boardwalk of Ocean City sans protective measures during this global pandemic.
For Dixon, the number of people not maintaining a safe space and not wearing masks created a sense of unease.
“I definitely felt a little trepidation and a little hesitant,” she said. “I steered clear of them.”
It wasn’t just on the boardwalk. Dixon immediately noticed the lack of face masks at her condominium, where there are rules requiring people to wear masks and practice distancing — particularly in the elevator where no more than one person is allowed in at a time.
“There have been two times that as soon as I leave my unit they aren’t wearing masks,” she explained. “That to me is very frustrating. That creates some anxiety. You don’t know who they are or where they have been.”
Dixon said she would be in favor of police issuing fines to people that violate social distancing orders and those who do not wear face masks.
“But how are you going to have police everywhere?” she asked. “You would want to regulate common sense. But you can’t.”
In an email to The Baltimore Sun, Jessica Waters, communications manager for Ocean City, said the crowds were typical for the Maryland resort community during Memorial Day weekend. She urged visitors and residents to “take personal responsibility” to protect themselves and others.
A live-stream camera from the boardwalk and beach on Sunday and Monday showed a calmer, sparse presence compared to what Dixon observed Saturday. She attributed the decrease on Memorial Day and Sunday to overcast skies and lower temperatures.
Throughout the country, beach towns and hot weather destinations experienced similar swarms of people.
In the Tampa area along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the crowds were so big that authorities took the extraordinary step of closing parking lots because they were full, according to the Associated Press. In Missouri, one video showed a mass of people crowding a swimming pool with no masks at the popular vacation spot Lake of the Ozarks, St. Louis station KMOV-TV reported.
On the Sunday talk shows, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said she was “very concerned” about scenes of people crowding together over the weekend, according to the Associated Press.
“We really want to be clear all the time that social distancing is absolutely critical. And if you can’t social distance and you’re outside, you must wear a mask,” she said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Delaware beach towns reported significant drops in beachgoers during the traditionally busy holiday weekend.
At Rehoboth Beach, officials observed a much quieter start to the summer than usual.
“Usually Memorial Day weekend you are shoulder to shoulder,” said Krys Johnson, communications director for the city of Rehoboth Beach. “It has got to be half. The weather hasn’t been conducive as well. And with all those restrictions, that has cut down as well.”
Johnson referenced Delaware’s short-term rental ban, a 14-day self-quarantine for out-of-state visitors, and an order that mandates face masks be worn on the boardwalk area of town.
“It’s normally our big kick-off,” she said. “That’s definitely had an impact for sure. It’s a much different feel. It’s so quiet.”
At Bethany Beach, officials noticed a significant drop in visitors this Memorial Day weekend.
The population was down to an eighth “of the norm,” according to Michael D. Redmon, chief of police for the Bethany Beach Police Department.
Redmon, who attributed the lull to the 14-day self-quarantine, also said that there were no tickets, citations, warnings or arrests linked to not wearing masks or not social distancing this weekend.
Back in Ocean City, Dixon, who was about to embark on an afternoon bike ride, pondered if Maryland opened its beaches too fast.
“It may have been too early to open up,” she lamented. “But I understand people’s need and want to return to normalcy.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.