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Wear a mask and wash your hands: How to stay safe at the beach amid coronavirus

Moderate crowds returned to Ocean City this weekend after Gov. Hogan lifted the Stay-At-Home order. Signs encourage visitors to wear masks and maintain social distance. May 17, 2020
Moderate crowds returned to Ocean City this weekend after Gov. Hogan lifted the Stay-At-Home order. Signs encourage visitors to wear masks and maintain social distance. May 17, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Your planned summer trip to the Eastern Shore, Delaware beaches and other area beaches doesn’t have to be ruined by the coronavirus pandemic, health experts say.

Having a safe beach vacation is all about taking some reasonable precautions and following good public-safety practices — much like the ones you’ve been following at home. It’s also about the timing.

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Public health experts warn against moving too fast or recklessly.

Dr. Wilbur Chen, an infectious disease physician at the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, says individuals need to decide whether to go to the beach now or later in the season when the scope of the pandemic likely will have changed.

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Once you’re at the beach, Chen, a member of Gov. Larry Hogan’s coronavirus task force, advocates wearing a mask as much as possible while you’re out and about.

He also advises people to continue practicing “proper hand hygiene" by washing hands with soap and water, as well as carrying hand sanitizer for when hand washing is difficult.

When it comes to beachfront activities, sanitizing rental equipment such as kayaks, boogie boards or boardwalk bikes is crucial, according to Dr. Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“Businesses that are renting equipment should take precautions to wipe down the equipment after use, and people renting equipment should do the same,” Watson said. “You should bring some Clorox wipes and do that yourself. [Getting the virus from rental gear is] still fairly low-risk, but it’s a good precaution to take."

Watson also encouraged patrons of rental businesses to wear masks while standing in line. Chen added that patrons should practice physical distancing. He prefers this term to the more popular term of social distancing.

Another tip — keep active and moving to reduce your risks.

Motion in and out of the ocean keeps people protected, particularly compared with crowded locales like boardwalks or main streets. Chen says that individual activities such as boogie boarding are preferable to more stationary and crowd-involved ones like beach volleyball.

Watson noted the relative safety of passing someone on a boardwalk (provided you wear a mask) compared with sitting at a restaurant or going to an amusement park.

“If you’re sitting with someone within that 6-feet [parameter] for 15 minutes or more, that’s when transmission is most likely to occur,” Watson said. “So, sitting indoors at restaurants, hanging out in common rooms, those kinds of things are something we should probably try to avoid.”

As for lodging, Chen and Watson said that hotels pose a relatively low risk, owing to their room confinement and higher likelihood of good sanitizing procedures. But it also depends on whom you’re sharing a room, short-term rental or AirBnB with, as increased exposure to others can heighten the risk of exposure.

Overall, the experts say, don’t let the need for smart precautions turn you off from visiting the beach entirely this year.

“I think that there is a real positive value to just being outdoors, making sure that we’re being active,” Chen said. “It’s for our mental well-being as well as physical well-being.”

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