South County’s summer this year won’t be the same — at least as remembered from years past.
Local town officials, residents and business owners first faced fears of the coronavirus stealing or sickening loved ones. They now confront it robbing the region’s historic summer beach life, with its tourists, business benefits and overall economic lifeline.
“We have to figure out how to save the summer,” said Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager, voicing the simple concerns of main street shop owners, short-term summer rental agents and others dependent on vacation dollars.
The region’s most prized attraction is its beaches. These annually ignite a profitable tourist industry, which pumps millions of dollars into the local economy and upwards of nearly $7 billion overall for the state’s economy.
South Kingstown and Narragansett say they still plan to open their sandy Meccas for sun and water worshipers, but it will be a different experience. It’s all part of and stems from the repercussions — like a thrown rock in the water pushing waves — related to the coronavirus.
“We want to open the beaches, we’re not going to keep them closed, but we need to do it in a safe way,” said James Tierney, Narragansett town manager.
This Friday, May 8, Governor Gina Raimondo is expected to start a two-week first phase to re-invigorate life in the state by lessening some restrictions on businesses and lifting a stay-at-home order.
However, it is tempered with much caution.
“Go slow, go steady. Don’t return to normal,” she said, noting that “none of this (routine activities) for the next year is going back to normal.”
Tierney said, “Members of the community who have reached out to me also support opening the beach, but understand it needs to be done in a safe and measured manner.”
“We are cautiously optimistic that the opening of our beach is going to happen this summer. The actual scope of operations and the date for opening have not yet been determined,” he said.
Tierney said that when the beach does open there is no simple formula for the number of people who will be allowed on the usually crowded town beach near the historic Narragansett Towers and in the heart of the Pier area bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
This beach yearly draws both local residents and many out-of-towners on hot days. It is closed to parking now, but open for people to walk on or surf.
“We’re not limited to numbers, but will depend upon what orders are in place for social distancing and the rules that are in place for Phase One when we see them in writing, “ he said. He cautioned that the current directives for public health as it pertains to beaches and public places will affect operations throughout the summer.
Changes people will see include each parking attendant using a counter for logging the number of cars parking and patrons going to the beach, he said.
At the gate, each attendant will stress social distancing that is needed and advise beach-goers to pay attention to the rules in place at the time, he said.
Tierney also said that changes to parking and other operational issues are still under discussion.
In South Kingstown at a town Recreation Commission this week, officials recommended to the town council a number of substantive changes around operating that town’s beach located in Matunuck.
The council will consider these recommendations at a meeting Monday. Officials said they hope to open that beach by Memorial Day, but the exact date is still be discussed and reviewed as they also collaborate with nearby towns and state officials.
It projected that its normal beach capacity of 2,000 or more on busy and hot weekends will be slashed to about 1,200 people.
“We’re not going to be able to have everyone on the weekends,” said Terry Murphy, town recreation and leisure director. For those going to the beach in South Kingstown, they will also see many of the pro-active safety measures planned also in Narragansett.
To accommodate residents and taxpayers in the town, the commission is recommending the elimination of a non-resident seasonal pass that usually sold for $100 per vehicle. Last year it sold 200 of these passes.
Instead, non-residents would need to pay $20 per day during the week and $25 on the weekends. A non-resident is defined as someone who does not own property and pay taxes to the town, however, those who reside in town long-term and pay rent are considered residents.
In addition, the commission is recommending that the town limit the $50 resident season pass to 850 stickers — close to the usual 1,000 issued — and that go on vehicles which can bring various numbers of people into the beach. It also has limited to 90 the $180 “transferable” pass used by owners of rental property for their tenants.
Murphy explained that in general there will be a 30 percent reduction in sale of season passes for the beach to accommodate social distancing and provide a safe environment for beach-goers.
“We realize we won’t have the same parking capacity and beach capacity,” she said, wanting to set expectations because of restricted numbers of people who will be allowed on the beach.
Another major change will be in the purchasing of the stickers. If the council Monday approves the plan, beach passes will be available online, through a drop box at The Neighborhood Guild at 325 Columbia St., and at the town beach when the beach opens.
In past years, these were purchased in person in the town clerk’s office in town hall, the town beach and at The Guild. Stickers ordered online or through the drop box will be given when arriving at the beach the first time, officials said.
Murphy said that this change comes only because of the current state restrictions related to safeguarding against the virus spreading.
Hand-activated dryers, water at sinks and toilet flush handles in bathrooms are being switched out to motion activated devices so that touching and possible transmission of disease is reduced, said town officials.
As beach operations are reassessed later in the summer and if social distancing restrictions by the state are altered, there could be changes to meet them, she said, adding that it is a wait-and-see situation.
State officials have not released a plan for the what will happen at the usually busy state parks and beaches, such a Scarborough in Narragansett and East Matunuck in South Kingstown.
However, in reference to what could be expected, DEM said that at state parks it has made changes to park capacity, access points and traffic flow patterns, and limited park hours. While DEM will be staggering park openings, it will be reducing the size of parking areas and restricting hours of operation and activities to prevent crowds.
It expects to open saltwater beaches and campgrounds in June, with restrictions and limits. Some local officials have said this could include the use of parking reservations at beaches to help limit capacity beforehand rather than at the beach on a hot day.
Officials in North Kingstown, Narragansett and South Kingstown have all pointed to the cancellation of various large events or the potential to cancel them because of crowd sizes and these moves will further cripple restaurants, small businesses and gig-economy services.
For nearly two months, self-quarantines, limited travel and admonishing out-of-state visitors or those with property in these towns to keep away have pushed many local businesses to the brink of failure, officials have said. Having safe and controlled tourism this summer is necessary for many local concerns — and for money passed through tax revenue to local towns and the state.
Tourism in Rhode Island generated $811 million in state and local taxes in 2018. Each household in Rhode Island would need to pay $1,969 in additional taxes in the absence of the visitor economy.
Economists have said that failing to adequately and quickly prop up businesses could bring a years-long decline for municipalities and the lifestyles they give their residents.
This is a viewpoint that town managers in South County acknowledge quickly and are scrambling to confront.
“We are going to do whatever we can within the legal guidelines to innovatively stimulate the local economy to allow reopening of our businesses,” said Ralph Mollis, town manager in North Kingstown.
He said that he’s considering “a number of interesting options” and will be evaluating them over the coming days, but did not provide details.
In addition, he said while he understands the suggestions for curbing mass gatherings, the curbing will “have a negative impact on the health and well-being of our residents and our children.”
“While there may be data that I am not privy to, I don’t feel the data to-date required an announcement of this impact through Labor Day to be made at this time,” he said about the governor’s announcements about the dangers of large gatherings of people through the summer.
Narragansett’s Tierney said he’s also working with town businesses and restaurants on plans for expanded curbside and outdoor dining.
Zarnetske in South Kingstown is pulling together a plan for using a variety of public spaces, parking lots, rooftops and any other place in which people could gather in socially-distanced ways and enjoy dining with food from restaurants or services delivering it to them.
All acknowledge, though, that more details from the state Department of Business Regulation on what would be required — throw-away menus, no re-usable condiments or silverware, only plastic disposable drinking cups — will be shaping how this resuscitation of restaurants works.
“It’s key that we figure out some way to ensure that local residents, Rhode Islanders who usually come down here for the beaches, and summer residents from New York, Connecticut and throughout the region feel comfortable and feel safe coming to South Kingstown,” Zarnetske said.
“We are working with businesses, business organizations and state to help keep services in some form that people have expected in the past,” he said.