In March, as awareness spread about the novel coronavirus and the necessity of social distancing, scenes from spring break vacationers crowding the beaches of Florida horrified Americans. It was eventually reported that some of the spring breakers contracted the coronavirus, and a few even died of it. The state closed nonessential businesses (including its beaches) on April 1, much later than many other states.
Now, only a few weeks later and with the outbreak still uncontrolled, parts of Florida are reopening beaches on a county-by-county level, after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would leave the decision to local officials.
Unsurprisingly, this has gone over poorly in the national news, with beachgoers who have returned to shore being criticized as #FloridaMorons. In the early days of the US outbreak, the beachgoers came to symbolize American recklessness in the face of the coronavirus, and the reopening of beaches is being cited as an example of how ignorant and reckless policymaking will prolong America’s coronavirus crisis.
But that criticism isn’t entirely fair. While there are definitely some ignorant and reckless policymakers reopening their states too early — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is proceeding with a ridiculous plan to open hair and nail salons and bowling alleys, indoor businesses where close contact between and among employees and customers is unavoidable — there’s a good case for limited reopening of Florida beaches.
Just like parks and open spaces, beaches provide an important opportunity for people to stretch their legs, get fresh air and sunlight, and exercise. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, many states have cut off access to these areas in response to overcrowding. But it’s a better idea to figure out how to ration open spaces like beaches and parks so that people can use them safely. If a state has a way to make low-risk outdoor activity available, it should take advantage of it — while monitoring to make sure there are minimal negative impacts on public health. New data could change all of this, but right now beaches don’t look like a grossly unreasonable bet.
We’re looking at months — maybe more than a year — of dramatically changed life because of the coronavirus. During that time, we have a tough job ahead of us: figuring out which activities are low-risk enough to proceed cautiously, so that social distancing is sustainable for everyone and transmission rates remain low. That might mean opening sites like Florida’s beaches, and at the very least, it means that people elsewhere shouldn’t scorn Florida for considering it.
The case for outdoor spaces
Fresh air and exercise are good for you. Exercise and vitamin D have been shown to help protect against all kinds of illness, including respiratory illness; evidence from the 1918 flu pandemic suggests that treating flu patients outside rather than inside saves lives.
And there’s some tentative evidence that getting people outside keeps them safer from the novel coronavirus, too.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the spread of the coronavirus. But some research suggests that most transmission happens indoors. One study from China (which has not yet been peer-reviewed) examined 318 outbreaks with three or more people across the country. Only one happened outdoors, and only two people got sick: Every outbreak with three or more cases happened indoors. A different study (also not peer-reviewed) in Japan found that “the odds that a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment.”
There are some caveats, of course. Indoor transmission is easier to trace than outdoor transmission, meaning authorities likely had a tougher time tracing outdoor outbreaks. China, outside the province of Hubei, didn’t have widespread community transmission during the time the study took place, and beaches are probably a lot more dangerous if hundreds of people there have the virus instead of just one.
Still, this suggests that shutting down outdoor recreation perhaps shouldn’t be the highest priority — people are mostly getting each other sick indoors.
And there is some reason to worry that banning people from going outside leads to people instead congregating indoors. As Zeynep Tufekci argued in the Atlantic last week, banning young people from meeting friends outdoors looks good — no embarrassing photos of crowds — but it probably doesn’t prevent them from meeting at all:
Keeping parks open could even be seen as a form of harm reduction for congregating youth. If a group of 10 young people goes to a park like Brockwell and is kept six feet away from every other group, the police shooing them away may end up being pandemic theater that might increase the risk of transmission among the group members if they instead spend that time socializing anyway in a cramped, poorly ventilated apartment.
Of course, ideally people would not be meeting at all with anyone who doesn’t live with them; any meeting creates risk, and the smartest thing you can do (and the right thing to do for other people) is to stay away from people you don’t live with. But shutting down the most visible rule-breaking won’t end all rule-breaking, and it might mean the rule-breaking that does happen is 20 times riskier.
Marc Lipsitch, who studies infectious disease at Harvard, has also argued that it’s important to let people go outside. “The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park,” he co-wrote (with Ned Friedman and Joseph Allen) in a Washington Post op-ed last week. Closing open spaces “should be a temporary, last-resort measure,” and whenever we can, we should prefer to have them open with social distancing.
Does that apply to Florida’s beaches, I asked him? “Yes,” Lipsitch wrote back in an email, “as long as people maintain distances.”
So in general, authorities should be working to help their population access the outdoors and open spaces safely, not fighting to keep them cooped up inside.
Opening Florida’s beaches during a pandemic: Not as bad as you think
The decision about whether to reopen Florida beaches should be made by local officials, DeSantis announced last week. Many counties kept their beaches closed, but a few — including Jacksonville, on which most of the national coverage focused — opened them.
The cities that did open their beaches have taken measures to ensure that beachgoers stay safe and practice social distancing.
In Jacksonville, for example, beaches are open from 6 to 11 am and 5 to 8 pm, under significant restrictions — activities such as sunbathing and picnicking are not allowed; nor are beach towels or chairs, and residents must keep 6 feet between themselves and others. Jacksonville parks are also open, but public restrooms and other facilities (which could be grounds for virus transmission even if people are socially distancing appropriately outdoors) are shut.
Florida’s stay-at-home order closing nearby bars and restaurants remains in effect. There is police enforcement on the beaches. Other counties have opened beaches but not parking lots, so only people who live nearby are likely to visit.
You may have seen pictures implying that Florida’s beaches have been packed with people as they reopened in the past few days. But many of those are misleading, and residents say there is widespread compliance with social distancing.
National news has shown pictures that make it look like Floridians are being irresponsible. But it’s not easy to judge from a picture whether people are social distancing appropriately. The lenses commonly used for images like this Associated Press photo of a Jacksonville beach make it hard to tell; the impression can easily be that a beach is crowded even if everyone is, in fact, following social distancing rules.
As Jacksonville journalist Vic Micolucci explained in a Facebook post, the beach looks crowded in some images but nearly deserted in drone shots, which make it clearer how spaced-out people are. “If you take the miles of beaches up and down Duval County, there were indeed thousands of people. However, most kept their distance. And there was a lot of sand,” he writes.
It takes more than a glance at a picture to know whether Floridians are being safe. The big question: Are the restrictions tied to the beach reopenings sufficient? That remains to be seen. If the Jacksonville area sees a surge of cases in the next few weeks, public health authorities may conclude that even this limited approach creates too much risk. But at this point, that’s not obvious.
To be clear: Tourism to Florida to play on the beach is utterly unacceptable right now. If you live far enough away that you’d have to make an extended trip, you should stay home and use outdoor spaces closer to where you live. You should stay away from people and wear a mask when you go out. And personally, I would still stay home as much as you possibly can. But there’s a case to be made that Florida’s reasonable, limited actions here are being condemned out of proportion.
When it comes to social distancing, there are no easy answers. Measures that are desperately needed for public health come at a high human cost in terms of unemployment, isolation, and the risk of domestic violence.
And there are real costs associated with opening beaches in Florida, or parks and recreation spaces everywhere else. But there are real benefits, too. As we try to figure out how to navigate the months ahead, we should acknowledge that there are degrees of risk here, and that opening Florida’s beaches is not necessarily a reckless act of ignorance, but a difficult act of balancing many crucial human needs.
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