Citing the three-phase time table to re-open the state after COVID-19-related closures, the Bethany Beach Town Council on Thursday, April 30, voted unanimously (with one exception) to cancel all special events through July 15, including its Fourth of July parade and fireworks, and to keep its beaches and boardwalk closed to pedestrians through at least May 31.
In a videoconference meeting on the Zoom platform on Thursday afternoon, the council heard from Town Manager Cliff Graviet on the sole issue of the early part of the town’s summer season and how it would handle things in light of the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. John Carney’s state-of-emergency declaration and subsequent updates to that declaration. The public was able to join the meeting and ask questions of town officials via text chat.
Graviet said he’d been tasked with making recommendations to the council on special events and other changes that might be necessary and that he had come up with five suggestions.
But first, he said, he wanted to clear up a number of misconceptions regarding the Town’s authority and the restrictions currently in place.
“We are bound to follow the emergency orders of the governor,” he emphasized, noting that Carney’s emergency order currently bans large gatherings, requires the public to shelter in place (except for essential activities, such as grocery shopping and receiving medical care), closes all non-essential businesses (as designated by a list issued by the State), bans short-term rentals, requires people to wear masks or other face protectors when in public settings where social distancing doesn’t occur, and has closed all beaches in the state except for exercise and dog-walking — notably authorizing municipalities to be even more strict in addressing beach access.
“These are state restrictions,” Graviet reiterated. “They have the force of law. The Town and citizens are required to comply. These are not restrictions that the Town can disregard.”
Some of the restrictions have met with objections from the public, and Graviet said he’s been hearing from those opponents.
“We’re getting phone calls, emails… ‘Please do this.’ ‘Do that.’ We do not have the authority,” Graviet stated. “We are sort of at the end of the list of people who are making these decisions,” he added, noting that the governor has been “following the clear direction of public health officials” in deciding which emergency regulations to enact.
One particular point of contention in Bethany has been the lack of access to the beach.
“Because of crowding and people ignoring distancing guidelines,” Graviet said, referencing similar problems with crowds in Rehoboth Beach in the days prior to the governor’s beach closure, the Town had exercised its authority and banned pedestrian traffic on the beach and boardwalk, just as Rehoboth officials had.
“We found in the days leading up to the decree that we had incredible crowds because people were not at work. They were completely ignoring the restrictions. We were inundated with crowds” on those cold, but sunny, days, “and Rehoboth was, too. And Bethany did same thing as Rehoboth did — limiting pedestrian traffic on the beach and boardwalk.”
Business owners and the public have been asking when those restrictions will end.
“Many think the restrictions will be lifted on May 15,” Graviet noted. But, he pointed out, the emergency declaration is required to be reissued periodically — hence the current May 15 end date. “The governor has stated he will issue another order on or before May 15,” Graviet said. “We have no idea what it will contain, but based on recent statements, it appears the governor will leave many of the requirements in place until the CDC requirements are met.”
Graviet said the state’s mayors, vice-mayors, council members and other officials have been participating in teleconferences during the state of emergency, and the governor has been holding weekly meetings with the mayors— the latest of which was on Tuesday, April 28.
“We know the governor is committed to following CDC guidelines for reopening the state,” he said, pointing those who want to review those guidelines to the State’s coronavirus website, and various others, where those guidelines are laid out in detail.
The guidelines set a timetable involving three phases for reopening from coronavirus-related closures, involving individuals, employers and recreational entities, with specific regulations noted for each.
“The governor will be following these guidelines,” Graviet said.
Phase 1 of reopening can take place once there has been a sustained downturn in COVID-19 cases for 14 days, among several factors.
“Any increase restarts the clock,” Graviet said, noting that other requirements for Phase 1 re-openings include having a “robust” testing program in place, having a contact tracing program in place and having crisis-level medical care available.
“All of those are required for Phase 1,” he said. “A few days ago, the governor said we were at least a month away from being able to even consider Phase 1. Delaware will not even begin the CDC protocols for several weeks, and it’s contingent on a 14-day downturn,” he emphasized.
Meanwhile, Sussex County in the last 13 to 14 days, he said, has seen a 220 percent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, and despite having about 22 percent of Delaware’s population, the county has had almost 50 percent of the cases statewide.
“These are factors we have to consider in determining what the early weeks of the summer season will be like,” Graviet said. “We have to plan based on the restrictions currently in place, some of which will continue for much of the summer,” he said, based on the established rules for the reopening phases.
“Physical distancing requirements have to be taken into account when planning events that attract large crowds,” he asserted.
Council hears five recommendations
With that in mind, Graviet said, he’d come up with a set of recommendations for the council.
(1) That town staff and the council will constantly review current conditions in the state and nationwide, and will take action to reduce any and all restrictions as soon as they feel that will not impact the health and safety of the community.
“We’ll make sure as soon as possible that we rescind those and make them less restrictive.”
(2) Anticipating that the governor is likely to extend current restrictions past the May 15 expiration of the current emergency order and pursuant to the CDC guidelines, Graviet said he would recommend that the Town continue the existing beach and boardwalk closure until May 31, at which time the council would reassess whether to reduce or eliminate that restriction based on the conditions at that time.
(3) To facilitate business operations that can occur under the emergency orders, such as carryout and curbside pickup services for restaurants and other businesses, Graviet recommended the council postpone the start of the pay-to-park season on the east side of town (which would normally begin May 15) and not enforce parking restrictions, and for free parking to continue until the beach and boardwalk re-open.
(4) To reduce potential crowds, the Town will not begin its trolley service or approve permits for shuttles from communities outside the town at this time, with the situation to be reviewed again on June 1, along with the status of the beach and boardwalk closure.
(5) To avoid predictably high crowds, the Town will cancel all special events until July 15, including the Fourth of July parade and fireworks. Graviet said the fireworks generally bring 10,000 to 15,000 people into town, and the Town couldn’t realistically consider holding events that might bring so many people into a limited space “where they would stand shoulder-to-shoulder and side-by-side.”
Graviet said he would recommend the council revise the plan if something were to change by those dates.
“None of this is carved in stone. This is a very fluid situation. There’s not a lot of guidance besides the CDC guidelines.”
Vice-Mayor Rosemary Hardiman pointed the council’s attention back to those guidelines and the proposed reopening phases, as well as the timetable they’ll set.
“Given fact that the governor has said we wouldn’t be in position to begin Phase 1 until robust testing and tracking is in place, which won’t be until the end of May,” she said, the timeline for getting to a stage where social distancing isn’t required could extend until mid-summer.
“All of them through Phase 3 are limited distancing,” she noted, pointing out that the minimum 14-day periods of reduced COVID-19 diagnoses in each phase, if they happened one after the other beginning in late May, would still have social distancing requirements in place in mid-July.
“Everything would have to be perfectly in place for us to be there 42 days from now,” Graviet agreed, and with a CDC team dispatched to the area this week due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in Sussex County, even the consideration of Phase 1 re-opening could be weeks away.
The council began its vote on the five recommendations, but Hardiman’s connection to the Zoom meeting was lost before the vote was completed, and she was unable to rejoin the meeting for the vote. The remaining council members all voted in favor of the five-point plan.
Council pondering steps beyond June 1
Graviet said he also had possible future actions for the council to consider should the recommendations for social distancing not have changed by June 1. He emphasized that he was not asking the council to vote, or even affirm, those ideas during the April 30 meeting, but to consider them going forward.
First, he said, when the beaches re-open, he would recommend the Town limit pay-to-park to only the downtown commercial area, with the Town also creating “a large number” of free 15-minute parking spaces to facilitate take-out service from the downtown restaurants, which he said he expected would be predominant this summer. He said he would, under those circumstances, recommend they limit the pay-to-park spaces to no more than 90 or 120 minutes at a time.
He also recommended that while distancing requirements are still in place, they consider restricting parking in the 300 blocks of the town’s east side to residents only, requiring drivers to have resident permits to park there. (Employee parking for downtown businesses would continue as usual, he said, adding that the council could also choose to waive fees for employee parking passes or to prorate them.) And he recommended the council hold off on starting trolley service or issuing shuttle permits until all distancing requirements are completely lifted.
Those ideas are focused on keep down crowding so that social distancing can occur for as long as it is recommended.
“Enforcing parking for residents-only will address traffic on the beach,” he later added, noting the idea was something for the council to consider.
During comments and questions from the public, Graviet passed along comments from Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce Membership & Programming Manager Fred Thomas that he felt the parking adjustments were needed for social distancing, calling the 15-minute free parking spots and parking time limits of 90 to 120 minutes “proactive.”
“The beach is incredibly narrow right now,” Graviet said. “It’s not building back as it normally does,” though he said this week’s “so’easter” could help bring more sand back on the beach. For now, he said, “High tide nips at the toe of the dune. There will be very limited space on the beach this summer.”
“This is just so people know what we’re looking at after June 1,” he reiterated of the second set of ideas. “Maybe something miraculous will happen,” he suggested, while not sounding convinced that was likely.
Graviet tackles questions from public
Addressing questions and comments from the public in the meeting’s text chat, Graviet spoke to a number of concerns, ranging from quarantine regulations and real estate rentals to the decision to cancel events more than two months out and whether the Town had contingency plans for the loss of revenue due to reduced parking revenue and rental tax revenue.
• Extending the beach closure — “The governor has not reduced the ban,” he said of the beach restrictions. “Even if he lifts the ban on May 15, we will want to adhere to CDC recommendations on distancing, and that will impact what happens on the beach.”
Addressing a suggestion to consider re-opening the beach for Bethany residents only, he said, “That is something we cannot do. We had suggestions we issue beach tags — we have a public beach, we have accepted millions of dollars of taxpayer money to keep the beach accessible. … We can’t keep it closed and open to residents only. We can regulate parking to help,” Graviet added, saying the Town wanted to “make sure the health, safety and welfare of our residents is a top priority.”
Responding to a suggestion to limit beach capacity to reduce crowds, he said, “We would have to bring in a militia, if you will, to reduce crowding on our beach. … We have 26 separate entrances to our beach. We can’t bring on enough staff to regulate the number of people on the beach or to regulate physical distancing once they’re on the beach.”
However, Graviet said the Town intends to have “a full complement” of beach patrol members before the season begins, “in anticipation that at some point will have beach completely open. We’re bringing them on early to make sure we have them as the season progresses.”
Addressing the issue of coordinating beach re-openings with Ocean City, Md., officials, Graviet said the mayors of Delaware’s coastal towns have been talking to Ocean City officials and that the Maryland beach town’s officials are “very concerned about when the travel ban is lifted and 200,000 people are coming to their beaches.” What they’re doing, he said, “may be very different from what Delaware is considering. We’re not sure what will happen when and if Maryland re-opens.”
• Impacts on Town finances — “Bethany is in very good straits,” Graviet said. “We have collected excess revenue that most likely will cover any losses from parking meters and rentals. We will stand this well, and hope it doesn’t run into next year. We will weather this and have no issues.”
• Boating on the bay — “As far as I’m concerned, yes, you can.”
• Mandatory self-quarantine for out-of-state residents coming into the area — Graviet referred people with questions about the quarantine requirement to the governor’s orders and other COVID-19 information posted on the Town website, as well as the State of Delaware coronavirus page.
He reiterated the governor’s requirement for out-of-state residents to quarantine themselves in their local home for 14 days when coming into Delaware from outside the state. Those who plan to spend less than 14 days in the area must self-quarantine for the length of time they are in the state. “If you intend to stay, you need to do 14 days of quarantine in place at this time,” he emphasized.
Notably, the governor’s order for self-quarantine for out-of-state residents coming into Delaware is distinct from the stay-at-home order issued for Delaware residents. There is no allowance for quarantined people leaving a second home to go out locally to buy groceries or for other “essential reasons.” Out-of-state residents who are self-quarantining in their local home should bring with them, or have delivered by contactless means, supplies sufficient for their entire quarantine period, and should not go out in public. Once the 14-day quarantine period has passed, they are under the same restrictions as Delaware residents.
Graviet said the governor has had state police checking out-of-state vehicles coming into the state and monitoring some for compliance with the quarantine period. “I believe the governor has a serious intent to protect the health and safety of citizens here in Delaware,” he said.
Asked whether the Town is monitoring out-of-state vehicles to check quarantine compliance, Graviet noted that the Town currently has 10 police officers, eight of whom are patrol officers. Among them, he said, three officers are currently diagnosed with COVID-19, with a number of others having quarantined themselves due to possible illness.
“We don’t have the staff to go check each individual driveway in town,” he acknowledged. “We know the governor is encouraging us to do that, but it has been very difficult in these last few weeks.”
• Making the decision to cancel July events now: “There is nothing here that I can see that is going to impact or change that would even have us consider bringing 10,000 to 15,000 people into town to watch fireworks. It isn’t going to be less contagious or less deadly,” Graviet said of the novel coronavirus. “Canceling now allows us to plan and to deal with the vendor,” which Graviet said can be difficult. He added that the final decision on the cancelation was the council’s.
“We’re making plans based on the best information we have today. It would be very difficult for us to wait until May 15 and then implement things in a week or two. This will take us to the end of May. Then we’ll revisit and look at what we’re going to do going forward.”
“What would happen that would make it responsible to host a mega-event as soon as July 4?” he asked rhetorically.
Responding to a suggestion to consider holding the Fourth of July fireworks only, and no parade, Graviet emphasized that the crowds coming into town are higher for the fireworks. He called holding them during the pandemic “a potential health catastrophe.”
• Boardwalk-fronting businesses — Graviet said the Town will regulate access to the storefronts on boardwalk and make sure they’re accessible.
• Property rentals — Graviet responded to a suggestion that the Town assign a liaison to keep local real estate rental agents informed about the emergency restrictions, including the ban on short-term rentals, saying he’d try to open such a dialogue, though the Town, he reiterated, is at the bottom of the government decision-making chain. “We will certainly try to have that discussion and see what comes of it.”
He also emphasized that short-term rentals are out of the purview of the Town, and while the Town has been asked about addressing rental deposits not being returned, he said that is a civil issue and would need to be addressed in the courts.
• To-go sales of alcoholic beverages — Asked whether the Town would permit to-go sale of alcoholic beverages, Graviet said that is not in the Town’s purview but is up to the State and the alcoholic beverage committee. If they allow it, he said, “I don’t see the Town taking any action to prohibit it.”
• Re-opening neighborhood pools — Graviet said the re-opening of community pools is up to each HOA’s interpretation, though “As things are now, it would be impossible to open. As things reopen, it would be up to HOAs to determine what do in compliance with the governor’s orders.”