The Bethany Beach Town Council on Friday, May 15, unanimously approved a plan for the re-opening of the Town’s beaches and boardwalk, as well as modification to parking regulations for the C-1 commercial district downtown, leading into a re-opening of beaches statewide on May 22, per Gov. John Carney’s most recent modification of his state-of-emergency declaration.
Town Manager Cliff Graviet made three recommendations to the council that were subsequently adopted on unanimous council votes:
(1) Bethany Beach will fully re-open its beaches and boardwalk to the public at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 22. Its lifeguard stands will be fully staffed, with guards on duty, beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 23, officially marking the start of the lifeguard season for the summer of 2020. Graviet said the Town may consider expanding the guarded section of beach this summer, if needed to encourage appropriate distancing.
(2) Pay-to-park season and parking enforcement will be delayed from May 15 to June 1. A two-hour parking limit will be established in the C-1 downtown commercial district, with 60 free 15-minute parking spaces to be set aside in that area for customers of restaurants the C-1 district to park for purposes of picking up carry-out orders. Those parking restrictions will be enforced by Town parking enforcement staff.
(3) The pay-to-park spaces on Atlantic Avenue, as well as on the beachfront street ends and parking lots, will be converted temporarily to resident-only spaces, requiring a residential parking pass from the Town to park there. Property owners who are not full-time Delaware residents will need only their Town-issued residential parking permit to use those newly-restricted resident-only spaces, regardless of what state has issued their vehicle’s license plate.
Those without a Bethany Beach residential parking pass will be able to park in a limited number of two-hour spaces in the central downtown C-1 area. Spaces along Pennsylvania Avenue will also be available to non-residents under the pay-to-park system, with a longer parking time available there.
Business permit parking locations will remain as they have been in the past, but business parking permit fees for employees will be waived by the Town.
Additionally, Vice-Mayor Rosemary Hardiman suggested at the May 15 meeting that the council direct town staff to monitor the number of people on the beach and boardwalk, and in the C-1 commercial area, and that they make official Graviet’s authority to make changes to the parking regulations accordingly, on as-needed basis. Graviet would report to the council and to the public regarding any such changes, and the council would not meet to approve them, leaving those decisions in Graviet’s hands.
Graviet said the town trolley shuttle system will not be running, nor will out-of-town shuttles be permitted, during this initial re-opening period.
The measures to control the number of people on the beach and boardwalk are part of the requirements of municipalities issued in Carney’s re-opening of the beaches statewide.
All four measures were approved unanimously by the council on May 15.
The Town additionally announced after that meeting plans to continue the existing closure of the Town’s restrooms on the boardwalk (which have been undergoing renovation), pending the resolution of physical distancing, sanitation and health and safety issues for the public and Town staff.
Hardiman also reached out to the Coastal Point after last Friday’s meeting, wanting to clarify that the length of Pennsylvania Avenue was being kept as pay-to-park, with normal time limits, rather than the two-hour limits on Garfield Parkway. With about 100 more parking places than Atlantic, she said, Pennsylvania Avenue had been specifically selected for remaining pay-to-park to provide additional parking for non-residents who are not property owners in the town.
“We don’t want people to feel unwelcome,” she emphasized, noting that the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state residents, though outside the Town’s purview, has left some non-resident property owners feeling unwelcome. “So I didn’t want our neighboring communities to feel the same — although I know, with parking more limited than last year, at least at the start, they can’t help but feel that.
“As the summer goes on, my hope is that more spaces will be converted to pay-to-park,” Hardiman added, emphasizing that the purpose of limiting parking, at least to start, is to try to control crowding on the beach as the governor has directed the towns to do. “We have no idea of how the summer will unfold but want to enable as many people as possible to enjoy the beach safely.”
Town aiming to balance safety with needs of business
During the streaming video meeting on the Zoom platform on May 15, Graviet fielded a number of questions and comments, several of which came from business owners complaining about the proposed parking restrictions.
Graviet emphasized that businesses have not fully reopened and said the parking restrictions will thus have less impact than they would were all businesses fully reopened.
“If they were fully open, that might be an issue,” he said of the parking restrictions, adding that the situation would be reviewed and the parking situation changed “as soon as possible.”
Graviet said the Town had decided instituting a system of “beach tags,” as already used to control beach access in some other beach communities nationwide, were not tenable.
Council members emphasized a number of competing interests involved in making their decisions, including the safety and health of the town’s residents, visitors and tourists, as well as the condition of the small-business community.
Graviet said the Town will be posting signage to indicate to motorists exactly where they may park and for how long, but he rejected the notion of temporarily allowing dogs on the beach and boardwalk, citing the need to create signage to do so and then needing just a few days later to once again prohibit dogs on the beach and boardwalk. The Town normally prohibits dogs on the beach and boardwalk beginning on May 15 each year.
A number of questions asked of Graviet were about issues he said he could not address, including the potential end of both the statewide ban on short-term rentals and the 14-day quarantine required of non-Delaware residents coming into the state. Those issues, he said, were in the hands of the governor.
He clarified what has been a sticking point on the issue of the quarantine requirement for non-Delaware residents coming into the state, saying they are required to quarantine on their Delaware property for 14 days after entering the state, not leaving for any purpose except medical needs and not coming into contact with those outside their households.
Once they complete that 14-day quarantine, they are under the same constraints as Delaware residents, so they can then use the beaches and go out for essential needs. Out-of-state residents who come into Delaware for less than 14 days must quarantine for the length of their stay, however long that is.
“When that ends we have no idea,” he added, saying it was a state regulation but that he anticipated it might end on June 1, which has been the target for Phase 1 reopening of the state. He said Carney did not address with coastal mayors and town managers during a conference call that week any specific time target for removing the bans, only referring to the beginning of Phase 1 of re-opening based on a number of factors.
Carney has since made official that Phase 1 is expected to begin June 1. But as of Coastal Point press time on May 20, Carney had not issued any further statements on or changes to the out-of-state quarantine requirement nor to the short-term rental ban. The short-term rental ban in nearby Ocean City, Md., was lifted last week by Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan.
Carney did further lighten restrictions on small businesses mid-week, allowing previously closed retail establishments to operate by appointment only, as well as allowing houses of worship to resume in-person service with capacity restrictions and other safety measures required.
The governor also lifted a ban on farmers’ markets, beginning May 23, with a number of procedures put in place to help ensure safety. The Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market is expected to open Sunday, June 6, in the parking lots at the corner of Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue.
And with the start of Phase 1 on June 1, restaurants, bars and taprooms are expected to be able to re-open to dine-in service at 30 percent of their fire-code capacity. They are also able to request an expansion of outdoor capacity, to better facilitate social distancing. A form for restaurants to request such an expansion is to be available online on May 22, with the expansions to begin as early as June 1, pending approval from pertinent agencies.
Responding to a question about whether the Town had considered fabricating a mask for its iconic “Chief Little Owl” totem pole-style sculpture, Graviet noted that the Town had previously dressed the sculpture as Uncle Sam for the Fourth of July, but had been informed of objections to that from the Nanticoke Indian tribe, stating that they view the sculpture as a sacred totem.
“We could talk to Nanticokes,” he allowed.
Council members address quarantine, impacts on town
Councilman Patrick Sheplee, during council discussion of the plan for parking, the beach and boardwalk, emphasized that the Town, and its leaders, are in a difficult position.
“I may be stating the obvious, but none of us — not the council, not team leaders, not anyone in the audience — want to be in the position we are in today, but it is what it is. We are tasked with making decisions and discussing items affecting the town. It is what it is, so we’re going to do it,” he said, noting that the Town was having to consider different options between sometimes competing interests.
“Our No. 1 priority is the health, safety and welfare of our citizens, visitors and everyone who comes to Bethany Beach. We often find competing interests within the decisions we have to make. We have the interests of residents we have to take into account, the non-resident property owners, visitors and tourists, business owners…”
Also, he said, as Graviet mentioned several times, the Town has been “tasked by the governor to do certain things. We have limited tools and resources. We have to limit access to the beach to avoid overcrowding, and maintain health and safety procedures,” he said, referencing distancing requirements and gatherings required not to exceed 10 people, as well as “sanitizing almost every surface people may come into contact with…
“We are trying to limit as much as possible the negative effect we all see on our business owners,” he continued. “Small businesses in general are in trouble, and our businesses are the epitome definition of small business.
“We are trying to strike a balance between sometimes competing interests. We’re doing that as best can. And I want to make clear that the votes will I make, in the past, today and in the future — I’m going to stand behind those votes. When election time comes, you’ll know I was making my votes for what I feel, given the facts at the time, are for the best interests of Town of Bethany Beach.”
Sheplee continued, saying he wanted to make “a personal appeal to Gov. Carney,” so that he heard how much confusion there was on the issue of the quarantine on out-of-state property owners.
“This affects me. I am a non-resident property owner of Bethany Beach. The March 29 modification” of the governor’s emergency declaration, which instituted that quarantine rule, “frankly — based on the questions I’ve been asked, the confusion that’s come up, my contact with people, friends and neighbors in Bethany Beach — this quarantine is just not working. My appeal to you,” he said, addressing Carney in absentia, “is to please end the out-of-state quarantine as quickly as you can safely.”
“That was very eloquently stated,” Hardiman replied. “None of us like this. We’ve all been put in this position through no fault of our own. We consider ourselves a family-friendly community, yet a big part of our family has not been able to come here,” she said, referencing those out-of-state visitors and part-time residents. “And business owners have suffered tremendously.
“We’ve been given these instructions — it’s easy for the state parks to follow through, because they limit parking, and there’s one way in and one way out, and they can shut it down. We can limit parking, but this is a fluid situation... But as thing change, we can open more and more parking, and we hope it will get better going down the road.”