As Summer Comes to a Close, Squeeze in One Last Beach Day
Here’s how to plan a safe, relaxing Labor Day beach trip, even during the time of Covid-19.Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesLike a sea gull divebombing a bucket of fries, Labor Day weekend has a way of taking you by surprise. Which means many Americans are scrambling to plan their last beach trip of the…
Here’s how to plan a safe, relaxing Labor Day beach trip, even during the time of Covid-19.
Like a sea gull divebombing a bucket of fries, Labor Day weekend has a way of taking you by surprise. Which means many Americans are scrambling to plan their last beach trip of the season, a fitting way to spend summer’s last hurrah.
The shore-bound set probably have relaxation in mind. Restorative effects of a seaside getaway include improved mental health and a heightened sense of calm — salty tonic for the trials of 2020. But the beach is also ground zero for safety slip-ups and etiquette faux pas. Throw a pandemic into the mix and, if you’re not careful, your sunny escape will feel more stressful than serene.
With the help of Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, here’s how to plan a safe, relaxing Labor Day beach trip, even during the time of Covid-19. (For a deeper dive into the best beach gear, check out Wirecutter’s full guide here.)
OK, but first … is it safe?
Stretching out on a sandy beach may feel unnecessarily risky, but your biggest threat probably remains sunburn, not the coronavirus.
“If you can go to the beach and it’s a nice breezy day and you can keep your distance from other people, then by all means, take advantage of that,” said Mark D. Sobsey, a research professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an adviser to the World Health Organization’s infection, protection and control global unit. “Don’t worry too much about the risk of airborne exposure in this environment.”
The relative safety of the beach — provided you maintain at least six feet of social distance — can be attributed to a lowered risk of transmission in outdoor spaces, especially those with sea breezes dispersing and diluting virus droplets and particles. All that sunshine could also work in your favor, since ultraviolet rays may slow virus growth.
One important caveat: Working on your tan is fine. Peripheral activity is not.
“In terms of transmission, I don’t get too dismayed seeing modestly crowded beaches where people are lying in the sun or running to the water, if they are far enough apart,” said Dr. Steven Goodman, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Stanford. “It’s all the things surrounding that experience you need to be careful about.”
In other words, steer clear of snack stands, boardwalks and, most crucially, any indoor locker rooms where close contact is likely.
Outerwear: Check a city’s digital code book to see if clothing restrictions apply. Face mask mandates differ from beach to beach, but that’s not the only thing you need to look out for. My hometown, Cape May, N.J., once issued fines for (gasp!) sporting a Speedo — at least until “The Daily Show”shamed us for it. Meanwhile, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., thongs are criminal.
Umbrella: While none are windproof, Wirecutter’s recommendation for a resilient option is the Sport-Brella. (Once you’re at the beach, to prevent injuries: Plant one-third of the pole into the sand at an angle of around 30 degrees, facing into the breeze. If gusts exceed 20 miles per hour, uproot it.)
Footwear: Wyatt Werneth, national spokesman for the American Lifeguard Association, once witnessed the third-degree burns of a tourist who ran shoeless across the sand in Cocoa Beach, Fla: “It looked like he was crossing a field of mouse traps.” Avoid this painful mistake by picking up a pair of Havaianas flip-flops, Wirecutter’s top pick for men and women.
Beach towel: For all your lounging and drying needs, Wirecutter’s choice is the absorbent, durable L.L.Bean Seaside Beach Towel. To avoid sandblasting fellow beachgoers whenever you shake the towel out, be sure you’re standing downwind.
Chair: In one survey of 1,146 beachgoers, only 12 percent reported beach trips lasting less than two hours. Translation: You’re going to need a comfy seat. Wirecutter’s pick is the Renetto Original Beach Bum Canopy Chair. Just don’t use it to save your spot hours before arriving — that’s the seaside equivalent of using a traffic cone to claim a city parking space.
Time to set up camp
It seems simple: Pick an area with a good view that won’t be drenched by an incoming tide. But Lizzie Post, an etiquette expert and co-president of the Emily Post Institute, likens the unwritten rules of the beach to those of a junior high-school cafeteria: “It’s a minefield.”
Don’t roll out your towel too near lifesaving equipment, in the way of access ramps, on ecologically sensitive dunes or within 25 feet of a lifeguard stand, which may need to be moved with the tide. And — to avoid the cardinal sin of beach-going — don’t plop too close to fellow beachgoers. It’s not just the threat of Covid-19 that’s at play.
According to Michael Graziano, professor of neuroscience at Princeton, the beach “may look like a walrus colony with bodies piled everywhere, but even walruses abide by spatial structures.” Our brains have what he calls “bubble-wrap neurons,” specialized cells that trigger anxiety when space is invaded. In other words, six feet is the minimum: “When in doubt, give people more.”
Something else that activates the bubble-wrap neurons? Beach-spreading, or unnecessary sprawling on the sand. This is less an umbrella, more giant tents. Or, in the case of one Scottish town, couches. Several municipalities have been cracking down on the practice since beach-spreading can infringe on safety by, say, blocking a parent’s view of children in the water. It can also, according to experts, raise hackles even in a roomy area.
“It’s like building a McMansion in a neighborhood of postwar ranchers,” said Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist based in Boston, “a tacky power play.”
One final tip: Coordinate your seaside setup with low tide, when the beach is most expansive — one study found this is when people are most likely to experience the mental restoration associated with a trip to the coast.
According to Dr. Goodman, you don’t have to remain static on the beach to stay safe. As long as you’re sticking with your quarantine bubble, you can channel your inner child with games that allow for social distancing — yes to Frisbee and kite flying, no to touch football. Wirecutter recommends an array of beach toys to get you started.
For action-packed activities, look for a spot with finer grains since these areas provide better traction. This will make for easier sand-castle building and minimize injury risk during games that require jumping or running. There are exceptions, but finer grains typically appear in areas with limited wave action.
Finally, while digging a hole is required for building a bonfire or burying a friend, be mindful of potential hazards, which can include twisted ankles or asphyxiation. In the United States between 1990 and 2006, 16 people died in sand-hole collapses. (For comparison: During this same time period, only 11 people died of shark attacks.)
To keep your digging experience safe, make sure no one’s head ever dips below sand level, and refill the hole when you’re done.
Enjoy the ocean, mindfully
When it comes to the coronavirus, the sea is a safe space. Any respiratory secretions from fellow swimmers “are going to be diluted rapidly,” Mr. Sobsey said. “As long as you keep a distance of a couple yards or more, you’re fine.”
Another safety strategy? Swim only in guarded areas where, at one in 18 million, the chance of drowning is minute. (On unguarded beaches, the risk is five times greater.) Since the pandemic has led to budget cuts, call a local chamber of commerce ahead of time, to see which beaches are protected.
Before entering the water, notice signage or flag systems alerting swimmers to hazards, and ask a lifeguard to point out rip currents, those hard-to-spot channels of liquid energy that sweep out to sea, responsible for 80 percent of beach rescues. A patch of especially placid or choppy, slightly darker water is a good indicator. If you do get caught in a rip, remain calm and — only once you feel the grip loosen — swim parallel to shore.
“Knowing how to swim in a pool does not mean a person is equipped for the ocean,” said Dr. Peter Wernicki, orthopedic surgeon and medical adviser for the United States Lifesaving Association. “If you doubt your open-water skills, I suggest a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Anything else may actually work against you and increase the risk of drowning.”
As for the question we all wonder about, the answer is yes: Go ahead and pee in the water. According to a 2014 survey, two-thirds of us are already doing it, and it’s unlikely to interfere with other swimmers. Importantly, this will help you avoid public restrooms — and their coronavirus aerosols — and it may also benefit the environment. The urea compound in urine combines with salt water to produce ammonium, which is food for marine plants.
Speaking of the environment, take your trash off the beach. Littering isn’t just bad for the planet — according to one 2015 study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, it’s bad for a beachgoer’s mental health.
“What we’ve discovered is that rubbish in such an environment isn’t just disliked,” said Kayleigh Wyles, study author and environmental psychology lecturer at the University of Surrey in Britain. “It can potentially harm in terms of psychological well-being.”
On the flip side: A 2016 study in the same journal found removing other people’s garbage from the sand has mood-lifting benefits.
This Labor Day, it might just be the pandemic pick-me-up you’ve been looking for.
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