Atlantic beach towns brace for summer vacationers - but know it won't be the same

After a stressful year, Terri Senter couldn't be more ready for a beach vacation. But the coronavirus has thwarted her plans at every turn.

Senter and her husband, Gene, booked a trip from home in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Daytona Beach, Florida, for early May. When the chances of the city reopening by that point seemed remote, she rebooked for June 15, assuming the pandemic would have played out by then. Now with that date a few weeks away, she figures there's still a heightened chance of contracting COVID-19. That's a risk she's unwilling to take as caregiver to her 90-year-old mother.

"I keep trying to tell myself so many people have it way worse off than we do," said Senter, who worries she may lose the $1,000 in reservations she has plunked down already. "But that doesn't discount my feelings. I am disappointed."

Other families are facing the same tough decisions about their vacations this year.

A visit to the eastern shore is a rite of summer for many. From Maine to Florida, Atlantic beach towns attract visitors ready to frolic in the waves, savor fries or frozen custard on the boardwalk or simply soak up rays under a beach umbrella.

But this year, fears of the coronavirus are throwing plans by the wayside. Those who considered the annual trek to East Coast beaches as fundamental as visiting family at Thanksgiving are being forced to reconsider.

The fears go beyond simply a higher risk of catching the virus. Inconsistent policies by states and communities are making it hard to plan as local leaders decide how to best try to salvage local economies while emerging from strict stay-at-home orders.

Policies vary widely in some states, a hodgepodge of rules from one beach town to the next. In others, the states have rules in place that impede summer visitors.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo said the next phase of reopenings won't likely occur until after Memorial Day, including the continued closure of beaches.

In Middletown, Rhode Island, the town administrator said details on how to handle summer beach visitors were still being worked out. "Each beach is different, and the town council needs to decide what's best for Middletown," Town Administrator Shawn Brown said in an email.

Tourism-related businesses have been stymied by a policy of requiring out-of-staters to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“I’m hoping it’s the first week of June that the quarantine is lifted, but by July 1 at the latest,” said Walter Andrews, general manager of the Newport Marriott, the largest hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. “It’s crucial we have a date. I can’t make a move without direction from the state.”

New York state beaches will reopen the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Gov. Mario Cuomo said. In announcing the reopening, the state joins New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut.

But expect to find new rules at any beach. Those flocking to Cocoa Beach, Florida, must not gather in groups of more than five and must stay at least six feet from other groups. Violators face potential $500 fines. Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina has limited groups to 10 and doesn't allow sunbathing or just sitting — only "non-stationary exercise activities" like walking, jogging, swimming and surfing/water sports.

As summer nears, the restrictions could ease and the crowds will follow, beach town locals predict.

Atlantic beach towns brace for summer vacationers - but know it won't be the same

"People are tired of being cooped up in the house, and once the governor gives that OK, it's going to get crowded again," said Devon Byrd, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

But if COVID-19 starts making a comeback, the rules — and perhaps new ones — could be reimposed. Against that backdrop of uncertainty, families are having to lay bets about whether try to attempt their usual vacations.

Scott Kessler of Stuarts Draft, Virginia, and his family typically visit Virginia Beach several times a year. They stay at the Best Western Sandcastle on 13th Street. They always eat at Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant. They schedule their trips for August or September so they can attend an Old Dominion University football game.

This year, the plan was to go Sept. 4 to watch Old Dominion University play Wake Forest University, then make a weekend of it by getting in some beach time. Facing COVID-19, Kessler is uncertain if that will happen.

Atlantic beach towns brace for summer vacationers - but know it won't be the same

“We're likely going to wait to see what happens to the virus before we make any concrete plans,” Kessler said.

He’s hoping conditions are better later in the summer. Even if he can go, he knows it won't be the same.

Kessler said they probably won’t eat at Captain George’s. They’ll still likely take a swim in the ocean, but do so while practicing social distancing.

Going to a crowded football game is a concern, but if the family goes, Kessler said they’ll wear face masks.

Amie Michael of Mount Sidney, Virginia, usually goes with her family to Virginia Beach shortly after school is out for the year. She’s a teacher and with one child still in high school and another in college; it’s an end-of-school-year celebration. They're waiting to see what happens.

“It has been booked for months,” she said. “We are still hoping to go, but will cancel if the beach doesn't open.”

If they do go, dining and activities around towns could be challenges. Even though popular Rehoboth Beach in Delaware's boardwalk and beach have reopened, bars and restaurants are still takeout only. Short-term rentals and hotels are also not yet back.

Merchants, whose fortunes depend on strong summer business, are hoping for the best. They know this will be a summer like no other — both in terms of how many customers to expect and the precautions they will need to take to keep them safe.

"I think it could be a healthy mix of apprehension and excitement," said Karen Sphar, executive vice president of the Southport Oak Island Area Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina. "If you are a business owner, you are extremely excited and ready to go. You may have been limping along a little bit, but now you are looking forward to getting business back into your establishment."

Atlantic beach towns brace for summer vacationers - but know it won't be the same

Vacationers may want to isolate themselves in beach shacks or seaside apartments that they can treat as their own homes with less worry about the coronavirus left behind by past guests. They will be encouraged to shun crowds.

"People want to get away and have a safe vacation," said Isaac Baker, marketing director for Treasure Realty in Topsail Beach, North Carolina. "There's no better place to be than in the sunshine on the beach."