Gov. Ralph Northam is letting Virginia Beach reopen on Friday, just days after warm weather brought large crowds to the oceanfront that is technically still closed to swimming and sunbathing.
At a press conference Northam said Virginia Beach had improved its plans for social distancing enough to gain his approval to reopen. There are still restrictions on beach activity: sports, alcohol, and large groupings of tents or umbrellas are prohibited. Northam also said he would not hesitate to “close the beach outright” if Virginians do not follow the new rules.
“You must be responsible,” Northam said.
Virginia Beach will be the only beach to reopen on the state’s eastern shore. Northam encouraged other beach towns to use Virginia Beach as a model for their own reopenings.
Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer urged residents and visitors to not take reopening for granted.
“Let’s remember, this is a short term inconvenience for a long term gain. We have to ensure that we are safe and that people who want to come to our beaches feel that they are safe and welcome,” Dyer said.
The sheer number of visitors this weekend made it seem like summer had come early as people crowded into shops, sampled fudge and dined at restaurants.
May 15 marked the beginning of Virginia’s first phase of recovery from coronavirus restrictions. Businesses and places of worship were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and restaurants were allowed to begin serving people at tables outdoors, as long as they are spaced 6 feet apart. But state beaches were technically still closed to activities other than fishing and exercise.
“I’m just shocked by the amount of people,” Kayla Thomas told the Virginian-Pilot. She wore a face mask and plastic gloves to serve snow cones from Mimi’s Boardwalk Concessions. She said the weekend crowds were like the normal crowds you’d see in early summer.
Bruce Whitfield, who was working the fudge counter over the weekend at the Pier Gift Shop, said they are working with a skeleton crew.
“A lot of our employees are afraid to come back,” he told the Virginian-Pilot. Whitfield noted that employees of the gift shop wear masks sometimes but often feel they have to flip them up above their mouths to talk with customers.