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A slow beach reopening means summer might look different for Harvard this year

At the Harvard town beach, bright orange netting is wrapped copiously around a plastic play structure; the metal skeletons of a swingset and volleyball court, void of swings and net, stand to one side; metal trash cans have been turned over to prevent use, and, at the water’s edge, the pond’s floating docks lie beached. Cautionary signage posted at the entrance and around the beach’s perimeter drive the message home: beach closed.

On a cloudy 60-degree morning in May this does not feel so odd, but the picture isn’t likely to change much as the weather gets warmer over the next few weeks.

The opening date varies from year to year, but the beach is typically staffed from at least 1 to 5 p.m. starting in early June.

This year, with the exception of the boat launch, which is fully operational, the beach is currently off-limits. There are no picnic tables or lifeguards and no access to bathrooms or the playground. This is how it will be for at least the next few days, until June 1.

Like all public amenities in Massachusetts, the town beach is subject to guidelines put forth in Gov. Charlie Baker’s phased reopening plan. When and how it will reopen depends heavily on the trends of the coronavirus and local interpretation of the governor’s guidelines.

Harbormaster Bob O’Shea at the town beach. (Courtesy photo)

Currently, in phase one of the reopening process, the state allows beaches to reopen. However, Harvard Harbormaster Robert O’Shea says the stringent social distancing requirements that ask people to keep at least 6 feet apart even when in the water are impossible to meet when children are involved. “Nobody would be foolish enough to believe they can keep kids 6 feet apart when they are in the water,” he said.

The approach is not what O’Shea would have liked. “I would have asked parents to stay 12 feet apart and ignore what kids are doing,” he said, adding that he felt a lack of social distancing was “less of a problem than having people out swimming without lifeguards.” However, possible liability issues posed by the Board of Health led O’Shea and members of the Parks and Rec Commission, which O’Shea chairs, to believe keeping the beach closed was the only option.

The lack of lifeguards is the reason for the beached docks and absent ropes. As harbormaster, O’Shea is responsible for anything that goes in the water and describes unsupervised ropes and docks as an “attractive nuisance ... you basically have invited people to go into a dangerous situation in the water. You’ve kind of attracted the kids to be out there,” he explains.

Summer jobs at risk

The uncertainty over when and how the beach will reopen has left many of Harvard’s young people without a sure summer job. Owen Fitzsimmons, a 15-year-old Harvard resident, has spent past summers working as a swimming and sailing aide, helping out the instructors at the town beach. He doesn’t know if that position will be an option this summer. “I haven’t been told much,” he said, adding that he had heard from his colleagues at the beach that even if lifeguards are brought back, the town might not employ water instructors.

Fitzsimmons is disappointed but feels that the town is making the right call by not opening the beaches yet. “I definitely want to swim and I definitely want there to be guards out there now, but for the health of everyone it’s for the best,” he said.

Beach regulations will be evolving throughout the summer. O’Shea said that on June 1 the beach will not be operating as usual, but will no longer be off-limits. O’Shea compares this to how the beach is after 5 p.m. during a typical summer. There will be no lifeguard and no bathrooms except for a port-a-potty that will be sanitized after each use by the sticker checker. Additionally, there will be no ropes or rafts in the water and the playground will likely remain closed.

Safety remains a concern

Julie Shoemaker, a Harvard resident and mother of two, said that since it’s still early in the season, the lack of beach access hasn’t had much of an impact yet, but she worries about safety as the summer progresses. Her children, ages 9 and 11, have been taking lessons at the town beach for five years, and she says they typically spend a few days a week swimming, boating, and enjoying the beach once school is out. She doesn’t see a scenario where a closed beach means people don’t swim. “People will still swim but more people will be swimming off of boats and rafts, which is more dangerous, particularly with motorboats,” she wrote in an email. She said that if the beach remains closed, the town should consider limiting motorboating or the speed of those boats to keep the pond safe for swimmers who are no longer protected by ropes and lifeguards.

So far, Shoemaker agrees with the precautions the town has taken but recognizes this as the beginning of a complicated process. “It[’s] coming weeks that carry the really difficult decisions,” she wrote. As guidelines change, she hopes the town will be looking at data showing the role beach use plays in spreading the coronavirus and comparing that with what she describes as “the psychological benefits” of access to outdoor recreational spaces.

As the state moves into later phases of reopening, the town will follow suit and beach restrictions may be relaxed. At the Board of Health meeting Tuesday night, board members expressed willingness to issue a beach permit if the Parks and Rec Commission later decides to make the beach operational. The choice would be highly dependent on coronavirus trends, and the permit could be issued with the inclusion of certain restrictions.

Later in the summer, if lifeguarding is reimplemented, O’Shea foresees a possible budgeting issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that beach and pool staff ensure that “lifeguards who are actively lifeguarding are not also expected to monitor handwashing, use of cloth face coverings, or social distancing of others.” This advisory means that additional staff would need to be employed specifically to enforce social distancing and other health guidelines, which O’Shea said may mean charging residents an extra fee for beach access.

Currently, there are no plans for swimming or boating lessons, which are usually offered for both children and adults throughout July and August. A town employee will check stickers, which are still available for parking and boat launch privileges and can be purchased on the town website. If a resident purchases a sticker specifically for beach access and the beach does not open or is forced to reclose after a short period, O’Shea says refunds would be available upon request.

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