Beach Access, Covid 19, Legal
May 19 2020

Expert Panel Provides Guidance for Beach Access During COVID-19

by Angela Howe

The COVID-19 public health crisis has brought protection of public health into significant tension with the people's right to access and enjoy our shorelines. In response, the Surfrider Foundation assembled an expert task force to address whether and how to allow access to the beach during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This  issue requires consideration of many important factors, which is why we assembled a team of highly accomplished experts in public health, coastal management, environmental justice, and public policy to guide the Beach Access during COVID-19 Guidance report. 

You can see the full report here

The guidance is intended as a first step to lay out important principles and a framework for coastal regulators to consider when making management decisions about beach access.  Of course local context matters, including unique demographics and geographic features, and regional and local details regarding status of public health and pandemic recovery, propensity for crowding, open space opportunities and equity considerations, as well as the predominant local shoreline uses. 

The Surfrider Foundation has a long history of fighting to protect and promote beach access and coastal recreation opportunities; however, we are in an unprecedented time that requires some public beach closures for a temporary period. The Beach Access Expert Panel was called upon to utilize their specific expertise to inform local and state beach access policy making.  As a strong network of coastal users, Surfrider Foundation is relied upon throughout the nation for timely, thoughtful and considerate advice on the protection and enjoyment of coastal resources in an equitable manner. This guidance informs beach access and management decisions in the difficult time of the coronavirus pandemic, including the ability, frequency and manner in which the public may be able to use the beach. The guiding principles developed by the experts are detailed below: 

PRINCIPLES 

1. Public Trust and Mental Health

The public has an inherent right of access to and along all beaches and shorelines. Beaches, coastal parks, and the ocean are public spaces, held in the public trust by the government. Beach access and coastal and ocean use are part of important traditional, historical and/or customary practices. Studies have shown that public beach access and ocean recreation are important contributors to good health and mental wellness.

2. Limiting Access When Necessary

Public health and safety – protecting the public from illness or injury – is a paramount concern. In order to prioritize public health, maintain physical distancing requirements, and avoid overcrowding beaches and coastal parks, some areas will require management approaches that limit access. Closing beaches or limiting access runs counter to the public’s interest in shoreline access, except in situations where there is a severe threat to public health and safety or to prevent undue ecological harm. Restrictions on access should be temporary when possible and emergency public health issues should not be used to permanently exclude people from public spaces.

3. Science and Consultation

Restrictions on access and associated management practices should be based on science and determined by public health priorities in close consultation with public officials and other relevant management authorities. The necessary measures to protect public health and safety should take into account impacts on personal freedoms and privileges of access.

4. Equity in Coastal Access

Beach and ocean access have historically been exclusive of non-coastal communities, people with disabilities, communities of color, and other underserved communities. Efforts should be made to ensure equitable access to, and use of, beaches and coastal areas.

5. Public Open Spaces in Every Community

Compliance with most stay-at-home orders requires citizens to minimize travel outside of their home area (e.g. 5 miles) to avoid transmission of the virus from one community to another. To maximize compliance with stay-at- home orders and public access, efforts should be made to safely provide access to public open spaces in every community, coastal and non-coastal, to allow for physically-distanced essential recreation.

6. Public Responsibility

Safe access to the coast requires that the public follow the guidelines that have been established to promote public health. The effectiveness of beach restriction measures will depend upon the actions of the people who are visiting the beach. To keep beaches open, beachgoers must act as good stewards of our environment and communities and follow the best practices put forth by public health and coastal management experts.

The guidance document goes on to give general management guidelines and lay out potential management options. This includes the call for regional coordination, clear public communication of regulations in all relevant languages, and the recommendation to consider a phased approach dependent on activity level.  In the appendices, there are also links to other beach management laws that have been recently put in place to govern in the wake of COVID-19.

Both the pandemic and these management actions are unprecedented. We intend to evolve these recommendations, as needed, as more research emerges about coronavirus and the public's response to management actions.  Additionally, we'd like to thank the Expert Panel for volunteering their time and expertise for this critical endeavor.

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