REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. – Tracey Gersln was standing on a bench above the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk, surveying the crowd that had gathered out on the sand by noon on Independence Day.
A maskless man came huffing up the boardwalk, catching her eye.
“Hey, man, where’s your mask?” the part-time Rehoboth resident asked.
“It is my choice. Don’t bother me!” the man snapped as he strolled past.
“No, it’s not!” Gersln clapped back.
On what was expected to be one of the busiest days for Delaware’s beach towns, many signs warned visitors of a new change to the town’s rules: “Face coverings are required in all public places.”
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Earlier in the week, the city’s government amended its coronavirus pandemic rules to mandate masks be worn not only in businesses, but also on sidewalks, the boardwalk and even out on the sand. Other towns have taken similar measures, adding another layer of different to the holiday.
And up and down the boardwalk and on the sidewalks of the popular tourist town, many people were abiding the rules – at least to some extent. Some wore masks down on their chins, plenty of noses peeked over the top of the masks.
Those making their way from the boardwalk onto the beach were also greeted with signs stating: “Use the beach responsibly, masks required.”
It didn’t quite catch on.
Many wore masks on the trek to their beach nests. Lifeguards were also passing some out.
But up and down the beach, very few sunbathers kept them on.
Barbara Wieder stood out from the crowd sitting feet from the surf reading a local newspaper with her face covered. Why was she covering her face?
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“I’m not ignorant, number one,” she said before discussing her career in healthcare and the experiences of her colleagues fighting the virus in New York and New Jersey.
“It is a big disappointment, because it is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere,” said Wieder, who retired last year and lives in Rehoboth, looking out over the mostly crowded beach.
Other sunbathers were not as pessimistic.
The pandemic had Kaphil Dodson on the fence about whether to get in on a last-minute trip to the beach from Pennsylvania. Then she saw a video of the town’s mayor welcoming visitors for the weekend and they “hopped on the Harleys.”
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She didn’t wear a mask on the sand. She said they were important, but also that she felt people were spread far enough apart on the beach for it to be safe.
“I feel like as an adult, I can make that decision,” she said.
The mask requirement and the mixed feelings about it are another ripple in an already-odd beach season and Independence Day holiday. Fireworks up and down the shore were canceled. Bar service is banned and restaurants and other businesses were mandated to operate at 60% capacity.
The point of the mask and other restrictions is to try to stem the spread of the virus, which is seeing an uptick in the rate of new cases, state officials say. The beaches have been a particular concern for health officials.
“The beach on last Saturday was just really, really full,” Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks said earlier in the week. “There was no social distancing.”
Residents said they’ve seen the crowds ebb during the pandemic, but most said Saturday’s crowd wasn’t normal for such a weekend.
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Some small piece of normalcy returned earlier this week with the partial reopening of Funland, the popular family-run amusement park that has operated on the boardwalk for six decades. The business’s games were open, but the rides remained closed.
Harry Keswani has run Atlantic Jewelry on the boardwalk for some 35 years. He said he’s seen the crowds building leading up to Saturday.
“People are happy to just be out,” he said.
But the pandemic is different from other disasters like a storm, which might derail things for a few days or a week, he said.