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For many in Connecticut, COVID-19 restrictions have made it harder to go to the beach this summer

New London native Melissa Eccleston wants her daughter to have the same childhood experiences she had growing up, like spending summers at Ocean Beach Park.

But this summer, Eccleston said that’s proved nearly impossible as Ocean Beach, which is allowing fewer visitors in than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic, has filled to capacity before 10 a.m. most weekends. Eccleston said she works during the week so can’t go then when it is usually less busy.

"I've been here my whole life, and now as a parent, I would like my daughter to have the same childhood experiences at Ocean Beach that I had growing up, but with the limited capacity regulations, it is almost impossible to get even halfway down Ocean Avenue to even get close to entering the beach,” she said.

While it’s not uncommon during the summertime for places such as Ocean Beach, which is city-owned, and state parks like Rocky Neck and Harkness to close on weekends due to being full or for there to be a long line of cars waiting to get in, reduced capacity limits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have led them to close even earlier than usual.

Ocean Beach, for example, has closed at 9:30 a.m. and reopened around 4 p.m. most weekends. Posts on the beach’s Facebook page have advised those traveling from a distance not to come on weekends so as not to be turned away when they get there because the beach is at capacity.

In addition to reduced capacity limits, several towns are only allowing residents to access their beaches or selling a limited number of day passes for nonresidents, and they often charge much higher fees for nonresidents, making the persistent problem of beach access in Connecticut, with much of its shore privately owned, an even bigger issue this summer.

These measures are also being put in place in other communities across the country.

“Invariably, these measures are justified in the name of public health — and concerns about the spread of the virus shouldn’t be taken lightly. But exclusionary measures that predominantly white and wealthier communities have eagerly adopted, combined with the fact that many cities and towns are keeping public swimming pools closed to help narrow budget gaps, mean many Americans who rely on public facilities for outdoor recreation — disproportionately lower income families and people of color — will step outside this summer only to find that there are few places left for them to go,” wrote Andrew Kahrl, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia and the author of “Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline,” in a recent Op-Ed for the New York Times.

DEEP spokesman Will Healey said, “DEEP has worked very hard throughout the pandemic to maintain safe access to the beaches it oversees. Shoreline swimming areas have remained open throughout the pandemic, thanks to the hard work of our Parks staff. We are proud of the fact that we were able to keep shoreline beaches open and operating at the maximum capacity allowed by the parking and acreage available at each of those beaches. The value of these recreational resources has never been more clear as evidenced by the approximately 300% increase in the number of “at-capacity” events at our beaches this year as compared to last. Last week, DEEP also opened swimming areas at eight of its inland state parks. DEEP has also created the https://portal.ct.gov/whatsopenoutdoors webpage to help residents plan their beach outings.”

Demand for outdoor spaces has grown in Connecticut — potentially a symptom of people being cooped up indoors for months due to the pandemic. When much else was closed in Connecticut this spring, state parks remained open with reduced visitor capacity. The Connecticut Trail Census, which tracks usage of the multiuse trails around the state, found huge increases in March, April and May but said additional analysis would be needed to determine whether the jump can definitively be attributed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

Being outdoors and in nature has proved benefits for one's mental health, a fact that has taken on new importance after months of isolation.

"Just 15 minutes a day can make a big difference in someone's clarity of mind, mood and stability of emotions as well as reducing cortisol levels and overarching reduction of stress and depression," said Janelle Posey-Green, a licensed clinical social worker who co-owns Magnolia Wellness LLC in New London.

The reality is that not everyone has the same access to outdoor spaces, so Posey-Green tells her clients that even sitting outside can be beneficial.  

"You don’t have to live in a wooded area or near the ocean to receive those benefits," she said. "Sitting out on the front steps for five minutes, absorbing the sunlight and observing the sounds around you will make a significant difference in your mental health, clarity and cognitive function."

j.bergman@theday.com

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