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East Lyme to close town beaches to nonresidents

East Lyme — In an effort to limit crowds but keep beaches open during summer months while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously voted at a virtual meeting Monday to ban nonresidents from the town’s three beaches beginning Memorial Day weekend.

The decision is not permanent and could be lifted should social distancing measures loosen, the commission decided, but will at least allow town residents to more safely recreate while keeping crowds at bay as more stringent social distancing measures are still in place.

Beginning Memorial Day weekend, nonresidents will not be allowed on the town’s three beaches: McCook’s Point Park & Beach, Hole-in-the-Wall Beach and Niantic Bay Beach at Cini Park. Residents can enter beach parks only by having a season pass, or by walking in with proof of residence. Both passes and IDs will be checked by attendants sitting at beach entrances.

Season passes will be available for only residents to purchase, while beach day passes will be sold to neither residents nor nonresidents for the time being.

Nonresidents still will be allowed to use the Niantic Bay Boardwalk but will have to park either in downtown lots or on Main Street. 

Parks & Recreation Director Dave Putnam said by phone Tuesday the commission and his department still are working out how best to implement the new rules, as well as what staffing will be needed to maintain the rules.

The decision comes after the town mandated a one-way walking pattern last month on its boardwalk to help promote better social distancing, and as other surrounding towns — including Old Lyme and Waterford — had closed their municipal beaches to both residents and nonresidents.

"This is the commission’s effort to keep the beaches open in some capacity," Putnam said. "Otherwise, they would have to close." He added the town still could decide to close its beaches depending on decisions Gov. Ned Lamont may make in the coming weeks.

“All this is fluid. If the governor shuts down state parks, or if he orders that all state park parking is limited to 25%, then I think we have to follow suit,” First Selectman Mark Nickerson said at Monday's meeting. “We are following the state on this. If they start shutting down parks, if they think beaches should be closed ... then we are going to do the same thing. This is fluid. Our policies are not locked in.”

Commission members noted at Monday's meeting that those visiting the town's beaches and parks as of late have been, for the most part, following social distancing rules. But members also acknowledged beach traffic likely will pick up considerably as the weather warms, and especially as surrounding beaches are closed, potentially funneling beachgoers into East Lyme.

“Again, the safety of our patrons is first and foremost,” Putnam said by phone Tuesday. “Believe me, this is the last thing we want to do. As a revenue thing, this is a big hit and it presents some issues with staffing. We are going to have to look at the budget and see where we can make some savings. But safety, safety, safety is our goal.”

Putnam said 40% of the money the town collects through beach passes annually comes from nonresident season and day pass sales alone. He added that, despite an expected loss in revenue this upcoming year, the town made more than it anticipated in beach pass sales last year —  $10,000 alone was collected from out-of-town beach pass sales last Fourth of July, he said — helping balance anticipated revenue reductions this year.

Resident season pass rates, which were passed by the commission earlier this year, are $40 for a resident vehicle and $20 for seniors 62 years old and over. Passes will be on sale on the town’s website Monday, May 11, and will be mailed to residents.

“We had a really good summer last summer, so we have a little bit of a buffer there,” Putnam said. “But we are still figuring out how to manage the budget.” 

Last summer’s sales, however, also demonstrate just how busy the town’s beaches can get, Putnam said, describing McCook Point and Hole-in-the-Wall beaches as packed with people nearly on top of one another last Fourth of July.

“There’s no way to maintain social distancing when the beaches are that busy,” he said.

During Monday’s meeting, commission members questioned whether the town could legally enact rules banning nonresidents from using its beaches and specifically referenced a 2001 Connecticut Supreme Court case involving the town of Greenwich ruling municipalities could not prohibit nonresidents from using municipal parks and beaches.

Putnam argued at the meeting that the present situation “is a whole different scenario."

“I’m willing to fight this one,” Nickerson said in response. “I’m willing to look the judge in the eye and go, 'Listen, we did it for the right reasons, not to exclude those people, but to keep the beachgoers safe and secure and healthy.'”

The Parks and Recreation Department had started implementing operational changes to help promote social distancing among park patrons in recent weeks: Summer staffers already are working beach entrances reminding people of social distancing measures. Town police are monitoring beach traffic and crowds on weekends. The town also has closed its playgrounds and basketball courts, among other measures.

The Parks and Recreation Commission and Department also are considering changes in its parking policy to further limit crowds on days that are expected to be very busy — in particular, the Fourth of July.

The commission also discussed whether public bathrooms should be reopened, as well as the safety of summer workers, such as lifeguards, who may have to come into close contact with the public during emergencies.

Though the commission and Putnam's department will continue to work on the answers to those questions, Putnam said Tuesday it is possible the town may not provide lifeguards at town beaches this summer. The department also will not place a floating raft in the water at McCook Point Beach this summer, unless current social distancing protocols change.

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” he said, adding that he and the commission would continue to make decisions as the summer progresses. “This is killing me, this is hard personally, it’s hard to make these restrictions. We are all about bringing people together and recreating and now we are asking people to stay apart. It’s a hard time for parks and rec professionals and commissions to make these types of decisions.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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