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Beaches, shops welcome visitors for unofficial start of summer

Regina Sanchez of Manchester grabbed her 7-year-old grandson’s arm and held onto it as she burrowed into her beach bag to locate a sanitizing wipe.

Her son had been reaching for the handle of the portable toilet at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme. Sanchez, surgical mask dangling from one ear, gave the handle a good wipedown before giving him the OK to go in. She wiped his hands and her own when he exited.

She laughed at the episode and said she has always been something of germaphobe and the COVID-19 pandemic has her taking extra precautions. The beach was the one place she thought of on Monday to go with family to get some needed outdoor recreation without getting “too touchy” with a large group of people.

Sanchez arrived on a cloudy Monday morning glad to find the large crowds she had anticipated had not yet materialized. She also said the other groups on the beach all seemed to be abiding by social distancing protocols — keeping blankets 15 feet apart — and most people, but not all, were wearing facial covering when walking near others.

“There’s no problems,” she said. “The kids are occupied. They’re happy. I’m relaxing with a book. I think we’re all going to get through this.”

Memorial Day is typically one of the busier days of the year for shoreline beaches, and beachgoers this year were met with some restrictions and precautionary measures, including social distancing guidelines. The number of visitors at state parks across the state also was capped based on parking lot capacity.

Several parks had closed by mid-afternoon, places like Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden and Wadsworth Falls State Park in Middletown.

There were similar capacity restrictions in place at Ocean Beach Park in New London, where an electronic sign outside New London police headquarters greeted visitors with a warning.

Sandwich board signs inside the park additionally provided a list of precautions for visitors such as staying to the right on the boardwalk and walkways and a limit of five people from the same household per group. One of the final messages on the list reads: If you don’t feel well, please go home.

Gerald Rubin of Waterford said Monday’s cloudy weather likely contributed to the smaller crowd sizes at Ocean Beach. The parking lot was barely a quarter full at 1:30 p.m.

Rubin, who sat with wife Marilyn on a bench at the entrance to Ocean Beach Park as they do on most days, said the park had set up a tent in the parking lot on Friday for health checks for employees.

The couple have been coming almost daily to Ocean Beach for decades, and the pandemic hasn’t stopped their routine.

Farther east, in Mystic, the downtown shopping district was bustling with activity as shoppers walked along the American flag-lined West Main Street or dined at some of the many eateries with outdoor space. One business owner said the crowds were not even close to what they normally would be on a sunny day.

It was the first weekend restaurants were open to outdoor dining since the state loosened restrictions in the first phase of a statewide reopening. And while state COVID-19 hospitalizations had been dropping through Sunday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced 706 virus-related hospitalizations in an update on Monday, an increase of five.

Visitors to some of the small Mystic shops, where shoulder room is often limited, were gently reminded by shopkeepers to wear masks and make use of hand sanitizer offered by some.

While some of the restaurants have outdoor space to serve food, others did not.

Mystic Pizza, the iconic pizza joint on West Main Street, had a row of small tables on the sidewalk outside. Patrons could order takeout and eat outside.

Mystic Pizza Manager Faye Zelepos said getting permission to use the tables involved a mountain of paperwork and a state Department of Transportation permit for use of a highway right-of-way for outdoor dining. 

Zelepos said the pandemic and the restrictions on restaurants has been difficult for everyone, but she also understands that staff and visitors alike want to feel safe when they dine out.

Some are not ready. The two dining rooms at the restaurant, closed along with hundreds of others across the state, would likely have been filled up on Memorial Day were it not for the pandemic.

“We’re getting by,” Zelepos said.

The one good thing for the small staff that remains working, she said, is that customers have been generous with their tips.

Joseph Schiavone of Westerly enjoyed a slice of pizza with his girlfriend outside the restaurant and said he has been out to eat and shop several times, mostly without hesititation and always with a face covering handy for close encounters.

He said he normally might take in a parade or join friends in a cookout this weekend but most parades are canceled and he hadn't heard of anyone throwing a party this year. He said he expected things to get close to normal as the weeks go by but said the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impression on his own habits.  

“I think you’ve got to remain more aware of other people and think hard before reaching out to shake a hand or whatnot. It’s the world we live in now. But you can’t just stay home and hope it all just goes away,” he said.

The latest COVID-19 numbers released Monday show a statewide total of 40,873 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 405 from Sunday, and 3,742 deaths, an increase of 49 from Sunday. That figure includes 1,043 confirmed cases in New London County, where there have been 78 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

There has also been a statewide increase of 7,590 tests administered for a total of 221,726.

For additional statewide information visit ct.gov/coronavirus 

g.smith@theday.com

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