York will begin the process of reopening its beaches next week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic led to a statewide shutdown that prohibited large groups of people from gathering.

The town said it will allow active use of the town beaches – walking, running, fishing and surfing – as part of a “soft opening” on May 18.

Beach users will be required to practice social distancing, meaning staying at least 6 feet from other people. But if they observe that rule, they won’t need to wear face masks, Town Manager Stephen Burns said.

“The tan lines would be awful,” Burns joked.

York selectmen agreed Monday night to open the beaches next week by amending a previous order that restricted access to town-owned land.

Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter said his town opened its beach Monday, operating under the same rules as York. He said there were no problems the first couple of days, except for less-than-ideal beach weather and a piping plover nest that is forcing beach-goers to avoid using the main entrance to the sand.


Burns said the “soft opening” will allow the town to assess how people use the beach and whether they abide by the rules before opening the sands to more extensive use in mid-June.

“That’s going to be the test – how responsible will the public be?” he said. “I have confidence that they will do the right thing.”

Burns said the town has had several beach issues to contend with in recent years, including whether people should be allowed to use beach umbrellas – which restrict lifeguards’ vision – and whether the town should provide trash cans or adopt a carry-in, carry-out approach to trash. Having town crews empty trash cans, he said, is more costly.

Burns also said the town is trying to be flexible with businesses as they open for the critical summer season. Restaurants, for example, will be allowed to expand outdoor seating by using a parking area or sidewalk to meet social distancing guidelines, he said. Doing so will merely require a permit from the police if they deem it safe, rather than going through a time-consuming planning process.

Many town businesses are only open during the summer, so adapting to what Burns calls “2020 normal” has to be a speedy process.

“Their message to the selectmen is, ‘If there’s no summer, there’s no winter,’ ” he said.


In planning to reopen following the statewide shutdown ordered in mid-March, the town decided to take steps “we would never have done in normal circumstances,” he said.

If the soft opening goes well, Burns said, the town will open up public restrooms and the Sohier Park gift shop on June 1 and then tackle some issues it has deferred so it can permanently reopen the beaches for the summer in mid-June. Town officials have already decided that lifeguards will be posted on the beaches, he said.

He said enforcement of the rules will be soft and the town will mainly respond when the public reports problems. He said enforcement of some state rules would be difficult.

Visitors from out-of-state are supposed to self-quarantine for two weeks when they arrive, for example, but town officials have no way of knowing whether they are actually doing so.

A proposal that town residents be given armbands to distinguish them from outsiders was rejected as too draconian, Burns said.

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