Bob Purcell, a beach ambassador with the York Parks and Recreation Department, talks to sisters Laureen Hurley, left, and Lisa Sachetta at Long Sands Beach in York on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

YORK — Bob Purcell emerged from the dense fog that cloaked Long Sands Beach, pulling his mask onto his face as he greeted a visitor and offered to help carry her belongings to the sand.

A few minutes later he chatted with a man from Massachusetts about the new bath house as visitors streamed by, lugging chairs and coolers and umbrellas. He headed back down the beach to make sure everyone was setting up at least 6 feet apart.

For Purcell, it was just another day at the beach. But the Cape Neddick man is one of Maine’s newest front-line workers in the fight against the coronavirus: a beach ambassador.

“With COVID-19, you see a lot of people approach the beach and wonder if it is safe,” Purcell said. “I want to make sure they feel comfortable. I’m looking to make their stay here as pleasant as possible.”

In three of southern Maine’s busiest beach towns, municipal leaders are using grants from the state to hire ambassadors to welcome visitors, remind them to practice physical distancing and wear masks, and answer questions about local regulations adopted to slow the spread of the virus.

“It makes sense to bring these people on to address these issues in a friendly way. They welcome people to the beach, say we’re glad to have them here, but there are rules to follow,” said Jeff Patten, director of beach operations in York, where 13 community ambassadors are working at the beaches and Mount Agamenticus.

The Mills administration recently awarded nearly $9 million in grants to 100 towns and cities under the Keep Maine Healthy Plan. The federal funding reimburses municipalities for costs associated with enforcement and education, such as staff time paid to a code enforcement officer, local health officer or other government employee charged with educating local businesses on best health practices.

In coastal towns that rely heavily on out-of-state visitors and welcome them by the tens of thousands, public awareness campaigns funded through Keep Maine Healthy grants are a key part of local strategies to respond to the pandemic. Without the funding, town managers say they wouldn’t have enough staff to remind visitors of the safety guidelines needed to keep businesses and beaches open.

“Our ambassadors are the first line of defense with education and information,” said Robin Cogger, York’s parks and recreation director.

Bob Purcell, a beach ambassador in York, has heard locals thank him for doing something good for the community. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In Ogunquit, where the year-round population of 1,330 soars to around 38,000 in summer, ambassadors will spread out across town to remind visitors to wear masks and help if crowds gather outside of businesses.

“The intent is that a friendly, welcoming approach will be more effective at keeping people safe than the threat of issuing tickets and fines. But we want to be clear: We have and will issue citations and fines if someone refuses to wear a mask or keep their distance and they are disruptive, belligerent or worse,” said Town Manager Patricia Finnigan. “We think that keeping people’s visit enjoyable and allowing people to have some semblance of an enjoyable experience while adhering to all CDC guidelines so everyone feels and is safe will be appreciated and well received.”

‘A FRIENDLY APPROACH’

Ogunquit town leaders have spent the past few months looking at ways to keep people safe and help businesses open for the summer season. A COVID-19 task force meets weekly to talk about how to respond to the pandemic and make recommendations to the select board. A key strategy is the public awareness campaign the town partnered with the chamber of commerce to launch, said Madeline Mooney, chair of the select board.

“For us, the outreach program and ambassadors are critical to our success in keeping everyone safe,” she said. “They’ll take a friendly approach with asking people to comply, whether it’s masks or distancing while waiting in line.”

For the past several years Ogunquit has had community service officers who help with parking enforcement, large crowds and events during the summer. This year they have new COVID-19 related tasks: assisting individuals and businesses with physical distancing, offering people masks and providing public health information.

The town will use $36,000 of the nearly $234,000 it received through Keep Maine Healthy to hire ambassadors who will “be the friendly face to encourage people to wear masks and physically distance themselves,” Finnigan said. They’ll be paid $15 per hour, a similar pay rate to Wells and York.

On the beaches they will make sure groups are spaced 12 feet apart, the local rule for the summer to allow families plenty of space to spread out. Three ambassadors will be stationed along Marginal Way to help a community service officer enforce the town’s requirement that all walkers wear masks because the popular path is so narrow it’s nearly impossible to maintain 6 feet of physical distance.

The ambassadors will also look out for congestion in Town Square, Perkins Cove and other popular areas, and help businesses manage lines and crowds.

“Most of our restaurants are doing a great job of putting all safeguards in place to keep their employees and guests safe. But we have had some businesses say they could use some help with managing congregations outside businesses and to keep people moving,” Finnigan said.

People spread out at Long York Sands Beach in York. Beach ambassadors walk the beach to ensure people are following social-distancing, mask-wearing and other rules. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Ogunquit police have issued one citation to a person who not following public safety orders. Officers tell people that they can be charged for creating an imminent health hazard under state law and fined up to $1,000. The citation was issued to a jogger who was running without a mask and didn’t stop to take one offered by a community service officer.

Finnigan said the jogger misunderstood what the community service officer was trying to do and was very apologetic. Based on that, officers issued a local fine of $50 for not wearing a face covering, she said.

Wells is hiring 10 ambassadors and the first was expected to be out around town over the weekend. The town hasn’t had many applications for the job, which pays $15 an hour, but police Capt. Kevin Chabot hopes there are outgoing people willing to take on the challenge.

“I think it’s a pretty good gig walking the beach and talking to people. If you’re outgoing and an extrovert, this is a great job,” he said.

Ambassadors go through a daylong training program that includes discussions with a doctor about COVID-19 and why physical distancing and masking are needed.

“They need to be able to explain to the public why it’s important. Sometimes that’s the catalyst to get people to do it,” Chabot said.

Chabot worries that some people may react badly to reminders from ambassadors to wear masks or maintain distance, a concern shared by those who oversee the York and Ogunquit programs. The Wells ambassadors will look for voluntary compliance and can call police to deal with any tense situations that require enforcement, he said.

“I don’t want somebody getting into a confrontation with people. That’s not their responsibility,” Chabot said.

‘THE JOY IN PEOPLE’S FACES’

The community ambassadors in York have diverse backgrounds and include teachers and a retired hospital administrator. All see the importance of sharing information about public health. They have been on the job since late June and have been a welcome presence for lifeguards and police officers who have other tasks to focus on, said Patten, the beach operations manager.

Purcell, who is in his 60s, recently sold his electronics company and found himself unemployed for the first time. He was drawn to the community ambassador job as a way to stay busy and help deliver a message he sees as important. He doesn’t see any downside to the ambassador program and hopes it continues even after the virus is gone.

Bob Purcell walks the beach, chats with people and makes sure they are following rules for social distancing and mask wearing. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I’ve had locals thank me,” he said. “They feel we’re doing something good for the community.”

Clad in neon green shirts with a message on the back reminding people to stay 6 feet away from others, most ambassadors work four-hour shifts and roam a section of beach. Last week, Purcell arrived for a shift at 9 a.m. and was assigned to Long Sands Beach near the bath house.

“I leave the house in the morning, and I don’t say I’m going to work. I say I’m going to the beach,” he said.

Purcell, armed with an outgoing personality and people skills he learned as an 11-year-old grocery store clerk in Boston, tries to find a way to connect with everyone he sees. They talk about books, kids and the beauty of York. He often asks about their mothers and especially enjoys chatting with pairs of sisters.

Purcell rarely has to remind people to stay apart on the beach. It can be a little trickier at high tide when the beach is narrow, but most people leave to avoid being crowded, he said. Around the bath house, people are generally good about wearing masks and following the one-way direction of foot traffic.

“People know there are rules. There is less trying to circumvent the rules than ever before,” he said. “People want to social distance. It’s not like the old days when people grabbed any spot they could.”

Purcell has had trouble with only one beachgoer so far, and it wasn’t coronavirus-related. When Purcell told a surfer that surfing wasn’t allowed at that time, the man said he wanted to talk to police. Officers were able to defuse the situation.

Undeterred by that interaction, Purcell focuses on how friendly and willing to connect people are these days. He keeps a small spiral-bound notebook in the back pocket of his shorts, occasionally pulling it out to jot notes about the people he meets. He was particularly struck by a conversation he had with a 50-year-old man who told Purcell he is dying of cancer. They talked about books and meditation and mindfulness.

“It gives people confidence they can come to the beach and be safe,” he said. “I’ve seen the joy in people’s faces. A lot of people tell me it’s the first time they’ve been to the beach since last year.”

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