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What you need to know before you even think about heading down the shore
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What you need to know before you even think about heading down the shore

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Corsons Inlet State Park, south of Ocean City, was reopened last Saturday and closed last Sunday after it was deemed overcrowded.

Two weeks out from Memorial Day, usually one of the biggest beach weekends of the year, Jersey Shore beaches are beginning to reopen.

But at the same time that that news hit, Gov. Phil Murphy announced he was extending the Garden State's public health emergency by 30 days. And Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvanians — who are still under stay-at-home orders — can go to the beach, but at their own risk.

There are a lot of reasons not to go right now — to stay home and get your exercise done closer to where you live.

"We're still seeing a lot of patients coming to the hospitals who are sick. We're not back to normal by any stretch," said Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of infection prevention and control for Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. "So this becomes a matter of weighing that risk with your mental health benefits of getting out."

Here's what you should know about the shore during the coronavirus pandemic.

Not all beaches are open, but more are beginning to welcome visitors, which not everyone thinks is a good idea.

What you're allowed to do there is another story. Currently, which activities are permitted vary from beach to beach, and all of them require social distancing.

"Remember, in the absence of a vaccine, or even proven therapeutics for #COVID19, our only cure is social distancing," said Murphy after announcing on Twitter the 30-day extension of the state's public health emergency.

Many beaches are only open for exercise, which is allowed under stay-at-home orders as an essential activity. By Friday, beaches including those in Avalon, Ventnor, Margate, Cape May, Long Beach Island and Stone Harbor will be open for athletic activity only. What's allowed? Activities like running, walking and fishing. Wildwood Crest is open for exercising, and also reopened its bike path and basketball and tennis courts.

Starting Friday, Wildwood and North Wildwood will be among the first beaches to reopen for people to sit — so sunbathing, reading and lying on a blanket are all possible. (It's already allowed — and was never restricted — in Atlantic City.) No large groups are permitted — a mandate for all beaches right now. And again, you have to stay at least six feet away from others at all times, which could get challenging if a lot of people start showing up.

As with Atlantic City, the Wildwood and North Wildwood Boardwalk will be open for running, walking, biking and any other activities where you can follow social distancing rules. Some restaurants are open for takeout.

Even so, if you're in a county, like Philadelphia, where stay-at-home orders are still in place, you're supposed to stay home unless traveling for an essential reason.

The reason: Staying home is still the best way to keep from getting sick and from getting other people sick. Flattening the curve and keeping it flat will mean restrictions can be lifted sooner.

Yet you won't get pulled over if you decide to head to the beach. But if you do, it's at your own risk, said Wolf. The governor acknowledged that the commonwealth can lay down as many rules as it wants, but ultimately it's residents who are going to make their own decisions about traveling.

"We've got to keep in mind this is not any formal governmental injunction. This is a virus," Wolf said. "If we ignore the virus, we do so at our peril."

Going is not risk-free. Remember: You can have the coronavirus and spread it even if you don't show symptoms. And if you choose to travel, you should be careful to follow social distancing guidelines: Have a mask, stay away from others, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face.

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One important thing to remember: Going to the beach isn't just going to the beach. You may stop for gas, need to use a washroom or encounter other people in the parking lot. And all of those are opportunities to get infected or infect others.

You'll want to bring a bottle of hand sanitizer in your car — which might be useful before you even arrive.

"At the gas station, again, you want to maintain distance, and I'd wear a face mask and have a bottle of alcohol sanitizer in the car to use after," Sachinwalla said.

With so much still unknown about the coronavirus, it's better to be cautious. And until official restrictions are lifted, experts advise against hangouts with friends who live outside your household, even if you stay six feet away from each other.

Adding other people to a beach trip increases risk to you and to them. Even if you do stay six feet apart, it's easy to accidentally touch the same objects, like the cooler, which can lead to spreading the virus. Add alcohol into the equation, and those chances become even higher.

"How well are you realistically able to social distance? You might initially think you'll just sit far apart from one another, but there's always a potential to drift," Sachinwalla said.

Bathrooms will be open at some beaches. But because that's another time you will come into contact with people and high-touch surfaces, better abide by the "go before you go" motto, and try to avoid them if you can.

"If you really have to go, wear a mask, clean your hands carefully and avoid touching surfaces that you don't need to," Sachinwalla said.

Use a paper towel to turn all bathroom doorknobs and faucets, and apply an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after you exit.

If you don't have sanitizer, will the ocean's saltwater do the job? Don't rely on it.

"Soap has detergents that help get the virus off your hands," said Sachinwalla. "Is the ocean better than nothing? Probably, but an alcohol-based hand rub is your next best bet."

Scientists don't know how the virus behaves in saltwater. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not addressed swimming in the ocean (but confirms that the virus has not been detected in drinking water). The CDC also says there's no evidence the virus can be spread to people through water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas that follow proper operation and maintenance standards. But we're still learning about the virus, so there could be a risk.

While the risk of swimming in the ocean is unknown, many experts say the biggest concern at the beach is the crowds.

"There are still a fair amount of new cases being diagnosed every day, and when you're around other people, your chances of getting infected are simply increased," Sachinwalla said.

One thing's for sure: Don't expect it to feel like last summer.

"This isn't going to be the normal beach weekend, where you're setting up those big popup tents and camping out for a whole day with multiple families," Sachinwalla said.

If you do go, Sachinwalla advises to make it a quick trip, spend most of your time walking or exercising, and keep a mask with you in case socially distancing becomes challenging. If you do want to lounge (in areas where it's permitted), social distancing is key — which means if beaches start to become packed, get yourself out of there.

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