As COVID-19 cases climb at Delaware beaches, businesses struggle to stay staffed, healthy

Maddy Lauria
Delaware News Journal

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of police officers hired by Dewey Beach this summer.

This Fourth of July weekend, beaches in coastal destinations like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles County will be closed in an effort to stop beachgoers from spreading the coronavirus among family, friends and strangers there – and when they return home.

But in Delaware, the beaches will remain open – with a lot of new restrictions in place, including for the businesses beachgoers often frequent.

"Over the last couple weeks we have experienced an uptick, a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the beach areas specifically," Gov. John Carney said during a press briefing on Tuesday. "We also have witnessed – across our state, but particularly in the beach communities – complacency with respect to mask wearing and social distancing."

That resurgence has led the state to indefinitely delay its reopening process, as well as change the way Delaware's beach towns have been operating.

Some beach bars have been forced to close. State parks are offering limited admissions. A Fourth of July fireworks show in Dewey Beach has been canceled. And a new requirement makes masks mandatory virtually everywhere in Rehoboth — all decisions made to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 as thousands are expected to hit the Delaware coast for the holiday weekend.

RELATED:Bars at Delaware beaches to close ahead of July 4 weekend

New restrictions on businesses will mean some of the largely seasonal bartenders may find themselves once again reapplying for unemployment this weekend. July is the last month for an additional federal unemployment contribution of $600, a perk that some say has already been a partial cause of a serious shortage of workers this summer.

“Until that is no longer available, that only added to the worker shortage,” said Carol Everhart, president and CEO at the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. 

Public health data also shows COVID-19 cases are now hitting the 18-25 age group the hardest. That's the same age group that often fills seasonal jobs at many beach businesses like arcades and restaurants, and includes many lifeguards and seasonal officers who are tasked with enforcing those same mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements.

"The average age has dropped significantly and a lot of the people testing are not symptomatic, which frankly is problematic in addressing any outbreak that we're seeing," Carney said. Data shows that statewide hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are not significantly increasing.

Testing for COVID-19 was held at the Starboard in Dewey Beach on Monday, June 29th. Hundreds showed up for the Oral Swab Test held in conjunction with DEMA, Delaware National Guard, Starboard and Sussex County EMS.

RELATED:Taking a Delaware beach trip for the Fourth of July? Here's what you need to know

For workers who haven’t been clocking in during the pandemic, fears of catching the coronavirus or spreading it to vulnerable loved ones may be keeping them away from their summer jobs. For some, restrictions on traveling and rentals made it hard to secure a summer place to stay in time to start a seasonal gig.

Plus, there’s President Donald Trump’s executive order quashing international visas like J-1 student worker visas, which provide hundreds of workers for seasonal beach businesses each year.

In the small communities that are part of the "quiet resorts" that Lauren Weaver oversees as executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, 700 workers on J-1 visas usually supplement the area’s workforce. In the Rehoboth-Dewey area, that number is closer to 1,000.

“There may be a few that got here, but we do not have anywhere near the number of international students we had,” Everhart said, noting that those workers usually juggle multiple seasonal jobs. “The timing of all of this just couldn’t have been worse in a lot of categories.”

Now, as testing ramps up in Delaware’s coastal resort communities, businesses are also losing workers to positive tests.

Employees in places like restaurants and bars and front-line workers like lifeguards and seasonal officers physically work closely together. After hours, those younger workers often live together and share the cost of expensive rental housing for the summer.

And for anyone who has ever spent summers waiting tables or serving drinks at the beach, the party life is also a sure sign of summer.

“Young people, they tend to do what they want to do: go to bars and big crowds or go to party houses,” said Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns. But he said he thinks attitudes may be shifting as cases among young people, ranging in age from 18-25, begin to climb in Delaware.

“The hope there is maybe people start to realize even though it’s been three or four months, there’s some serious times in our future,” he said.

Concerns about what staffers do after hours have also been in the mind of beach town lifeguard captains.

Some towns, like Dewey Beach, are struggling with dire financial situations caused by the pandemic, which has led to discussions about reducing staff like lifeguards. It’s already meant a reduction of code enforcement officers there, which means police are being tasked with dealing with parking-related issues on top of public safety, officials said.

LEARN YOUR RISK:Delaware beach towns balance risks, economics during COVID-19

Lifeguards watch over a crowded Bethany Beach on a warm breezy Wednesday, June 10. They've been trained to work in teams for rescues, wearing masks and gloves when possible due to coronavirus.

As for the lifeguards, officials have said three tested positive in Rehoboth Beach while another two working at Delaware State Parks also tested positive.

But there’s only so much resort town employees can do. In Rehoboth Beach, for example, the local police force is understaffed with only 16 officers.

In Dewey Beach, officials had hoped to hire up to 20, but also only have 16, said Dewey Beach Commissioner David Moskowitz.

If officials require face masks in the commercial district as well as the boardwalk, officers stopping people there means officers will not be somewhere else, Rehoboth Police Chief Keith Banks said during a public meeting Tuesday.

It also means that if more officers quit or get sick, it may be nearly impossible to refill the ranks. It takes several weeks of training to get someone on board, and at this point, summer would be over by the time they could be assigned.

Nonetheless, officials in Rehoboth Beach decided to move forward with a citywide requirement for face masks in public places, with a few exceptions like when people are actively swimming or have medical conditions.

The medical condition exception, however, is another story, Banks said. People don't have to prove that they have a medical condition, and police may be left unable to enforce mask restrictions.

The Starboard in Dewey Beach will celebrate a socially distanced St. Patrick's Day on March 17, March 20 and March 21.

In Rehoboth Beach, officials have also seen issues with businesses and visitors not adhering to social distancing or mask-wearing requirements. During a public meeting on Tuesday, officials said at least 22 businesses had been found violating rules like requiring face masks and providing hand sanitizer.

Now, as cases among residents, visitors and seasonal workers are found through heightened testing efforts, state and local officials are also discussing taking a harder approach when it comes to enforcement.

During Carney's Tuesday press conference, officials discussed the possibility of issuing $1,000 fines, reinstating restrictions or forcing closures for businesses that cannot comply with Delaware's state of emergency orders. Rehoboth officials discussed steps they could take, like possibly issuing fines to those caught without masks or prohibiting people from eating on the Boardwalk.

SUMMER OF COVID-19:How Delaware's lifeguards are training for a new normal

"We wouldn't be able to enforce it," Chief Banks said during the public meeting. 

But they will have to try to enforce the new rules put in place, as mask-wearing and strict social distancing in all public spaces from the sand to the street is now the law in the 1-square-mile resort town.

In all cases, figuring out who those COVID-19-positive people may have come into contact with is going to be key to curbing further spread, said Delaware Public Health Director Karyl Rattay. 

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, speaks as administration officials conduct a press briefing on the state's coronavirus situation Tuesday at the Carvel State Office Building.

To date, public officials are aware of two groups of teens celebrating senior week at two separate rental units who tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing more than 100 people to the virus. Restaurants and bars that closed in late June to test workers and take extra precautions are seeing positive cases among workers – many of whom were showing mild or no symptoms.

"Additionally, our data are clearly showing an increase in cases among residents of the beach community, which are often not the same as those who have visited or are working in the beach community," Rattay said Tuesday.

It's not just that increased testing is identifying more cases, either. The percentage of people testing positive is higher than would be expected in some areas of eastern Sussex County, indicating infections are spreading there.

And when contact with others involves strangers – strangers people have contacted in a large, bustling crowd of vacationers – figuring out who might have been exposed can be a challenging task.

State health officials are strongly encouraging those who live, visit or work at the Delaware beaches to get tested. Free test sites can be found online at delaware.curativeinc.com.

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, mlauria@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.