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How beach destinations are balancing health and tourism as visitors return

Memorial Day represents the kickoff to summer and the usually busy vacation travel season. As states lift pandemic restrictions and reopen their economies, how are beach towns and business owners adjusting to a new landscape reshaped by coronavirus? John Yang reports, and Judy Woodruff talks to two mayors, Shirley Sessions of Georgia’s Tybee Island and John Olivarri of Missouri’s Osage Beach.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's Memorial Day, and, of course, the traditional kickoff to summer, and, usually, a busy vacation season.

    As states begin to reopen, John Yang reports on how beach towns and business owners are adjusting in the time of COVID-19.

  • Nick Caggiano:

    Here at Rehoboth Beach, it's definitely a different Memorial Day.

  • John Yang:

    Nick Caggiano has been selling pizza in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for almost 50 years.

  • Nick Caggiano:

    Last Memorial Day at this time, we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off, and we were all like having a bunch of fun because it's our first big weekend.

  • John Yang:

    This long holiday weekend, business has been half of what it was last year. He's been limited to curbside pickup and a smaller staff.

    And the coronavirus pandemic has meant fewer people on the beach outside his restaurant. But, in other places, from Texas to South Carolina, beaches were packed for summer's first weekend.

    In Daytona Beach, Florida, large crowds and no social distancing.

  • Michael Chitwood:

    Were there massive crowds? Absolutely. Did we get invaded? Absolutely.

  • John Yang:

    Overall, travel this weekend and into the summer will likely be down. Last year, 43 million American traveled over the Memorial Day weekend, according to AAA.

    TSA reported a staggering drop in airport screenings on Friday. Fewer than 350,000 people passed through checkpoints, down more than 87 percent from last year's record high.

    That's having a big impact on spending. The U.S. Travel Association projected that, this Memorial Day weekend, Americans would spend just a third of what they did last year.

    Roger Dow is the group's president. He and other tourism industry leaders joined Vice President Mike Pence last week in Florida.

  • Roger Dow:

    When you talk about beach towns, I'm so worried about them, because, if they don't make it during the summer, they don't make it. And I'm afraid many of them won't survive.

  • Susan Kelleher:

    Our tourist season starts today. You know, we have 10 weeks to make cash.

  • John Yang:

    Susan Kelleher runs a gift store and ice cream shop on Tybee Island in Georgia, one of the first states to reopen.

  • Susan Kelleher:

    It's kind of just been a trial and error. We just do what we feel is OK. We do what we feel is safe and comfortable, because we need to have the tourists back.

  • John Yang:

    But she worries that some of those tourists could bring the virus. So she's limiting capacity at the ice cream shop to just one family at a time and asking everyone to use hand sanitizer.

  • Andy Murphy:

    It's a little bit of panic to believe that people are going to be coming in and bringing the virus with them in droves.

  • John Yang:

    On Cape Cod, that's not a worry for Andy Murphy. At his pub this weekend, bad weather combined with coronavirus and a restaurant that is currently takeout-only made for a less than perfect season-opening weekend.

  • Andy Murphy:

    It's a risk, but it might not be the doom and gloom that people who have been led to believe leave as they have been homebound.

  • John Yang:

    Right now, he's thinking more about the economic future.

  • Andy Murphy:

    I really have to face the storm and put people back to work. We have to regrow this economy here.

  • John Yang:

    For local officials, reopening is a balancing act. In Bradley Beach, New Jersey, face masks were encouraged, but not required.

  • Mayor Gary Engelstad:

    When I hear a beach is crammed, I'm psyched, I'm happy. Now, if I hear a beach is crammed, I'm concerned.

  • John Yang:

    In the most recent "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll, two-thirds of those questioned said life won't return to normal for at least six months. That could make for a long, slow summer for businesses in vacation havens all across the country.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's take a closer look at how vacation destinations are responding with two mayors.

    First, Shirley Sessions is the mayor of Tybee Island, Georgia. It's a coastal city with a full-time population of just over 3,000 that swells to over 30,000 a day during the summer.

    Mayor Sessions, thank you so much for talking with us.

    So, tell us, what sort of crowds have you seen over this weekend?

  • Mayor Shirley Sessions:

    Thank you for having me.

    We have had a large number, obviously, as anticipated, for Memorial Day weekend. It's always a popular holiday. But we saw more than we anticipated simply because of the COVID-19, knowing that people would be coming out, but didn't really know that we would have so many.

    We had probably an average of about 30,000 Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today, we have seen smaller crowds. I think it started off with a very somber — we had a fly-over. The Georgia National Guard flew over in honor of those who have died to give us the freedoms that we enjoy.

    That kind of set the tone, I think, for the day. The crowds were smaller, but quieter, although, clearly, probably 20,000, 25,000 still.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's a lot of people to manage.

    Were people — Mayor Sessions, were they social distancing? What kinds of things did you see? Were they wearing masks?

  • Mayor Shirley Sessions:

    You know, not many masks.

    Our governor sent the Department of Natural Resources down to help with social distancing, so that was a big plus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did you feel that you had the public health safeguards in place that you needed? I was reading — or we heard in the report earlier in the program that you had, what, a gift shop owner saying, this is when the businesses in your — in Tybee Island need to be open.

    They need to be open for business.

  • Mayor Shirley Sessions:

    We have many of the restaurants who are open with limited seating.

    They are really doing a good job of social distancing. And when they do visit our restaurants or our shops, we're trying to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and adhere to the guidelines that CDC and the health department have set forth.

    Our restaurant and shop owners are doing a really good job of trying to keep their businesses safe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But we know that, when Governor Kemp opened up the beaches in Georgia in early April, you did openly object to that. You told him you thought it was unsafe.

    Do you think the situation has improved since then?

  • Mayor Shirley Sessions:

    I do — did not agree with the governor at that time, I think mainly because we local municipalities had been instructed by the president and by the governor to decide what was best for their communities. And we did that.

    So, we were caught off-guard, as were other communities, when that was overturned. So it was a shock. We got past it. And, again, I don't know what the governor, who — his advisers or what decision he made.

    I respect his decision. Doesn't mean that I agree with all of his decisions, as I'm sure he don't agree with my decisions.

    But, Judy, this was never a political situation. Tybee is — I'm bipartisan. It has nothing to do with politics. It was — and I have the deepest respect for our governor. But it was just a matter, at the time, I saw that we were in a good place. We were really making progress. And we just had to kind of learn to start over.

    But, again, we have moved on. And I think that his intention was to get the economy going again. I think that that is happening. And my goal is to keep our residents, our businesses, and our visitors as safe as possible. That is still my goal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Mayor Shirley Sessions, we certainly wish you the best with that. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

  • Mayor Shirley Sessions:

    Thank you, Judy. And you take care. Come and see us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Missouri and the mayor of a city at the Lake of the Ozarks.

    Osage Beach is along the eastern edge of the lake. It has a year-round population of about 4,000. But, when summer comes, it multiplies many times over. And as we saw earlier, there were viral pictures of crowds there this week.

    John Olivarri is the mayor, and he joins me now.

    Mayor Olivarri, thank you very much for being with us.

    So, tell us, what sort of turnout are you seeing? We did see those pictures of a big crowd at, at least at one pool party over the weekend.

  • Mayor John Olivarri:

    Well, Memorial Day weekend is one of the three busiest times of the year for us.

    On the holiday weekends, Memorial Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July, we see normal crowds of this size. I wasn't expecting it as much this year. We didn't have a good forecast for weather. And, of course, with the pandemic being what it is, I wasn't quite sure, you know, what the crowds were going to be like.

    But when the weather cleared up, and I think people were ready to get out, reservations started coming in about five to seven days ago. And it looked like we were going to have a full house. And that's exactly what we have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did you feel that your community was prepared for what might be crowds this size? What concerns did you have going in?

  • Mayor John Olivarri:

    Well, we — you know, we expected again, seeing that the numbers in hotel reservations, lodging reservations were coming in pretty strong, that we would expect a large number of folks.

    Now, the issue, of course, is the pandemic and how to deal with it. We knew that, if we had large crowds it was going to be hard to control the social distancing. And I think what most folks have seen from some of the social media is, is that some went way overboard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did you deal with that? Once you were aware of that particular event where we saw, what — it looked like hundreds of people around a pool, what were you able to do about it? I meaning, what kind of controls can you — do you have in place?

  • Mayor John Olivarri:

    Well, actually, we have — we leave it to the responsibility of the business owners to control, you know, their guests.

    We don't have any enforcement that's — that we were directly responsible for. We have a governor's order in place that puts the responsibility for enforcement on our health department.

    We have a county health department. And while they are, I would say, fairly understaffed to handle not only their day-to-day operations, but certainly to address all the pandemic responsibility that goes along with it, we are here to support them, you know, should we get requests from them to respond.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when a business — when you see an event like what we see in these social media pictures, the video, is there anything you can do about it, I mean, to make sure it doesn't happen again, is what I am asking?

  • Mayor John Olivarri:

    Well, from an enforcement standpoint at the time, you know, again, that responsibility is for the health department to notify us and ask for our assistance if they need it.

    As far as situations like this happening in the future for other, again, holiday weekends, we're certainly going to take a look at this, meet with the health department, and find out, you know, how we might better be able to control something like this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor, if I could ask, why is it important to your community to be open right now for visitors, for tourists?

  • Mayor John Olivarri:

    Well, quite frankly, I think it's important for our businesses to be open.

    If we were to allow our businesses to — force our businesses to continue to be closed, we would be jeopardizing their ability to open up in the future. This also gives our work force an opportunity to come back to work and to, you know, earn a living and support their families. And both of those are very, very important to us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Mayor John Olivarri of Osage Beach in Missouri at the Lake of the Ozarks, we thank you very much and wish you the very best.

  • Mayor John Olivarri:

    Thank you very much. And I appreciate you having me today.

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