At one point on Saturday, state fish and wildlife staff counted between 700 and 800 people digging clams on Clatsop Beach.
It was a far cry from the thousands they recorded when people descended on the North Coast on a weekend in March. But the numbers are still more than state and local officials would like to see as they seek to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, North Coast leaders renewed their efforts to keep visitors away.
Washington state is closed to all recreational activities like clamming and fishing through at least May 4. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife closed recreational salmon and steelhead fishing on the Columbia River indefinitely. With favorable clam tides and good weather on the horizon, leaders fear crowds at Oregon beaches could be a problem despite government restrictions to discourage visitors.
They want to avoid a repeat of what happened on March 21, when daytrippers and others hoping for a spring break getaway came to the coast amid appeals to stay home.
“Community leaders in Clatsop County and the cities of Astoria, Cannon Beach, Gearhart, Seaside and Warrenton are reminding residents of the Pacific Northwest to continue to ‘Stay Home, Save Lives,’” stated a message sent from local governments Tuesday afternoon.
Gov. Kate Brown issued a stay-at-home order in March after people disregarded the state’s recommendations to limit unnecessary travel.
While North Coast governments have issued a patchwork of emergency declarations and restrictions and the state has closed parks, trails and recreation areas, beaches are still open.
The one exception is a portion of beach that Seaside shares jurisdiction of with the state. The city has closed that beach to locals and visitors alike, authorizing police officers to issue citations if people do not comply with requests to leave.
The county and the state have discouraged people from driving to the beach by restricting beach access and parking lots. The county is installing gates at two primary beach access roads, Sunset Beach Road and Del Rey Beach Road. County leaders are still determining when the gates will be closed and how limited access will be enforced.
Cannon Beach has asked the state to go a step further and consider closing beaches entirely, according to Rick Hudson, the city’s emergency manager.
“The ocean shore remains open, but may be closed if people don’t maintain social distance,” the state warned on the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s website.
Unlike Seaside, Cannon Beach has not completely shut down access to the beach, but it has attempted to discourage access. The city declared itself closed to visitors and has barricaded some parking lots. Officers may issue a $500 misdemeanor citation to people who do not respect social distancing guidelines, Hudson said.
Neither Seaside nor Cannon Beach have issued any citations yet, however. Most people respond well when officers inform them of local rules and concerns, police say.
In Cannon Beach, most shops and restaurants are closed and the streets are empty, but Hudson knows warm weather and sunny days may prove to be an irresistible temptation. There is a chance Cannon Beach may try to follow Seaside in shutting down beaches to everyone.
“If we get more cases (of the virus) and we can’t control the visitors, we’re going to have to take matters into our own hands and pass more resolutions to close the city down even further,” Hudson said.
People need to know they can’t simply blow off the governor’s order because the weather is nice and they want to go to the beach, he said.
Clatsop County had five reported cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday. Small coastal hospitals are not equipped to deal with a major outbreak, Hudson said.
“We’re going to feel it and not recover and we’re afraid of that,” he added.
The beach is the main attraction in places like Seaside, said Seaside City Manager Mark Winstanley. City leaders hoped to bypass any confusion — or an uptick in visitors as weather improved — by closing the beach.
“We really did not expect what we saw a couple weekends ago,” Winstanley said. “We literally had thousands of people that showed up on our doorstep.”
North Coast communities responded with emergency declarations and restrictions on campgrounds, hotels and other lodging following the surge of visitors. The state later closed parks and recreation sites like Fort Stevens State Park and Arcadia Beach. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park also closed.
“We don’t get to pick and choose who we allow on the beach, so we just simply came back and said, ‘No, we’re telling people at this point the beach is closed,’” Winstanley said, adding, “We don’t want people coming to this area any more than we think it’s appropriate to go to their backyard.”
Surfers are still allowed to come and go from the Cove north of Seaside and a parking lot above the beach remains open for people to park and enjoy the view.
“Are they technically on the beach, yeah, probably,” said Seaside Police Chief Dave Ham about the surfers. But, he added, “By the nature of surfing, they are pretty much practicing social distancing.”