Delaware must move forward on reopening strategies

May 12, 2020

The proper place for COVID-19 planning to take place for the reopening of our beach communities is around a conference table (virtual or otherwise) of experts. Officials in charge of that planning process also have an obligation to keep the public informed, if only to reassure us that planning is indeed taking place.

Having as yet seen no plan for our beach communities, I’ve tried to imagine one of my own. It’s at least a starting point for conversation. I welcome the experts shooting it down to put something better in its place:

The following information is drawn from the governor’s press briefing May 1.

Delaware hospitalizations are below 50 percent capacity, and new admissions are trending downward as of May 1.

There is a single hotspot, located in Georgetown, to which public health authorities have responded aggressively, with emergency quarantine (sometimes in hotels) for positive cases, and ongoing discussions to establish effective social distancing in poultry processing facilities. This outbreak is community based, not associated with travel into or out of the state.

Republican legislators have submitted a letter to the governor, pointing out that the current statistical criterion for reopening is flawed (“like fishing in a stocked pond”). They urge immediate reopening. There have been two significant organized protests, one in Wilmington, the other in Dover. 

Around the country, roughly half the population is in a location that has permitted the reopening of “nonessential” businesses, though with restrictions of one form or another. Not all businesses have chosen to reopen. Workers are in some instances protesting opening without safeguards.

Delaware beaches COVID-19 summer plan:

• Identified mild cases to return to their primary residences (including out-of-state) for convalescence or additional care; all hotels and vacation rental operators agree to provide pro-rated refunds.

• All hotels and short-term rental operators required (or urged if that’s not possible) to provide full refunds or exchanges to those who cancel for any reason. This is to encourage the ill and exposed to defer their holidays.

• Masks required in shops and on public sidewalks including boardwalks, and on entering/exiting restaurants and bars or while not seated at a table. Other social distancing measures as appropriate.

• In resort community business districts, close key streets, allow outdoor table service in roped areas.

• Capacity controls via parking restrictions, beach/boardwalk entrances, street closures, or worst case, at city/town entrances

• City/town workers (including seasonal), as well as all “essential” service workers (food service, cleaning staff) all tested. Those without antibodies to be retested once per week.

• Full pay during quarantine for all positive cases among city and essential workers to encourage compliance. Task force among city/town governments to pursue options to assure unemployment or other payments to quarantined small-business workers.

• Emergency tourism tax imposed by resort communities.

• Public communications campaign to encourage ill/exposed individuals not to visit the beach.

Phase 1: June 1:

• One-third beach and boardwalk capacity

• Restaurants - 12-foot spacing (one table center to the nearest)

• Bars - 25 percent occupancy, no standing, allow carryout of open containers

• Short-term rentals and hotels permitted only up to six-person occupancy per unit

Phase 2: June 15 if area hospital utilization remains below 50 percent:

• Two-thirds beach and boardwalk capacity

• Restaurants - 10-foot spacing

• Bars - 50 percent occupancy; no standing, allow carryout open containers

• Short-term rentals to 10 persons, no restrictions on hotels.

Phase 3: July 1 if area hospital utilization remains below 50 percent:

• No capacity restrictions on beach and boardwalk. 

• Restaurants - 10-foot spacing

• Bars - 50 percent occupancy; no standing, allow carryout open containers

• All accommodations restrictions lifted.

If condition is not met, hold at current phase. If hospital utilization ticks above 60 percent, or rises 10 percent over 14 days, revert to the previous phase and reassess after seven additional days. Absent a concrete plan, including a tripwire for problems, political pressure will mount simply to open completely. This plan is based on the idea that a gradual reopening beginning soon and then implemented over time is better than a later opening all at once.

This plan controls access primarily through indirect (policy) means rather than through direct (police, ID checkpoint) means. For example, parking is a key control, easy to implement, though it will create cascading problems for traffic control that local and area police will need to think through in advance. Divert excess day traffic to beaches south of Dewey and north of Bethany? Close key traffic entry points to congested towns and cities? A public information campaign? Reserved parking only?

Controls on occupancy put the onus on property owners rather than the police. There should be high penalties for failure to comply. Starting with opening lower-occupancy units is based on the idea that these are more likely to be single families rather than large groups of friends from different households who are more likely to transmit infection.

Exceptions may be possible for accommodations that have external entrances for units and that close off all common areas (e.g. communal kitchens and living rooms).

Dr. Jeffrey Cochrane is an economist. During his 30-year career with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he specialized in program planning and implementation. He owns a home in Rehoboth Beach.


  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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