Walk-up beach bars for customers in eastern Sussex County are indefinitely closed beginning Friday, July 3, after a spike in positive COVID-19 cases in the area.
“It really comes down to these places where people congregate – restaurants, bars, group activities. That's where we're trying to focus our attention, and that's where we're trying to focus our enforcement to make sure people are following the guidelines,” Gov. John Carney said, before announcing the shutdown June 30.
On June 25, more than 1,000 people were tested during a Rehoboth Beach test event, resulting in 102 positive cases. The percent positive rate was 9.5 percent, and average age of those positive was 29.
The next day at a test event in Dewey Beach, 93 people were tested with 12 positives for a 14.8 percent positive rate, according to state data.
“When we see an increase in percent positive, that's concerning,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health. “When you're seeing a percent positive above 5, that's a red flag. You need to look very closely at what's going on.”
While the percentages in New Castle and Kent counties have flattened at about 5 percent, the increased positives in Sussex County had pushed the state rate June 30 to about 8 percent.
Test events were held June 29, July 1, and July 2, but results were not available by the Cape Gazette's press deadline.
Even before the first round of testing, some Dewey Beach establishments, such as The Starboard and Woody's, scaled back hours of operation and bar activity because of an increase of positive cases among young people at the beach. Most establishments are now operating under Phase 2 guidelines, along with the latest bar restrictions.
The first COVID-19 cases were announced June 20 after three teens celebrating senior week in Dewey Beach tested positive for the disease. The number more than doubled by June 23, and the numbers continue to rise, Rattay said. The largest spike in positive cases is coming from the 17- to 18-year-old age group, she said, who are mostly showing mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
A breakdown of positive cases by age for the week of June 20 shows overall higher numbers for 15- to 31-year-olds compared to the rest of the population.
“We have also learned of several lifeguards, and a number or restaurant and bar employees who have become positive,” Rattay said.
Rehoboth Beach reported three lifeguards recently tested positive, and Delaware State Parks has reported two.
State data also shows a spike in positive results among 50-51-year-olds. Rattay said some residents and homeowners in the beach community have tested positive.
These positive increases prompted Carney to target eastern Sussex County June 30 with his 23rd State of Emergency modification, closing bars and taprooms which only serve alcohol. Restaurants and eateries are allowed to remain open at 60 percent capacity, and they can still serve alcohol, but only to customers seated at tables.
“We could shut everything down but then our economy would fall apart and that doesn't make a lot of sense. There are certain areas that are a lot more risky than others that we have to pay attention to,” Carney said.
Bar seating was permitted when the state entered Phase 2 of reopening June 14, and establishments were expected to ensure adequate physical distancing at bars. Carney said he based his decision to close beach-area bars on what he described as complacency, resulting in a lack of compliance with wearing face coverings and proper social distancing.
“We have a little bit of a fire that’s been started in the beach communities and we need to put it out,” Carney said, adding Phase 3 reopening has been delayed for now.
Eastern Sussex restrictions
Bars and taprooms are closed indefinitely as of 8 a.m. Friday, July 3, for Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Long Neck, Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island, West Fenwick Island, Ocean View, and Millville. The closure also applies to establishments outside incorporated areas in the following ZIP codes: 19966 east of Route 24 and Route 5; 19945 east of Route 17; 19975 east of the intersection of routes 20 and 54, and the entirety of 19944, 19967, 19970, 19930, 19971, and 19958.
During this time, Carney said, taprooms, brewpubs and restaurants may not permit patrons to sit or stand at a bar, but may open the bar to prepare drinks to be brought to diners seated at tables. Taprooms, brewpubs and restaurants that choose to use designated bar space for seating patrons must arrange tables consistent with the Phase 2 Reopen Plan to allow for minimum social distancing.
Tables and booths must be arranged in a way that ensures seated patrons at one table are at least six feet apart from seated customers at another table. For booths, the order states, this typically means seating patrons at every other booth. For freestanding tables with pull-out chairs, there should be eight feet of distance to ensure that a seated patron is six feet from seated guests at other tables. Inside and outside seating must both comply with these standards, according to the order.
New restrictions at state parks
Delaware State Parks announced new restrictions at their beach facilities starting Friday, July 3, until further notice. This includes limiting the number of vehicles in Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore and Fenwick Island state parks to about 60 percent of the parking capacity, officials said. When the 60 percent capacity is reached, all vehicles will be turned away until vehicle volume within the parks is reduced. Vehicle restrictions may be lifted periodically as volume levels are noticeably reduced within the parks. These limits, which will be enforced at park entrances by DNREC Natural Resources Police, will not be managed based on a one-in, one-out policy that would encourage lines of waiting vehicles and people, officials said. Masks or face coverings are required in bathhouse and concession areas at all three parks, officials said, and strongly encouraged on the beach, but not required. Campgrounds and cabin rentals will continue.
Other restrictions include:
- At Cape Henlopen, when the main gate is closed to additional vehicles based on parking lot capacity, the closure will include vehicles that have arrived at the park for drive-on surf fishing.
- At Delaware Seashore and Fenwick Island surf-fishing beaches, NRP officers will monitor the number of vehicles on the beach and will close drive-on beach entrances if users fail to maintain the 20-foot distance between vehicles currently mandated by the governor’s emergency order.