OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Joe Kurlanski came walking down the ramp leading to the beach at Ocean Park, his 3-year-old dog, an Aussie Collie mix named Daisy, leading the way. While it was sunny Saturday, the beach behind him was sparsely populated.
“I think a lot of people have seen what’s been happening,” said Kurlanski, a Saco resident. “They know what will happen if we don’t follow guidelines.”
Early last week, public beaches in York, Kittery, Wells and Ogunquit were closed for fears of spreading the coronavirus, after a weekend that saw large numbers of people gathering on the beaches. Then on Thursday, Maine closed 10 coastal state parks from southern Maine to the midcoast.
On Saturday, public beaches in Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough had visitors, but not many. At Old Orchard Beach there were families with small children, who played in the sand. Others enjoyed long walks, many with dogs. One family held a birthday party.
“This seems to be the best place to get out and get some exercise,” said Dr. Cameron Donaldson, a cardiologist at Maine Medical Center who lives in Portland. He was walking from Pine Point, where he parks, to the pier at Old Orchard Beach with his wife, Dr. Shwu Siew, and their 11-month-old border collie, Roti, at low tide, when the beach is at its widest.
“Everyone has been giving everyone else plenty of space,” said Donaldson. “Earlier in the week, they were not. You saw a lot of kids playing together. Now I think we’ve seen a change.”
Linda Ferreria, an Old Orchard Beach resident, was having a picnic with a friend on one of the five benches located at the top of the beach, just behind Palace Playland. The picnic basket was strategically placed between them. She agreed with Donaldson.
“Last week there were so many more people on the beach,” said Ferreira. “But everything has racheted up since then. … It is a little eerie. There’s usually a lot of people here.”
On Saturday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced the number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus rose to 211. On March 21, there were 70.
Old Orchard Beach Town Manager Larry Mead said it’s “good news” that the beaches weren’t crowded on Saturday. “We’re blessed that our beach is very long and quite spacious,” said Mead, who spent much of the day at the beach. “We’re going to continue to have the beaches open as long as we can. It’s a fluid situation and we will continue to monitor it day to day.”
Old Orchard Beach police officers patrolled back-and-forth on ATVs on the beach, said Mead, to remind people to congregate in groups. The town also removed all benches along Old Orchard Street, the main street leading to the beach, and closed off the seating area in the Square. “Those are areas we don’t want people to linger,” he said.
Lisa’s Pizza, one of only two businesses open on Old Orchard Street, had taped the sidewalk in front of its windows, displaying how people should practice social distancing while waiting in line. A police officer, Wade Beattie, stood close by to make sure everyone adhered to the spacing. “Lisa’s asked us to come down,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Of the 36 cars parked on the street at noon, nine had out-of-state plates, including five from Massachusetts.
At Pine Point in Scarborough, municipal trucks with snow plows blocked half the parking lot. What remained was almost full, with only a few out-of-state plates, in the early afternoon.
On the beach, one family took photos as their daughters played at the edge of the water. Others walked. Jesse Coleman was there practicing lacrosse with his son Bode, a freshman at Gorham High.
“It’s fresh air,” said Jesse Coleman. “It’s a great place to move around and be outside. And we’re all following the social distance rules.”
Kate Whalen of Portland took a long walk on Pine Point, then settled into a beach chair, wrapped in a winter coat to protect her against the chilling wind.
“Beaches are my tethering point of sanity,” she said. “I needed to get out of my apartment. It’s going to rain. I need to be outside.”
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