"The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope." Thus said famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau (at least according to the novelty fridge magnets you can buy from Amazon). It's only natural that on this holiday weekend, Washington's 157 miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline are calling to the cabin fevered residents of Seattle. But with coronavirus still on the loose in the Pacific Northwest, the beach is a bad destination for Memorial Day.
For one, Governor Inslee's directive against nonessential travel remains intact, making the far-off Washington beaches a no-go for most in King County. But a visit is more than ill-advised; much of the coastline is specifically off-limits.
Take the northern corner of the Olympic Peninsula, home to the Makah Reservation, which locked down completely on March 16. The barricaded checkpoint on the one road to the town of Neah Bay means that surf beaches like Hobuck are shut to outsiders, along with Olympic National Park's Shi Shi Beach, only accessible via the reservation. As the Seattle Times reported, the tribe whose name means "People who Live by the Rocks and Seagulls" was devastated by a smallpox epidemic in the nineteenth century; this time, they've managed to avoid a single case of Covid.
Continuing south, the rest of the Olympic National Park beaches are closed as well, even as some inland trails have reopened. "We made that decision to close the coastal areas because we were seeing a number of people coming to the area," says park public information officer Penny Wagner. What of the nine state parks that dot the southern half of Washington's coastline? Sure, many state parks reopened mid-May—but the ocean-adjacent ones were all specifically excluded. Visitors expecting camping or parking will be disappointed all the way from Pacific Beach to, well, Cape Disappointment.
In Grays Harbor County, the town of Ocean Shores did reopen its sandy mileage on May 12, but during the city council meeting the next day, council members noted that they'd seen traffic jams of people trying to access beaches in recent weeks. Hotels there reopened earlier in the week, but with major restrictions. The Canterbury Inn, for one, noted on its Facebook page that the hotel will close its pool and barbecue areas, nix loaner high chairs and DVDs to borrow, and limit reservations. Many local shops are shuttered.
Just south in Pacific County, home to the 28-mile stretch of Long Beach, opening is even slower. "Pacific County has one of the oldest average populations in the whole state, if not the oldest," notes Katie Lindstrom, director of public health for the county. "Therefore we have a lot in that vulnerable population." The Long Beach area closed beach access and hotels in late March, and while this week saw the removal of the barricades blocking driver paths to the sand—the beach here is actually an official state highway—that's all that's changed.
"Our goal is to turn that faucet back on slowly," says Lindstrom, only after the governor's nonessential travel order expires. The county expects to welcome hotel guests on June 1, but the summer may be muted by limits to hotel capacity. July 4 can bring up to 150,000 people to the sandy peninsula, for an area that's home to only 10,000—that's a lot of new germs.
Still, Adrift Hotel owner Tiffany Turner has high hopes for the rest of the summer; her hotel's two restaurants have been doing takeout orders, and she expects to ask guests to adhere to guidelines for masks and other precautions. "Responsibility is the name of the game," she says.
But here's one no-duh reason to skip the beach trip this Memorial Day: It's currently mid-May in the Pacific Northwest. Memorial Day forecasts for the coast include the likelihood of rain showers and a high—like, at the absolute warmest—around 60 degrees. Don't despair; Cousteau's quote about the sea being man's great hope didn't end there. He followed it with this: "Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat." After we all weather the peculiar voyage called quarantine, the ocean will be waiting.