By LAURA WEICK It's not unusual for Oakland Beach traffic to swell in the summertime. But with the COVID-19 pandemic on the up tick in certain parts of the country, some locals fear crowds could spell trouble. In addition, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna
It’s not unusual for Oakland Beach traffic to swell in the summertime. But with the COVID-19 pandemic on the up tick in certain parts of the country, some locals fear crowds could spell trouble.
In addition, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis believes it’s time that Warwick beaches are for Warwick residents and it’s time to bring back beach fees that are heavily weighted in favor of residents. She said Tuesday she wouldn’t expect fees to be implement this summer, but hopefully as soon as next year.
Public officials and citizens alike told the Warwick Beacon that more people seemed to be visiting Oakland Beach last week than usual, and that there have been more disturbances because of it. Some have reported an increase in littering and noise in addition to crowds that don’t always follow social distancing guidelines or wear facemasks.
“I would definitely tell you that we’ve seen an up tick in traffic and using the Oakland Beach area, the restaurants and seawall,” Warwick Police Operations Bureau Commander Major Michael Gilbert said. “Seasonally it’ll swell in the summertime anyway, but it’s a fair assessment to say that we’ve seen it more so than usual this year.”
Residents said that they believe many visitors come from other New England states as well as New York and New Jersey, and have not been respectful of the surrounding area. The beach is also located on a bus line, so they suggest that many visitors come from Providence and other parts of the state.
“There’s a lot of Massachusetts plates here that go on the beach.” Richard Fuller, a local resident, explained. There’s a lot of trash from people who don’t live down here or who aren’t from the area throwing trash on lawns, leaving a mess and everything behind. When you get down by Iggy’s, everybody’s standing in line in groups clustered together. Down the seawall any hours of the night, it’s like a regular 2018, 2019 kind of a life as it used to be.”
Warwick police said that they can’t enforce who can and can’t come to the beach, or any particularly social distancing rules, but they will use signs and information to educate visitors on proper protocols.
“We’re increasing patrol, but a lot of the stuff we try to do mainly focuses on education,” Gilbert said. “Our directive has been making sure that people are educated and informed, not to say that we don’t enforce mandates, but we aren’t sending officers there to map out six feet distance between blankets on the beach.”
Travis said parking is an issue that she observed. She said that both residents and visitors have ignored rules, although she said that the number of people at the beach made it challenging for police to monitor everyone.
“One of the officers says he gives somebody a warning, he told them ‘you can't park here, keep going,’” Travis said. So that guy leaves. [The officer] goes and checks on something else, but another guy comes in and parks right in the same spot. You can't keep up with them.”
Travis also mentioned that people have been parking at the boat ramp lot, and swimming right near the boat ramp, despite the risk of getting hit by a boat.
Gilbert said the police department would increase patrol in the area. Travis later said that she felt that the beach’s condition looked much better a week after her initial complaint due to the police presence.
“Part of our plan this weekend is we’re going to be deploying variable message boards,” Gilbert said. “At the boat ramp, educating them that the lot is not to be used for parking and people can not use the area for swimming. We’re also going to deploy messaging for people coming down Oakland Beach Avenue about parking and littering being strictly enforced. We’ll also have our visibility increased with additional patrol.”
Upon arriving at the beach over the weekend, visitors were greeted by an electronic sign reminded them not to litter and if they parked illegally they could be subject to towing.
However, some people argue that even if some of the parking and littering has improved, visitors have not followed social distancing guidelines.
“I haven’t noticed much of a difference in the amount of people here between now and pre COVID,” Stephanie Langevin, an employee at Top of the Bay restaurant near the beach said. “But people are not wearing masks. They think it's fine that they’re not wearing masks because they’re outside. They even come into the restaurant not wearing a mask, and get mad when we tell them to wear a mask or else we can’t serve them.”
State beaches have faced this problem since the summer’s beginning, with even Gov. Gina Raimondo placing capacity on state beaches. As Oakland Beach is under control of the city and not the state, the city would have to implement such orders.
Ron Bergeron, president of the Oakland Beach Association, said that he believes the situation has improved over the past few weeks, but that there are other things the city could do in the future.
“I would like to see beach fees, but it’s probably too late in the season now to do it this year,” Bergeron said.
Travis also supported implementing beach fees. She suggested that city residents could pay lower fees than out of city and out of state visitors, with senior citizens receiving a discount. The City Council approved of beach fees several years ago, but then-mayor Scott Avedisian and current mayor Joseph Solomon never implemented it.
“We voted in 2017 for beach fees and it passed 9-0,” Travis explained. “But when it was time to open them (the beaches) again, it didn’t go into effect. So I’d definitely be in favor of putting beach fees in especially with COVID.”
Beach fees were charged in the past and largely dropped since the cost of collecting them exceeded revenues.
Solomon declined to comment on the issue when visiting Oakland Beach Tuesday. Addressing Travis, he said it was not the place to be negotiating and that he would need to fully review data before offering an opinion.
Other residents felt that the city needed to take action now.
“Why is it that we monitor the major beaches of South County and Westerly and everywhere else, but they won’t take care of Oakland Beach?” a local resident who asked to be unnamed asked. “That’s the question. You have more people with more money who live there that have a say. A percentage of Oakland Beach is rental. Is that coming into play?”
Burke Sarno, Oakland Beach native and director of Public Works during the administration of Mayor Lincoln Chafee, has no problem with out of town visitors as long as they are respectful. He notes that Oakland Beach has a long history of being a popular place to take in the sea breezes and enjoy the summer outdoors and he feels that is part of a Rhode Island tradition for all to participate.
A newcomer to Oakland Beach, Alissa Sollitto appreciated Sarno’s point of view but is troubled by how people drop their trash and park on private property.
Gilbert said the pandemic has stretched department resources making it difficult to respond to everything.
“The city’s dealing with cutbacks on some of the summer hiring,” Gilbert said. They used to have litter patrol but those have been cut due to budget cuts. So it’s been kind of a challenge.”
Travis said that she did not realize at the time that lifeguard positions at Oakland Beach were cut when she voted for the budget in June, but now strongly disapproves of it.
Signs reading “no lifeguard on duty” have been erected at the beach.
“I didn’t realize the lifeguards were not in the budget at the time,” Travis said. “I don’t know how that happened. That’s very dangerous.”
“I think one of the challenges right now is the outdoor recreation sites are somewhat safer, so people are encouraged to use all that, but you obviously want them to do it safely,” Gilbert said. “You want to balance people wanting to go out with safety.”
With reports from John Howell