Take It Outside
COVID-19, MENTAL HEALTH, AND THE GREAT OUTDOORSBy Meredith Haas | Photographs by Onne Van der Wal
Being outside is good for you, according to research that shows a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven more people to seek solace outdoors, but restrictions to limit crowds this past summer at Rhode Island beaches and parks tested the patience of visitors and staff alike, leading to questions for what’s to come this winter.
AFTER AN EARLY SPRING SPENT STAYING CLOSE TO HOME, taking only necessary trips to the grocery store and not seeing friends and family, many Rhode Islanders sought refuge outside as the weather grew nicer. As spring turned to summer and the virus remained a threat, travel restrictions, summer camp cancellations, and shuttered entertainment venues meant that more and more people were looking for local outdoor recreation opportunities. Erika Moore of Jamestown says working from home during the pandemic encouraged her to walk more in her neighborhood, and even to take up jogging and running again.
“When I do see friends, the activities are all outdoor recreational related: walks, hikes, swims, picnics,” she says.
Outdoor retailers have seen a boom thanks to this new, or reignited, interest in being outside. Kayak sales were up 30% by mid-summer for the Wickford Kayak Centre. “We sold out of entry-level boats, and for [four to six weeks] the least expensive thing we had on the floor was about $1,300,” says owner Jeff Shapiro, explaining that the manufacturers had a difficult time keeping up with preexisting demand plus increased demands from the pandemic. “Despite the stock issues, business has been up … it would’ve been up more if we had more entry-level product to sell.”
At the height of sales and rental demands, 11 kayaks and two stand-up paddleboards were stolen from their rental lot. Only three of the kayaks and one of the paddleboards were recovered from Facebook Marketplace, putting a strain on already limited rentals. “It’s a challenging time,” he says. “When you can’t meet expectations, it’s another thing they can’t do.”
BEATING THE HEAT
A record hot summer further drove people to seek refuge at the beach. Despite eliminating half of all available parking spots at state beaches, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) reported a 79% increase in visitors in June compared to last year and 50,000 more cars parked at state beach lots.
Caswell Cooke, president of the Misquamicut Business Association, says June was “a free-for-all … we were flooded with people from everywhere. We’re used to disasters like hurricanes where you have this big event and you just clean up. This is obviously different.”
Many beach and park managers agree that June was the hardest month of the summer to manage due to new and varying restrictions and people being stir crazy after spending months inside.
"THEY WERE THE LARGEST AND MOST DENSE CROWDS I HAVE EVER SEEN ON WESTERLY TOWN BEACHES."
“They were the largest and most dense crowds I have ever seen on Westerly town beaches since I started working there in 2009,” says Carl Critz, a lifeguard supervisor for Westerly Town Beach, describing this year’s beach season. “Because the outdoors, by nature, is socially distant, people have taken to all forms of outdoor recreation to free themselves from everything from frustration about the situation to their own desire to get up and moving and get on with some semblance of a normal life. As a result, we’ve definitely seen an increase in beach traffic and with it, the frustration of managing tighter crowds when we are supposed to be more spread apart.”
Part of that frustration stemmed from changes in parking restrictions put in place at state or town beaches.
“The basic dynamic is when it’s hot, people want to cool off, so they want to go to the water,” says Mike Healy, DEM chief public affairs officer. “So, all across the state and not just at the state beaches, you have more people competing for access … It’s a competition for this limited space.”
And that competition was further exacerbated when parking restrictions that were initially capped at 50% in the spring were raised to 75% in late June and then dropped to 25% in mid-July at two major state beaches, Misquamicut and Scarborough, in response to overcrowding. Those who couldn’t find parking at the beach turned to municipal and private lots, says Critz. “Those lots didn’t enforce any restrictions whatsoever and filled to capacity, and in some cases, it was difficult for emergency vehicles to access those that might have been in trouble.”
And parking restrictions didn’t mean people restrictions, explains Kyle Cahoon, DEM regional manager who oversees Burlingame State Campground, Charlestown Breachway, East Beach, and Misquamicut State Beach.
“There’ve been days where there’s certainly more than 25% capacity on the beach front, especially at high tide. People will park anywhere or even be dropped off because they can go to the beach no matter what, and we can’t do anything about that because it’s public access,” he says.
Narragansett Town Beach used tally counters at each of their six admission sites to keep track of people entering and leaving the beach. Based on the 6-foot recommendation for social distancing, Narragansett Town Beach calculated roughly 100 square feet of beach space per person, which would allow for 3,500 people at high tide, as opposed to 10,000 in a regular season, according to Steve Wright, parks and recreation director for Narragansett.
“That’s what our target was and where we kept it for most of the summer,” he says. Wright added that a few days saw 4,000-5,000 visitors due to low tides allowing for more space, but parking was limited to residents only between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. in order to maintain those numbers. If people couldn’t find a place to park at any one of the beach or private lots, some sought parking—legal and otherwise—in the surrounding communities. To curb that issue, communities throughout Washington County increased tow zones and parking tickets to as much as $150.
“THEY ARE VERY MUCH AT WIT'S END, AND THEY DON'T WANT TO BE TOLD ONE MORE THING TO DO."
Other beachgoers would venture to places that aren’t officially manned, like Camp Cronin Fishing Area or Black Point in Narragansett.
“These areas were getting packed first thing [in the morning]. Unless you kept tabs on it all morning, keeping up with the ticketing so that new people see that these cars have tickets and you can’t park there, people will continue to show up and there’ll be 30 cars all lined up alongside the road in front of ‘No Parking’ signs,” says Jake Maione, a DEM field officer, of Camp Cronin.
“Probably five, maybe 10, of these cars are fishing. All the rest are using it as a beach, and there are no lifeguards on duty.”
But parking and overcrowding at shoreline access areas and beaches weren’t the only issues.
Maione notes that DEM officers had to partake in more standard policing activity related to disorderly conduct rather than environmental or natural resource enforcement, and that people had been leaving their trash behind. “Usually there’s a trash pile right at the entrance … It’s a mound that’s half the size of a car at times,” says Maione. “We don’t put trash receptacles on our fishing properties. It’s carry out what you carry in, and obviously not everyone adheres to that … Fish and Wildlife picked it up biweekly. Sometimes it’s people picking up trash from the beach, trying to do the right thing, but then still leaving it on the pile.”
Maione also added that it wasn’t until mid August that rangers and port-a-potties were placed in some of these unmanned areas that were receiving a high volume of visitors to better manage trash and human waste issues. “So, if August looked bad, he says, “imagine what it was before.”
Other town or state officials echoed similar frustrations. “The amount of trash was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” says Cooke. “It was almost like people forgot about manners or respect, and they just came here to trash our beach and left … just all this stuff that’s always been there, but it was amplified by COVID.”
In his 44-year career, Wright says the 2020 season has the been most challenging. “I’m sure like others, we pride ourselves on good public relations … but this year, you’d think with COVID, people would be a little more patient, and it was just the opposite,” he says.
“For the vast majority of people that I see, they are very much at wit’s end, and they don’t want to be told one more thing to do,” says DEM’s Cahoon. “One of the biggest challenges [is] people’s attitudes. People’s tolerances are very low right now for anything that is not what they want to do. Usually we can work with that, and people are generally understanding that you’re just trying to do your job, but this year they’re not quite as responsive.”
Lifeguard on duty at Scarborough Beach, Narragansett. Photo Meredith Haas
“It was a complete scene over moving a blanket 6 feet … That typifies the dark side of behavior,” says Healy, adding that the couple swore and yelled at beach staff, who are relatively young and trying to keep everyone on the beach safe. “We try to understand that COVID has knocked everyone for a loop. Everyone is anxious, everyone is uptight. COVID has really exposed all of our weaknesses as a society and culture.”
THE PANDEMIC HAS PRESENTED AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT that has caused an abrupt change in our daily lives, compounding anxiety and stress for everyone, says Mark Robbins, professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Rhode Island, who specializes in anxiety, stress management, and depression, and how these translate into daily moods.
“With the pandemic, there’s a threat to my existence, there’s a threat to my family’s or children’s, or friends’ existence. I can’t see it, but I believe it’s there—mostly—and suddenly the world is shut down to prevent people from dying. Some people will get it and not even know. Some people it’ll kill, but we don’t know who in advance except for age and pre-existing conditions. So, if that isn’t a recipe for stress and anxiety, I don’t know what is,” he says.
Robbins, who is a clinical psychologist by training, says that people don’t need to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety to be affected by what is happening. His main area of research is health psychology, behavioral medicine, and behavior change. When the pandemic prompted lockdowns and travel restrictions in the spring, he was teaching an undergraduate course in health promotion and used the pandemic as a case study in behavior change in real time.
“[The pandemic] became an example of how talking about the conditions under which people change their behavior, how hard is that to do, and what are the experiences as a result of forced change versus unforced change,” he says, adding that the politicization of the pandemic and other social issues have made it all the more reasonable to expect people to be short-tempered either because they’re angry or because they’re anxious.
Robbins points to the case of Brickley’s Ice Cream that closed its Wakefield location in mid July because of adult customers angrily confronting high school employees who, he says, were not in a position to handle that situation. Part of the issue, he says, was that the rules had changed.
“‘Now I can’t even sit down and eat my ice cream because I have to take my mask off to do it, and we’re too close so we can’t have social distancing,’” he says, as one who might feel aggrieved. “[They] want you to buy your ice cream and leave. ‘And that’s a violation of my rights,’ was the reaction, and [they] got angry. They later apologized, but at that point it didn’t matter. In the moment, we’re all a little more on edge.”
Mask wearing has been contentious on all sides. “We’ve had an increase in unfriendly relations with the public when it came to mask wearing, with the public attempting to call out our lifeguards for not wearing masks when they’re in the chair by themselves,” says Westerly’s Critz.
Michael Hurley, a regional manager for DEM who oversees Fishermen’s Memorial State Park and Scarborough, Roger Wheeler, Salty Brine, and East Matunuck state beaches, says that only 5% of visitors wore masks in the beginning of the summer. He also fielded complaints about lifeguards who, he says, were screened every day, “and they sit at least 6 feet off the ground.”
“These kids have been working together as a family since the end of May, every day. They get their temperature taken every day and asked the COVID questions every day … If these kids go out in the water and they touch somebody, they have to go take a shower, decontaminate, and go back in the chair,” he adds.
And stronger rip currents due to a more active hurricane season have not made the job any easier.
“YOU DON'T GROW FROM SOMETHING THAT'S EASY."
“With additional crowds, we’ve had additional rip currents to be vigilant of, and with more surf days this year, we’ve had an increase in our rescue volume,” says Critz. “We average 150 rescues per year between the two [Westerly] beaches, and [by mid August] we’d already hit over 200.”
Just to see what it was like for his staff, Narragansett’s Wright spent an 8-hour day in 85˚F weather wearing his mask.
“I’m in the parking lot and I have to take down my mask to take a drink of water or just to breathe, just to catch my breath, and the first thing someone wants to do is take a picture of a staff member and complain that staff aren’t properly wearing their face coverings … Excuse me, but that’s a snapshot in an 8-hour period.” he says. “You try that … it’s impossible.”
By the end of summer, however, many people had acclimated to the new norms, if not the “new normal.”
“Misquamicut [beaches] are looking good,” said Cooke of the beaches in mid-August, noting he thought people had figured out the rules more or less and that the trash was more manageable. “It’s not overcrowded. Nobody’s disrespecting the place that I can see. People have been complying with the mask usage. It took us all summer, but we got there.”
A DAUNTING WINTER, A TIME OF GROWTH
With the shorter and colder days of winter approaching, people will have to get creative to continue to enjoy the outdoors.
“When I felt cooped up in the house, I kept thinking, ‘What’s this going to be like in December?’” says Robbins. “When this all started, the weather was getting better, but what happens when it’s February and going outside is less ideal?”
Taking walks, kayaking, and swimming is a much taller order when the temperatures dip and the sun sets at 5 p.m. Perhaps retailers will see an uptick in snowshoes, firepits, and long underwear. But finding ways to nurture mental health while keeping safe during the winter months will determine how people come out on the other side—maybe even better than before.
“Anytime you’ve learned or really grown, there was hard work and struggle in front of that. Any time you’ve come out of any situation, it wasn’t easy,” says Robbins. “You don’t grow from something that’s easy. Something that builds you is something that doesn’t overwhelm you but challenges you.”
“It’s incredibly complicated, [but] there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says, noting that the pandemic won’t last forever—and neither will the winter.