Post-Pandemic Boating: New Normal – But For How Long?

Social distancing and strict public health guidelines are in place for people to return to waterways. Will the guidelines be permanent?

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA—Boating this year has undoubtedly been different than in years past. Masks, restrictions on gatherings, social distancing at launch ramps and even some launch ramp closures are part of the new Covid-19 induced normal for boaters.

However, getting out on the water remains an activity that for the most part, is not off limits. For Owen Sharp and Virgil Talbott, Covid-19 has provided them the opportunity to get their sailboat out for the first time in a year.

“It’s easy to stay 6 feet apart,” Sharp said while prepping the sailboat with Talbott in the parking lot at the Davies Harbor Launch Ramp in Long Beach on May 20.

Boaters in Long Beach never lost access to waterways; however, the number of open boat launch ramps has been reduced from five to two. Davies and South Shore are the two ramps that remain open. Long Beach Marine Bureau Marine Operations Superintendent Todd Leland said the other three are connected to beach parking lots, which were still closed in the city as of the time this paper went to press. Marina parking lots at Shoreline and Alamitos Bay remain open for boaters.

“Priority number one is keeping everybody safe and priority number two is making sure everybody gets the opportunity to activate their boat,” Leland said.

Leland said the Long Beach Marine Bureau is following the basic CDC guidelines – practicing physical distancing and requiring personal protective equipment – and all, city guidelines and the Los Angeles County Health Order.

“Basically, the standard guideline right now is no large social gatherings,” Leland said. “If anyone is activating their boat or out on the water, they should be with their immediate family or those they are quarantining with.”

City and county guidelines will dictate when social gatherings – including those on boats – will be allowed and when the city’s three other launch ramps and beach parking lots will reopen.

“We’ve had great communication since the start of our health order on March 17 with our boaters and we field a lot of questions; is this open, is that closed, can we do this, can we do that,” Leland said.

Many cities and departments – in terms of lasting effects – are evaluating the economic impact of Covid-19 and putting some projects on hold as part of budget adjustments.

“We’re still in the budget process, we’re looking at, we’re evaluating everything that we’re doing and kind of prioritizing everything from a go, hold and stop process,” Leland said.

Leland did not mention any specific projects that would or could be affected.

He also said he thinks across the board, everyone is going to see a lot more hands-free transactions and a lot more non in-person communications.

“Pre-Covid we were taking a lot of walk-ins,” Leland said. “Whereas now, we’re moving more to an appointment-based and online, email and phone approach.”

Like Long Beach and many Southern California harbors, Dana Point Harbor remains accessible to boaters. Signs have been placed at the boat launch ramps to remind boaters to social distance.

“Although guidelines are loosening a bit, social distancing and gathering regulations remain in place,” The Marina at Dana Point reminded boaters in an email sent out May 21. “As we continue to navigate these strange and challenging times, we must adapt to a new normal.”

“We have seen many creative attempts by boaters wishing to gather under the radar,” The Marina at Dana Point said in the same May 21 email. “Unfortunately, a gathering in any capacity is still a gathering and impedes upon safe path of travel for others. The goal is to provide at least six feet of space between you and individuals with whom you do not live.”            That new normal includes no gathering on dock fingers, gangways, sidewalks and parking lots; no raft ups; no pop-up tents on docks, sidewalks or parking lots; no tables, chairs or umbrellas on the docks, sidewalks or in parking; and no grilling on docks, sidewalks or in parking lots.

One, if not the most popular spot for Southern California boaters is Catalina Island. Avalon and Two Harbors both recently reopened their moorings to boaters who don’t live on the island.

Memorial Day weekend was the reopening weekend for Avalon Harbor moorings.

Avalon Harbor Master JJ Poindexter said while they weren’t up to capacity, it was nice to finally see boaters again. He reported 271 boats came in for Memorial Day weekend, down 44 from the same weekend in 2019.

“I still don’t see us being – boat traffic wise – where we were last year,” Poindexter said.

Boaters who call in to book a mooring are given a spiel about what to expect. They are also given a flyer upon arrival of the dos and don’ts; boaters are expected to follow California’s “Stay At Home” order and treat their boat as their home while visiting.

“A lot people, they just want to get away from there and so they had no problem coming over and staying on their boat,” Poindexter said.

Poindexter said the biggest challenge has been getting everyone to comply with wearing their masks when leaving their boats for food or supplies.

“People that call we tell them yea, now we’re open, you have to wear a mask, you have to social distance, the beaches are closed,” Poindexter said.

Poindexter said they are monitoring the numbers of Covid-19 cases on the island to see if opening the island to boaters had any effect. As of the time this paper went to print, there had been no new cases reported since Memorial Day weekend, according to numbers from Catalina Island Medical Center. The total number of cases since testing began stood at two.

Boating in San Diego, meanwhile, appears to be picking up steam. Boat launch ramps in San Diego (Shelter Island) and Coronado (Glorietta Bay) had a steady does of trailer traffic during Memorial Day Weekend – even with social distancing policies in place.

The Port of San Diego, for example, restricted the 10-lane Shelter Island Boat Launch Ramp to four lanes (although, at one point on May 24, The Log’s Parimal M. Rohit observed five cars using the launch ramp, in violation of the port district’s social distancing guidelines).

The Log also visited the public boat launch ramp at Coronado’s Glorietta Bay on May 24. Most of the launches were jet skis and other personal watercraft, but a few small boats also found their way onto the water. A steady stream of sailboats, just the same, navigated in and out of Glorietta Bay Marina.

In both instances, boaters and personal watercraft users had to follow new guidelines.

The state issued guidelines for outdoor recreational operators to follow, as more people visit waterways and plan boating, fishing or other related trips.

“All rented or shared equipment and items must be cleaned and disinfected between visitor use, including sports equipment, kayaks, surf or paddle boards, canoes, bikes, fishing gear, helmets, life vests and other items,” state officials said in a formal recommendation.

“Encourage visitors to bring all of their own equipment, wherever possible, to minimize sharing of equipment,” the state’s recommended guidelines continued. “For-hire and small group charter operations must ensure customers have access to handwashing facilities or proper hand sanitizer on the vessel.”

Fishing trips would be required to have fewer people aboard the vessel. The state also addressed life jackets and wet suits.

“Cleaning and disinfecting ‘soft goods,’ such as life jackets, west suits, cotton lead ropes, saddle bags or backpacks poses particular challenges,” state officials said in their formal recommendations. “Such equipment requires an effective cleaning procedure or sufficient equipment inventor to allow for sufficient ‘down time’ of at least three days between uses to minimize risk of Covid-19 transmission.”

The state’s most recent guidelines went into effect on June 12. Visit covid.ca.gov for the latest information and guidelines.

How long will these regulations be in place? What effect will these regulations have on businesses catering to boaters and anglers? Time will tell – and The Log will continue to dive deeper into the issue.

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