Grey-Bruce’s medical officer of health says he has not and would not recommend a lengthy or indefinite closure of Sauble Beach at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, with local case numbers still low and the province reopening.
Dr. Ian Arra said it might be warranted for a municipal council to “modify access” to or close a specific beach for a limited number of days – such as a long weekend – if they are anticipating a “mass gathering” that would be unable to adhere to physical distancing rules and there’s a risk of transmission.
“However, outside of these days, if we go to our main goal, which is to open as fast as we can, it would not be warranted to close beaches for the long run,” he said in an interview.
If “an uncontrolled mass gathering” is expected, public health is encouraging municipalities to consider the “least intrusive measures for the shortest period of time” to prevent them. That could include modifying access, such as by limiting the number of people on a beach, to complete temporary closure. But if complete closure is warranted, best practice is for the shortest period of time (one to three days), public health said in a news release.
Indefinitely closing a beach could negatively impact health and businesses, the release said.
Arra said a public health team has been working for eight weeks to support the business community by gradually and safely lifting restrictions and reopening and, so far, it’s been successful at maintaining a low number of local cases.
“We have full control over the outbreak. There is no need to restrict anything. If it is needed for a specific day, yes it is useful and it could be used and municipalities have that right. In general, closing without a limit, without a definite date, I see that there is a deviation from the main goal to have a safe recovery that’s open,” he said.
South Bruce Peninsula council voted Monday to close its beaches, including Sauble, after two weekends in which Mayor Janice Jackson said day-trippers “flagrantly disregarded” restrictions on the beach during a trial period that permitted walk-through access only.
She said Thursday that while council did not set a timeline for reopening Sauble, it has never been their plan to keep it closed for a long time.
“It was always our intention to close the beach until we could find a solution to the problems we’re facing,” she said. “We never intended to have an indefinite, long-term closure.”
She said council was anticipating huge crowds at Sauble both this weekend and the following weekend, as Canada Day falls on a Wednesday this year.
She said she will be calling a special council meeting for July 2 to decide the town’s next steps.
“I have been speaking with the OPP and different parties to try to find a solution to this problem. And I hope to have enough information to bring forward to council on Thursday that will enable us to enact a plan to reopen the beach,” she said.
Council will look at a few options, she said, which may include closing the beach only on weekends where large crowds are expected and opening it on weekdays.
Jackson has said the beach will not reopen until the town can make it safe again. The municipality, she said, is calling on the province to add more OPP officers at Sauble to help enforce bylaws and other pandemic-related rules.
She said she is in discussions with the local OPP detachment commander regarding additional police coverage on the beach, while Deputy-mayor Jay Kirkland is discussing the issue with Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker.
At Monday’s meeting, before council voted to close the beach, Jackson told council that she had spoken with Arra and he had “made it very clear” that if the town’s trial – allowing walk-through access only – didn’t work “he would highly recommend that we close the beach.”
Jackson also shared with The Sun Times a June 22 letter that Arra sent to local mayors that says public health has been made aware of the potential for “mass gatherings” on area beaches during popular tourist gathering times “like holiday and long weekends,” particularly Canada Day.
“We encourage all municipalities to consider all reasonable measures possible to prevent or control such gatherings, including adoption of a bylaw to modify access to beaches. The modified access can vary from restricting the number of people, the activities allowed up to and including complete closure of a beach as per your municipality’s unique circumstances,” the letter says.
On Wednesday, Arra said Jackson told him during their brief conversation that she was concerned that 60,000 people could visit Sauble on the Canada Day long weekend. His advice is that closing the beach for that date might be useful.
“Using beach closure as a public health intervention for a limited amount of time – one day or even the announcement of it – could be useful. Not in any way, shape or form would I recommend closing beaches when the health unit team has been working for eight weeks around the clock to ensure safe opening,” he said.
Arra said he has made himself available to speak to any council in the region at any time about his recommendations.
The success of a bylaw as a public health measure requires a thorough consultation with public health to ensure scientific and epidemiological evidence are factored in, he said.
Regardless of the situation, Arra said he strongly recommends people follow provincial orders and municipal bylaws during the pandemic.
Jackson said the comments she made to describe her conversation with Arra did not have a significant bearing on council’s decision to close Sauble.
That vote was based on council members witnessing first-hand “a very difficult situation” on the beach, she said.
“There was no question in our mind that we were completely unable to enforce social distancing or gatherings of more than 10. Those were COVID-related issues that we had. The other concerns was the breach of our own requirements for walk-through purposes only,” she said.
“When we only have a beach that’s five to 10 feet wide, it just takes a few people to lay down on a beach blanket or set up their chairs and umbrellas and coolers and you block the beach. And that’s what happened over the last two weekends. People couldn’t even pass in many areas because there was so many people on the beach instead of following the walk through-only rules. So all rules were out the window. Everything that was put in place to protect our community was ignored and abused.”
Arra told an online town hall Wednesday night that despite the gatherings on Sauble over the past two weekends, the epidemiology remains favourable and shows Grey-Bruce continues to have a low number of cases of COVID-19.
“We continue to monitor the situation. So if we continue with similar weekends, I would have no issue reassuring the public we are in really good standing,” he said.
“If there are certain indications that a mass gathering is going to happen, that is something that should be expected and tackled in different ways other than just closing everything on these long weekends. On normal weekends, throughout the summer, I see no reason why not to proceed with the plan to have it open. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Closing a beach is “not a silver bullet,” he added, as tourists could still flock to a community if its beach is shuttered. However, that could inadvertently create other challenges, for example, a long line of people waiting inside a store to purchase ice cream may carry more risk than spending time on a beach.
The local health unit says it’s important to consider the multiple health concerns that come into play when deciding on any public health measure, like closing a beach. The objective during the recovery phase of the pandemic is to ensure a balanced approach “minimizing both disease and death from COVID-19 and disease and death from measures to respond to COVID-19.
“As an example, closing beaches may reduce the risk of COVID-19, but it has the potential to increase disease and death related to other conditions such as mental health, domestic violence and heat injury during heatwaves; especially for those who cannot afford an air-conditioned environment. Having the natural cooling effect of a beach would prevent heat-related injury and death. This effect becomes more vital as providing cooling centers during COVID-19 has its unique set of challenges,” a public health news release said.
“Also important is income as a key social determent of health. ‘Indefinite’ closure of some beaches, activities, or facilities, would negatively affect health by risking the job security and income of individuals who are employed in a sector impacted by the closure. Having clear timelines allow employers to plan accordingly to ensure job certainty for their employees.”
Council’s decision to close Sauble has garnered both support and criticism, including from merchants at Sauble who are concerned about how the move will impact their businesses.
A change.org petition, started by Sauble businessman Ryan Gardhouse, calls on council to reverse its “uninformed” decision, which the petition says will decimate local businesses.
Another Sauble business owner, Tom LaForme, says he’s holding a public meeting at his Beachside Takeout parking lot Friday at 7 p.m. to obtain opinions from local business owners and residents.
South Bruce Peninsula council decided in late March to close Sauble Beach after the provincial government issued a closure notice for outdoor recreational areas due to COVID-19.
It voted June 8 to reopen Sauble for restricted, walk-through access only as a trial.
Jackson said 60,000 people could visit Sauble Beach on a Canada Day long weekend.