Thousands flocked to beaches along the Lake Erie shoreline of Norfolk County over the weekend.
Vehicles streamed past a mobile sign on Turkey Point Road at 1 p.m. Saturday indicating the beach at Turkey Point was at capacity for visitors, with no room for parking.
Kasia Devlin of Brampton was soaking up the sun and lake breeze with her husband Robert and their son at the west end of Turkey Point beach. The area has no available parking and is most often used by cottage owners.
“We have good friends that have a cottage here, and they invited us to come and spend a few days on the beach,” Devlin said. “People are social distancing quite well in their own groups of family members. I’m very comfortable because everybody has been keeping their distance.”
Devlin was aware how crowded the situation was just one kilometre east at the main public beach.
“I would not go there,” she said. “Too many, and too close.”
Many beaches in the province remain closed, and Devlin sympathized with those who have driven two hours or more to Norfolk County.
“They are going to try to find a spot,” she said. “People need to get out, kids need to play.”
The beach at Port Dover, substantially privately owned, remains closed following a decision by the Knechtel family and other owners.
“Business owners are trying to be responsible. It’s not an easy decision,” said Jason Burgess, chief administrative officer for Norfolk County. “They see what’s going on in Florida, and don’t want a repeat of that.”
Norfolk County owns a 66-foot portion of the beach at the end of Walker Street in Port Dover, and decided to align with owners to keep the beach closed for the time being.
“The popularity of the beach – which the owners have graciously allowed the public and Norfolk County to use for many years – means proper social distancing would be extremely difficult, putting visitors at risk of COVID-19,” said Norfolk County Mayor Kristal Chopp. “We fully support the owners’ decision.”
The mayor said she is excited that the county is included in the province’s second stage of re-opening, but asks that people continue to be cautious and vigilant while supporting local businesses.
The closure at Port Dover means beach-goers are heading to Turkey Point and Long Point, and the CAO says there is concern about volumes
“We are looking at ways of making sure people can enjoy the beach safely,” Burgess said, noting that the high water levels of Lake Erie have caused much of the sandy shoreline to disappear.
“What may have been 50 to 100 feet of beach, may now be only 10 feet,” the CAO noted. “So you have a lot of people coming to a very narrow strip of beach in some cases, that compounds the over-crowding.”
Burgess said a meeting was held with county staff, OPP, Ministry of the Environment and other agencies to map out strategies “to make sure when people come here, that it’s safe to play here.”
Stephen Brown, owner of the Sandbar on the Beach restaurant in Turkey Point, has mixed feelings about the current situation.
“Business has been good, but the place is a zoo,” Brown said.
In his seventh year of ownership of the beachfront restaurant and bar, Brown said limited seating on the patio has been full since restaurants were allowed to re-open.
He said that while every summer is busy at Turkey Point, this year is a bit of an adjustment due to COVID-19, and he’s noticing a major influx of city people, many who are disrespecting rules and laws.
“I had crazy problems before the beach was open, with my parking lot becoming a bathroom,” the restaurant owner said. “It was disgusting.”
Brown said his business will survive while a lot of restaurants in the province won’t be as fortunate.
His mother lives nearby and cares for his two young children while he is at the restaurant.
“It concerns me,” Brown admitted. “I work my butt off here, and I can’t afford for my parents or my kids to get sick.”
While he understands people’s desire to head to the beach, Brown thinks officials could do a better job policing how many people are coming in for the day.
“It’s good to see people out, I know they’ve been cooped up,” Brown said. “But it’s also concerning how many people they’re allowing down here. It’s shocking.”