Saturday, June 25, 2022

‘Corona Break’: Thousands gather on Carolina Beach as Town Council votes to close beach accesses [Free read]

UNCW students party at Carolina Beach thirty minutes before the town announced a state of emergency and the closure of all beach accesses. On Saturday, the school announced that two of its students had tested positive for the virus --- one returned to Wilmington on March 17 from a spring break trip, according to school officials. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
UNCW students party at Carolina Beach 30 minutes before the town announced a state of emergency and the closure of all beach accesses. On Saturday, the school announced that two of its students had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

CAROLINA BEACH — A chain reaction of beach closures occurred along the Cape Fear coast on Friday as college students, families, and retirees alike flocked to Carolina Beach for their last few hours of sand and ocean air as the town council decided to follow suit. 

Many of the groups clustered on the beach, where college kids were enjoying a spring break that had been extended an additional week before online classes begin on Monday.

RELATED: UNCW announces two students have tested positive for COVID-19 [Free read]

Carolina Beach Councilmembers moved up a special meeting a few hours to 1 p.m., where on a four-to-one vote they approved a state of emergency and closed the town’s beach accesses due to a regional increase in cases of the novel coronavirus. At 3 p.m., the town sent a release to local media outlets, and 30 minutes later it announced the closures via Facebook. 

But twenty minutes before 5 p.m., the beach strand near the town’s boardwalk was still packed with thousands of visitors, many of whom made their way south after Wrightsville Beach closed its own beach earlier that morning.

A Carolina Beach Police truck drove slowly along the beach at 2:30 p.m. But officers didn’t tell people to vacate the beach, as some visitors had reported happened in Wrightsville Beach earlier that morning; neither did members of a fire department SUV cruising the beach strand at 4:20 p.m.

Councilman Steve Shuttleworth said he was unaware of any forced evacuation on Friday.

Thousands gathered at Carolina Beach near the town’s boardwalk on Friday afternoon while Town Council voted to close beach accesses. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Thousands gathered at Carolina Beach near the town’s boardwalk on Friday afternoon as Town Council voted to close all beach accesses. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Here for a good time

Spencer Brickhouse, a former pitcher for East Carolina University drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019, was heading to the Pelican Road beach access from a nearby parking lot early Friday afternoon with a group of ECU students.

“It’s pretty wild to see how much [the coronavirus] has spread in the past week,” Brickhouse said. “It’s something that when you first see, you don’t think it’s anything that big; then all of the sudden, bang, it’s national news.”

He said many aspects of his everyday life had been impacted — essentials at the grocery store out of stock, restaurants closed to sit-down customers. On March 12, Major League Baseball canceled the remainder of its spring training schedule and delayed the start of its regular season.

Asked if he was worried about going to a crowded beach as the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase, he said he wasn’t overly concerned.

“Being out in the fresh air is nice,” Brickhouse said. “You can’t really think about it — just go out, keep livin’ life.”

But he said he was taking certain precautions, like avoiding his grandparents until he knows for certain he doesn’t have any symptoms of the virus that could be passed to them.

“Because those are the ones you really have to be worried about,” Brickhouse said. “That’s something you have to be mindful of whenever you go to any crowded place.”

Courtney Layton, right, and Whitney Sanford --- students from East Carolina University --- head to the beach.
Courtney Layton, right, and Whitney Sanford — students from East Carolina University — head to the beach. Spencer Brickhouse, back right, said he had to “keep livin’ life” but also expressed concern of passing the virus to his grandparents. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Harrison Brent, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was partying with fellow students and fraternity brothers near the Pelican Road beach access. 

“[N]obody wants to leave, and nobody’s worried about the virus, obviously,” Brent said. “We’re all just here to have a good f—ing time.”

For many students, he said, parents had forced them to come home while others were kicked out of their dorms. Although he believed shutting down the dorms was a good call, he also thought that students returning home endangered parents and grandparents more vulnerable to the serious health consequences caused by the disease, known as Covid-19.

Students should stay in Wilmington, Brent said, where he heard no cases were reported; he was surprised, however, when told that the county’s first presumptive positive case was announced on Wednesday.

On Saturday, the school itself announced that two of its students tested positive for the coronavirus — one who had returned to Wilmington on March 17 from a spring break trip but had not since been on campus, according to school officials.

On Friday evening, New Hanover County commissioners issued a county-wide state of emergency, prohibiting all gatherings of 10 or more people and closing all public beach accesses. On Saturday, county officials confirmed three additional positive cases of the virus, bringing the total count to four.

Members of the Chi Phi fraternity at UNCW get their picture taken at Carolina Beach on Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Members of a UNCW fraternity get their picture taken at Carolina Beach on Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Standing next to Brent was his ‘little brother’ in a UNCW fraternity, Bryce Hartsliem.

“I think it’s safest to keep the college kids nearby instead of bringing [the virus] back home to their parents and grandparents,” Hartslief said. “Because they’re the ones we’re more worried about. We’re still young and healthy — we can get sick but we have a greater chance of fighting off the virus than our parents and grandparents.”

“And I’d rather be sick on the beach,” he added.

Collin Kitts and his younger brother Parker, Carolina Beach residents, were biking down the beach thirty minutes after the police truck passed by. Collin said his mom had recently informed him of the town’s Facebook post announcing the beach closure, while Parker said a town official had told him they would soon call everyone off the beach.

According to an email from the town clerk, police officers and fire crews would be out “educating the visitors” and advising them that accesses would be closing. By 4:45 p.m., this had not yet occurred.

Parker Kitts, left, and his older brother Collin Kitts bike down Carolina Beach on Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Maci Lee, a student at Pitt Community College in Winterville, just south of Greenville, called the school’s extended week of spring break ‘Corona Break,’ just as other college students on the beach were calling it. Her group of friends had driven to Wrightsville Beach that morning but were told it was closed shortly after they arrived, so they headed south to Carolina Beach.

When asked if she was concerned to be at a crowded beach when local, state, and federal leaders were urging people to avoid mass gatherings, she expressed both fear of contracting the virus but also a desire to enjoy her extended spring break.

“I’m trying my best [to avoid mass gatherings],” she said. “I’m scared — I don’t want to get it. I don’t go to stores and stuff. We thought the beach would be cool because you’re six feet away from people, so you’re fine. But it is probably best to avoid people.” 

Her friend, Greyson Reel, said he was worried about passing the virus to older people like his grandparents.

“It’s kind of hard to not be concerned, even though I’m trying to stay optimistic about it,” Reel said. “But seeing how fast it’s spreading, how quick it came over here from China, and now it’s right here … [But] we’ve felt like we’ve been kind of locked in, so we just wanted to get out and have fun for a day.”

Not just college kids

Phillip Murray, who sat with the group pictured in center, said he drove from Raleigh to Carolina Beach even though family and friends had expressed concern. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Phillip Murray, who sat with the group pictured in center, said he drove from Raleigh to Carolina Beach even though family and friends had expressed concern about traveling to a crowded public space. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Phillip Murray, who appeared to be in his fifties or sixties, said he was driving from Raleigh to Carolina Beach when he nearly turned around after receiving phone calls from friends and family members “saying we were crazy to be coming down here.” 

“We’re having a great time, but I can understand the concern other people are having about this virus deal,” Murray said. “So there’s a balance to look at, but so far, I don’t regret coming.”

Murray met two other couples at the beach and said they were each taking precautions — ordering food and eating at the beach, wiping down their hotel rooms with sanitizers. But as more and more people came to the beach on Friday, he did say he had become increasingly worried. 

“It’s getting to be so crowded; I am getting a little concerned about the spacing,” Murray said.

Further south on the beach, three women from Leland — who also appeared to be in their fifties or sixties — sat in a triangle at least 30 feet from the nearest group of sun-tanners. That morning they planned to go to Wrightsville Beach to play pickleball. When they found it was closed, they headed to Carolina Beach after hearing it was still open.

On their chairs were containers of disinfectant wipes, which they said they’d been using throughout the day to keep their hands and personal items clean. They also avoided using public restrooms.

One of the women, Sue Dalpe, said the amount of people reminded her of the beach on a busy summer day.

“As long as we’re doing our six-feet social distance, I’m not scared for myself,” Dalpe said. “I’m actually scared for everybody else who’s not practicing [social distancing] at all.”

Although she agreed with the decisions of coastal towns to shut down their beaches, she also expressed disappointment.

“We were all sad,” she said. “We thought it was fine to be on the beach. We thought, ‘What’s the difference?’ And we were encouraged to be outside because it’s better than being indoors. But we didn’t expect [this amount of people]. It needs to be shut down.”

View more pictures of Carolina Beach on Friday afternoon below:

Two young men head to the beach through the Pelican Road access on Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Two young men head to the beach through the Pelican Road access on Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Young visitors look for a spot to set up at Carolina Beach on Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Carolina Beach was packed with thousands of visitors Friday afternoon as town councilmembers voted to close all beach accesses. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Young visitors look for a place to set up at Carolina Beach early Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Young beachgoers look for a place to set up at Carolina Beach early Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A Carolina Beach Police truck drives slowly down the beach at 2:30 p.m., just after town councilmembers voted to issue a state of emergency and close all beach accesses. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man and young child on a crowded Carolina Beach early Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A man and young child relax on a crowded Carolina Beach early Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Although the town had declared a state of emergency and ordered all beach accesses closed, life on Carolina Beach appeared normal on a sunny Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A town employee on Carolina Beach Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A town employee on Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young man runs along Carolina Beach Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young man runs along Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young girl plays along the shoreline at Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young man plays catch with a friend at Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young man plays catch with a friend at Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young couple walks along the shoreline at Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A young man plays catch with a friend at Carolina Beach late Friday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A town employee mounts a ‘no access’ sign on the beach access. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

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