SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — The entire tri-county coastal shoreline has been nearly closed-off to the public in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Only a handful of public accesses in Brunswick County remain. Outside of New Hanover County, public boat ramps remain mostly open in Pender and Brunswick County, with a few exceptions.
Just two Brunswick County municipalities have left public beach accesses open across the twelve municipalities that make up the tri-county coastline in southeastern, North Carolina: Bald Head Island and Caswell Beach.
The beach strand itself is now off-limits — even to oceanfront property owners — in New Hanover County and Brunswick County’s southernmost beach towns, including Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, and Holden Beach.
When one town closes, tourists find a way
Most of the public beach closures are a direct response to select beachgoers that blatantly disregarded gathering restrictions.
As was seen in Carolina Beach the afternoon following Wrightsville Beach’s public closures, beachgoers and tourists flock where access remains open. In Holden Beach, officials noticed twice as many people on the island compared to normal circumstances in a meeting April 7.
A town dominated with second homes, Holden Beach officials feared property owners were fleeing areas with higher concentrations of the virus. Also, the town’s neighbors in Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle Beach had closed all accesses and its beach strand the day earlier. South Carolina’s governor closed all public beach and waterway accesses a week earlier, on March 30.
With Easter weekend approaching, Holden Beach Commissioners passed a fifth amendment to their emergency order Wednesday, closing the beach strand itself in an effort to detract tourists and second-home owners from visiting unnecessarily. Though the town had closed off public parking and accesses on March 23, Commissioners said they felt more restrictive measures were necessary to curb tourists.
Caution tape closing off beach access points had been cut down at several locations, with instances of individuals climbing under houses or crossing dunes to access the beach, according to the meeting. Police Chief Jeremy Dixon said his department had written about 20 tickets for parking violations for those parking in public areas.
Order of events
A cascade of public access closures first came in March 20 across the coast. Topsail Beach, Surf City, Wrightsville Beach, and Carolina Beach all passed emergency orders that day specifically limiting public access to beaches.
The City of Southport passed a declaration March 20 as well that effectively limited access to the community’s walkable waterfront areas. Southport’s local order closed all public facilities, which includes its waterfront park and city pier.
Southport Police Chief Todd Coring said Wednesday his department has not issued any citations related to local or state Covid-19 orders. “Everybody has been doing a good job following the orders so far,” he said. Southport has no public boat access areas and the Southport Marina preemptively closed last week, Coring added.
On March 26, Oak Island closed public beach accesses but left them open to residents and property owners. Kure Beach went a step further March 30 closing both public beach accesses and the public beach strand.
This week, Wrightsville Beach increased its civil fines for being on the beach from $150 to $650 (with possible court costs) in an attempt to further crack down on those still making their way to the beach.
In Caswell Beach, town officials closed all parking to the public on March 23. The public beach parking lot and lighthouse parking lot are chained off. Public parking is not permitted along Caswell Beach Road and has not been much of an issue so far, according to Officer Steve Wood.
“You’ve got some that are trying to get around it. Most of what we get are people coming down from Oak Island,” Wood said Wednesday. Individuals would have to already be residing on the island to cross the public access, he said. With the tiny town’s typical beginning season weekend coming up, officials will reconsider rules if issues arise.
“If we start having a lot of problems, we may have to change that,” he said.
The Village of Bald Head Island was the first of the tri-county municipalities to issue cautionary restrictions, issuing an order on March 19. The Village’s emergency order restricted access to the island (which outside the beach strand is accessible by ferry only), exempting property owners, residents, contractors, business owners, and employees.
Beach accesses on the Village still remain open.
Access to waterways
All public boat ramps and marinas in New Hanover County are closed as of April 3, exempting commercial fishing operations. No such mandate has been issued in Pender or Brunswick County.
Commissioner Frank Williams confirmed Tuesday the county has no plans to issue further restrictions in addition to the state’s recent orders. Public boat access ramps owned by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission remain open statewide absent local restrictions.
State-maintained ramps located in Oak Island and Surf City are closed under local directives. All other local and state-maintained boat ramps in Brunswick and Pender County remain open.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org