What’s Being Done to Prevent Crowding at Local Beaches and Parks?

With the weather warming up, Wisconsinites long for days at the beach. But how safe is it when our natural areas are so crowded?

Crowds flocked to beaches, parks and other outdoor venues in Southeastern Wisconsin over the Memorial Day weekend and on the days that followed, fueled by high temperatures and a pent-up desire to gather with family and friends after several weeks of sheltering under stay-at-home orders. 

At Bradford Beach along the shore of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, it looked like business as usual at the highly popular warm-weather gathering spot, with beachgoers spread out across the sand – with many not abiding by social distancing requirements and other guidelines aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 – and long lines of vehicles moving slowly along Lincoln Memorial Drive as temperatures climbed into the 80s. 

Being outdoors is one important COVID-19 mitigation strategy, but health experts warn against leapfrogging other measures to keep people from being sickened by the coronavirus, which has led to 550 death statewide (268 in Milwaukee County) as of Thursday afternoon. 

“Although that decreases the risk of transmission, the risk is still there,” Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Dr. Ben Weston said in a video conference on Thursday. “So, it’s just one of the protective measures that’s important to take.”

It’s important to incorporate other preventative methods, such as physical distancing and wearing a face mask, Weston noted.

“We have to approach our every-day activities in a different manner than we did previously,” Weston said. “We’ve adapted to stay-at-home (orders) and now we must shift to adapt to safely leave our homes. With each activity you do outside, you have to be creative and thoughtful in your approach.”

It’s crucial, Weston said, to consider whether activities can be done in an open-air environment or from a distance, what can be done to minimize the touching of shared objects and is it possible for all involved to wear a face mask.

“Like it or not, these are the questions we must all ask on a daily and often hourly basis as we move into a new way of thinking, a new approach to our everyday lives,” Weston said. “This is how we can get back to a new normal and do our best to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our community healthy.”

Although suburban communities in Milwaukee County and the rest of Southeastern Wisconsin no longer have formal regulations in place governing social distancing, a formal order remains active in the city of Milwaukee and can be enforced by Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputies who patrol Bradford Beach and Milwaukee County Parks within the city of Milwaukee.

“The city’s order is still in effect. There are no enforcement options that we will take off the table in terms of maintaining safety in any Milwaukee County Park within the city limits,” said Ted Chisholm, chief of staff for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department. 

But enforcement isn’t the main goal.

“Our primary approach is education. We are committed to an education-based approach, constructively engaging with folks, making sure that distancing is being adhered to,” Chisholm said.

Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to handle a major disturbance on Milwaukee’s lakefront, near Bradford Beach, on Tuesday night. The large crowd involved in the altercation prompted concerns about public safety on multiple levels, including the potential to spread COVID-19.

“That type of activity endangers others using the lakefront and enjoying the beach,” Chisholm said. 

Although the North Shore Health Department didn’t receive any specific complaints about overcrowding at beaches during the Memorial Day weekend, officials there are keeping a close eye on the situation.

“I am concerned about increased activity at the beaches,” North Shore Health Department Director Ann Christiansen said. “But in terms of crowds, it did seem from the report we received that people were minding the guidelines for social distancing.”

Controlling crowds at beaches will continue to be a challenge over the summer, Christiansen admitted. 

“The beaches are smaller than they used to be with the high-water levels in Lake Michigan,” she said. “If people do want to enjoy the beach, we would advise going at times when there is less likely going to be a lot of people there, such as mornings and during the week. And since we advise that people continue to not gather in groups outside of their immediate household members, we don’t recommend going down to the beach with groups of friends to hang out. We want people to be able to access Lake Michigan and enjoy the beaches, but we need everyone to be responsible and keep group sizes small and keep a distance from others.”

Beaches aren’t an attraction in the city of Franklin, but people headed outside in droves to enjoy the weather, nonetheless.

The new Milky Way Drive-In movie theater, located in the parking lot of the Ballpark Commons, drew capacity crowds on Memorial Day weekend and patrons filled the Umbrella Bar at the The Rock Sports Complex, Mayor Steve Olson said.

Meanwhile, bikers, runners and walkers crowded the section of the Oak Leaf Trail that passes through the city and children and their families filled Kayla’s Playground at Franklin Woods, he added.

“We’ve been pitching really hard the need for social distancing, covering your coughs, wear a mask if you are comfortable and washing your hands often,” Olson said. 

Franklin doesn’t have an active order currently in place governing social distancing requirements.

“We don’t have an order, so there’s no enforcement action,” Olson said. “If police officers see people that can use some education, they are educating them, but there’s no enforcement.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.