LACONIA — Local officials have called for social distancing at city parks and beaches, but that may be easier said than done on the sand at The Weirs, where visitors traditionally are cheek by jowl on the busiest summer weekends.
Crowds were manageable on the Memorial Day holiday, with no more than 100 people using Weirs Beach at any one time, said Matt Mansur, assistant director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The weather was iffy at times, and many people may not have realized the beach was open, he theorized.
But those crowds will likely grow as the summer progresses, and that could make it difficult to maintain the 6 feet of separation needed to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
On 4th of July Weekend, visitors from inside and outside the state flock to the sand with their grills, coolers, towels and blankets.
Grants from the U.S. Land Water and Conservation Fund for the beach require it to be open to all, including people from other states.
Department Director Amy Lovisek said regulations for the city beach place a crowd cap at 2,200, and that level is frequently reached on Independence Day.
A rough estimate is that the beach could hold about 600 people while still allowing appropriate social distancing, she said.
One possibility might be to pass new regulations limiting the total number of people who can be on the beach at any one time.
This will likely be considered by the city Parks and Recreation Commission, which is to meet on June 15.
At its last meeting, the commission rejected a request to prohibit outdoor grilling at the beach. The request was intended to make the beach less attractive to visitors.
One option that was discussed was to temporarily shut down the beach if crowd size made social distancing impossible. Also, discussed was calling police for assistance if large groups started showing up.
A short walk from the beach is Tower Hill Tavern, which was serving customers seated outside on Wednesday. Since May 18, New Hampshire restaurants have been allowed to resume outside service under a set of guidelines that include spacing out tables and requiring staff members to wear masks.
Indoor dining is still prohibited.
General manager Meghan Doptis said she has seating for 32 people outside in front of the restaurant, and 50 out back.
The front area was full moments after it opened Wednesday afternoon, when temperatures climbed to 90.
“It’s super hot with these masks on,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
She was hoping regulations eventually could be relaxed, possibly allowing indoor seating at a reduced capacity.
Doptis said she thinks some of the regulations may be a bit overdone, but she also understands public concerns about the disease.
“People are scared,” she said. “People are acting weird. There’s so much uncertainty.
“The mask thing should be each person’s decision. My father, grandfather and great grandfather are military and that’s what they fought for — so we can make those decisions.”
Doptis said most people show up at Tower Hill Tavern without wearing a face covering. Some restaurants are asking guests to wear masks when they go to and from their tables.
“Maybe a few are wearing masks,” she said. “They tell me I can take mine off, but I won’t.”
Limitations on bathrooms can be a point of frustration.
Only one person is allowed in a restroom at a time. People have to socially distance if they are waiting to use the facilities.
Big questions that remain to be answered involve the logistics of holding events that draw huge crowds to The Weirs each summer, such as Bike Week in August, Biketemberfest and The Weirs Beach Music Festival, both in September, and Octoberfest, in early October.
About a half-mile south of the tavern is The Weirs Drive-In Theatre, where owner Pat Baldi says business has been brisk.
“We had a good weekend,” Baldi said. “It’s mostly locals though, the tourists aren’t up here.
“It’s probably the only entertainment they can have. It’s kind of sad.”
Normally, the drive-in can accommodate 600 to 700 cars, but she said capacity is now half that. She’s been having the cars park in every other spot to maintain social distancing.
Baldi has had to rearrange the snack bar and buy some new equipment. It was self-service. Now, employee have to provide the food to the customers.
Movie studios have held off releasing major new films during the pandemic as indoor theaters have been forced to close.
Baldi said she is looking forward to some major releases in July, and until then, she’s been screening some classics.
“This coming week we’ll be showing ‘Grease’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ as a double feature on screen one. Maybe we’ll do ‘Casablanca’ or some other old ones,” Baldi said.
She’s pleased with the customer demand, but said a nearby bridge project meant her business had to open more than a month later than usual.
And, she said the drive-in is still for sale.
“I'm going to be 82 in September and I’m really tired. I’d like to lighten the load.”