About 10 miles off the coast of southern mainland Rhode Island, nestled in between the tip of Montauk and Martha’s Vineyard, lies the tiny porkchop shaped jewel of Block Island.The island’s only township, New Shoreham, relies almost entirely on summer tourism to fuel its economy, and come spring, residents are typically welcoming visitors back with open arms before the Time Of Covid-19.
The island is also home to an amazing mix of beach breaks and points which has largely remained off most surfers radar as the surfing world outside continued to shrink at an alarming rate over the past two decades since the internet and cell phones have opened up once wilderness secret spots faster than oil cans of Tooheys beer at an Australian barbeque.
Back in the 80’s I considered it a place for me to take a surfing vacation after coming home off months long trips for Surfer Magazine and told nobody nothing for several years before letting on to a few close friends I could trust to come surf it with me and keep a lid on it and it has largely remained that way since.
However, a few days ago, Block Island became the Ocean states first community to order residents to shelter in place as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to climb. Now, as Covid-19 spreads across the United States, many of the town’s roughly 1,000 year-rounders are pleading with outsiders – including surfers – to stay away until the dust settles.
Local officials on Tuesday said they’re also strongly discouraging second homeowners and other visitors from traveling to the island, and ordering them to self-quarantine for at least 14 days if they do. For full-time residents, they’re asking people to restrict off-island travel to essential trips such as seeking medical care or obtaining food or other vital provisions.
“Our main problem is that the medical center out here has one doctor with basically one hospital bed,” said Rick Lysik, who owns Club Soda, one of the island’s couple dozen or so restaurants. “So if anything happens, we’re automatically overwhelmed.”
“We love the tourists, and when this is all over, we would love their business and support,” he added. “But the doctor put it well the other day: Once the seal is broken, it’s broken.”
Bill McCombe, co-director of Block Island’s Emergency Management team, said, “There is concern among residents that their resources, such as food and essential supplies, will be overwhelmed by an influx of people. People are nervous. What compounds all of this is people who are returning to the island after spending the winter elsewhere, as well as people returning to open their summer homes.”
McCombe’s concerns no doubt echo every summer tourist dependent beach town residents concerns from Ocracoke North Carolina to Ongunquit Maine.
Second Warden André Boudreau said during the March 22 council meeting that, “We have no ability to test people coming over, so that is the weak link. We can’t stop the ferries from coming. People have said shut the ferry down for two to three weeks. We are doing the best we can to protect the public within the legal framework that we have. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
McCombe, who is also director of security for the Block Island Ferry, noted that the ferry “provides a lifeline service for the town, and we have a partnership with the town because of that.” He said the ferry and the airline are operating because they are regulated by the state and federal government. “They are monitoring what we have put in place to address the virus,” he said, noting that the ferry company has “taken extra safety measures” regarding its fleet.
Tensions have come to a head in recent weeks as residents, many of whom are older and more vulnerable to COVID-19, debate the best path forward for keeping the island virus-free for as long as possible. On Monday, the town council issued a shelter in place decree effective through April 15 that limits restaurants and bars to takeout service and prohibits most construction workers from entering sites.
The order also strongly discourages nonresidents from traveling to the island and asks full-time residents to leave only for essential purposes, such as medical care. Anyone arriving on the island must self-quarantine for two weeks. Violating any of the provisions outlined in the emergency declaration is punishable by a maximum fine of $500 or up to 30 days behind bars.
The Block Island lock down is just another shocking, apocalyptic sign of the new abnormal and the off limits surfing destinations and surf breaks around the world we are all forced to come to grips with and until better days hopefully get here sooner rather than later.