Everything seemed normal as I biked to North Lido Beach last Friday for my last legal beach sunset. I go to the beach regularly and take it for granted. But when Sarasota County announced it would be closing all public beaches at 6 a.m. on Saturday because of the coronavirus, my Friday night stroll felt strangely urgent. I rode through St. Armands Circle. People were shopping and tourists seem to be everywhere. Out-of-town drivers were still halting traffic while waiting for other out-of-towners to back out of a parking space. If people were worried about the virus or upset about the beaches closing, they weren’t showing it. I reached the north parking lot and locked my bike. The beach brings out good vibes, but there I was thinking about all the uncertainty. I wondered how other beachgoers were feeling.
Terry and Maureen Wilson sat in beach chairs separated by a red plastic cooler on the whitest part of the sand. Their flight back home to London was cancelled and they said it would be at least a couple of weeks until they could find another.
“We’ve been coming here for 30 years,” Terry said, adding that they have their own place here. “So we’re fine. I feel bad for the people stuck in hotels.”
I asked how they felt about the beach lockdown. Maureen thought it a bit excessive. Both agreed it was probably necessary. “But where do you go that’s as safe as this?” Terry asked.
Terry was philosophical and explained some math about what this meant for his life. “I’m about to turn 76 years old. Let’s say I have four years left if I make it to 80.” Maureen touched her chest and said, “Don’t say that. You’re making me sad.” Terry went on. “If they shut everything down for 3 months, that’s 1/16th of the rest of my life.”
A woman named Lori looked like she was doing yoga stretches among a patch of sea oats, far from the crowded shore. She wore blue latex gloves. “Please don’t come any closer, I’m immunocompromised,” she said. I kept my distance. I asked her how she was going to pass the time if she couldn’t come to the beach. She said she had a Peloton and a TV at home. Her pantry is stuffed, and she’s still got some takeout leftovers.
“My friends are over by the shore,” Lori told me, pointing to the shoreline far in the distance. “They texted me to make sure I was OK. I can only wave to them from here.”
Lori’s boyfriend was supposed to fly in from Chicago to see her, but they cancelled the trip for fear of her health. “He was planning on coming down here and proposing to me, so I just started referring to him as my fiance.”
I ran into my friend Jon Klasinski at the north end of the beach. I hadn’t seen him in months. He was fishing for pompano. “I just felt that I should go to the beach before I moved at the end of the month,” said. He’s moving to Milwaukee. I asked him if he was bummed that this was likely the last time he’d get to go to the beach before he left Florida. He shrugged his shoulders. “They had to close it because all those spring breakers kept coming.”
Jenny Wilcox and Mary Beth Velzy sat in their beach chairs, cutting up pieces of cheese. I asked them what kind it was. “Havarti,” Jenny told me. “Would you like some?” The offer seemed reluctant. Sharing food in a time like this feels precarious, but our need to be polite often overrides our obligation to be safe. I declined the cheese.
“People have been respectful,” Jenny said. “Everyone is keeping that six-foot distance. It’s disappointing they’re closing the beach.” Mary Beth is supposed to fly back to Chicago on Sunday. “They’re a lot more restrictive there than they are here,” Mary Beth said. “I’d rather be restricted here,” Jenny said in response. “It’s too bad because the sky has been really clear recently so the sunsets have been especially beautiful.”
I left the beach. The sunset watchers seemed resigned and surprisingly accepting of the new rules. The traffic was bad like it usually is after sunset. People were lined up to go into Kilwins for ice cream and drivers merged onto St. Armands Circle with the usual uncertainty. I wondered when things might look like this again. Viruses don’t stop the sun from setting.