Come August, beaches nationwide are typically crowded with visitors looking to escape the heat and humidity.
This year, however, just 60 percent of the nation’s 1,156 beaches are officially open to the public following the COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc worldwide.
An article in an online Newsweek Japan publication suggests that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is very small when you’re swimming in the ocean, although the same obviously can’t be said when relaxing on the beach surrounded by crowds of people.
As a result, all 25 swimming areas in Kanagawa Prefecture are currently closed, with bathing areas in Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures following suit.
Local governments in these prefectures will not set up beach facilities offering shade or equipment, nor will swimming areas be staffed with lifeguards keeping an eye on the ocean.
Somewhat surprisingly, 44 beaches in Tokyo are open, although the vast majority of these are located on offshore islands administered by the Metropolitan Government.
Municipal officials on those islands have already questioned whether their beaches should remain open, arguing that they have no medical facilities available to cope with an outbreak of COVID-19 should one occur.
Also bucking the trend is Shizuoka Prefecture, which has kept 39 of its 56 beaches open, including the popular destination of Shirahama, which typically attracts thousands of visitors every summer.
Officials in Shimoda say they have been inundated with calls from Tokyoites, asking whether they’re allowed to visit.
“We can’t say no,” says Tetsuyoshi Fujiwara of the city’s tourism department. “We are simply asking people to be careful and be well-prepared. We are implementing our own regulations and ask that everyone abide by our rules.”
Such “rules” are a set of detailed protocols, including temperature checkpoints at train stations as well as at entrances to each beach.
Beaches are also divided into areas measuring 8 square meters to ensure social distancing.
Staff will conduct patrols, responding to people who feel ill. If visitors have a temperature higher than 37.5 degrees, officials ask that they stay home.
If visitors do arrive, they must wear masks and use hand sanitizers, even when relaxing on the sand. Talking loudly or singing is prohibited.
Even if many beaches are closed, you can’t put a lock on the ocean and municipalities are fearful of accidents that could occur in the absence of lifeguards or aid stations.
Keio University and volunteers in the city of Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, have teamed up to develop a drone that is able to assist people who require help when swimming in the ocean by dropping buoys and floats.
The drones will also be patrolling the beach and advising people to stay away from the water over a loudspeaker.
In Fujisawa, the drones will be operating every weekend through Aug. 23, flying in 15-minute intervals once every hour.
The closure of beaches has hit families with children particularly hard. Mamastar, a website for mothers with school-age children, has received many comments from parents lamenting the situation.
“Last summer’s calendar was full of beach-related activities, including barbecues and watching fireworks at dusk,” one person noted. “This year, my calendar is absolutely empty. There’s no place I can go with my kids that feels carefree and safe.”
“We all behaved and stayed home for two months and now the pandemic has started all over again,” another wrote. “What can I say? Summer is ruined.”
“Ruined” is arguably a little strong, and yet, according to a survey conducted by PR Times, just 1.7 percent of respondents said they had plans to visit a beach or swimming pool.
However, perhaps it’s too early to write summer off completely just yet.
On Twitter, user Gateau Chocolat posted a photo of her daughter lying in an inflatable pool on their apartment balcony alongside a comment that simply said, “Our summer is officially here.”
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