Memorial Day Weekend will be unusual, to say the least

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 5:45pm

Memorial Day Weekend, long earmarked as the unofficial open of the summer season on Block Island, will have a very different feel this year.

The Beach Pavilion will be closed. Public bathrooms are not expected to open, except at the Visitor Center in Old Harbor. Trash cans will not be placed on street corners.

Town officials said at this point they are trying to simply follow the guidelines that are coming from the state, even if sometimes those guidelines are unclear.

The major issue with the public bathrooms on Block Island has traditionally focused on cleanliness. This year there is that same issue on steroids, plus there is the issue of social distancing while waiting in line or in the bathroom facility itself.

“I am not anticipating opening bathrooms this weekend per many discussions” with Interim Town Manager Jim Kern, said town Facilities Manager Sam Bird. Bird said he would be following the guidelines set by the state, but the state guidelines are as of yet unclear. Bird said he has been talking with his counterpart in Newport, who said that bathroom facilities would not be open in that seaside town, either.

Bird said he had turned on the water at the facilities at the Visitor Center in Old Harbor, just to be prepared.

The Fred Benson Beach Pavilion will likewise be shuttered, according to Recreational Director Dave Sniffen.

“We’re sticking with the state’s phases,” said Sniffen. “The bathrooms won’t be open and the beach house won’t be open for the weekend. Until the state moves into the next phase I won’t be opening the facilities.” Sniffen said he, too, was waiting on bathroom cleaning protocols. The state has issued guidelines for open beaches — the state has opened two beaches for this weekend — that include social distancing, wearing facemasks and keeping to small groups. Gov. Gina Raimondo said she planned on announcing new measures for social gatherings at her press briefing on Friday, May 22. All the beaches on Block island are town-owned and have been open for walking.

Although the state has issued strict measures for cleaning businesses that open, there is the issue of getting those cleaning supplies. Sniffen said he has been working with Assistant Town Manager Shirlyne Gobern on getting the needed supplies for the cleaning protocols.

“When we do open, we’ll be prepared,” said Sniffen.

Tourism Director Jessica Willi said during a Tourism Council meeting on Wednesday, May 20, that she had attended a meeting with state marketing and tourism officials, as well as the other regional tourism directors, and the number one question on people’s minds was the two-week quarantine mandate for out-of-state travelers. Quarantine means staying home. No trips to the grocery or the post office.

From that meeting, Willi said that while nothing definitive was decided, she didn’t “feel that is going to be lifted any time soon. That’s just me. Totally a feeling. But that could come out and change on Friday. That was definitely the number one thing on everyone’s mind. Big businesses to the smallest place — that was the big thing.”

The other question from that meeting of tourism officials was about when indoor dining may resume.

“Indoor dining will be starting first week in June. The words they used were ‘very likely.’ The doctor on the phone said he doesn’t make plans outside of 24 hours because things are changing so quickly,” Willi said. (The other news Willi shared was that Heather Evans, the state’s chief marketing officer, had left her post. Willi said there was no reason given.)

Under the subject of whether people can come to Rhode Island, have lunch and return, Willi said that scenario was applicable to Block Island.

“Can you come out to Block Island and have lunch and go home, which I don’t think would be allowed, but there seems to be some question about that,” said Willi. “There was definitely a question about that.”

It was during the Tourism Council’s meeting that business owner and council member John Cullen said he needs to have hand sanitizer available to the public, among other protocols, before he can legally open. The problem is demand is outpacing the supply.

“We need to provide hand sanitizers in the store legally,” said Cullen. “The problem is there are no dispensers. I found some and I’ll get them by June 14. The others by the end of July, so there is some frustration. As a small business owner we want to open but I can’t find the things I need to open legally. Some I can, some I can’t. It’s frustrating.”

Both Willi and Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Lasser said that recreational, food, and services were going to be minimal this Memorial Day Weekend, which didn’t put the island in a position of giving visitors a first-rate experience.

“Wait a few weeks and you’ll be able to stay in a hotel and we’ll hit our stride,” said Lasser. “The expectation is we’ll get summer together in a few weeks.”

“We’re weeks away from people having a much better experience,” said Willi.