Warmer weather challenges social distancing efforts in Westport

WESTPORT — With the number of coronavirus cases continuing to rise in town, officials are urging residents to practice social distancing, but the temptation to enjoy the warmer weather has provided a challenging task.

Following reports of crowded beaches earlier this month, First Selectman Jim Marpe closed the playground at Compo Beach and the parking lots at Compo and Burying Hill beaches until further notice. But that hasn’t stopped large gatherings in other parts of town.

“We closed parking to try and reduce the attendance at beaches because it was resulting in too many people gathering too close together,” Marpe said. “While we continue to encourage people to get out in the air and get some exercise there are a lot of places to walk and accomplish that throughout Westport.”

Since closing the parking area of the beaches, Marpe noted there has been early success with social distancing.

“This past weekend it worked,” he said. “There were some people down on the beach, but it wasn’t as crowded.”

But in a message to the community on Monday, he warned of large gatherings still taking place in other parts of town.

“This past weekend, we still experienced several instances of relatively large gatherings in our parks and on some of our athletic fields,” Marpe said. “We encourage all to get outside and get some exercise, but please do not gather in groups. Other communities around us are closing all of their parks, beaches and playgrounds. We are trying to avoid this, but can only do this if all our residents practice social distancing and do not gather in groups.”

In towns such as Fairfield and Norwalk, officials have taken social distancing efforts a step further by closing public parks and beaches to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Extreme preventive measures have showed success in more affected areas like New Rochelle, N.Y., according to reports. The city, just a half hour away from Westport, created a “containment area” after facing a major outbreak two weeks ago. Weeks after the restrictions were put into place early signs show the city’s number of cases rising at a slower pace.

Sara Harris, operations director for Westport, said it has been a collaborative process between town hall, police, the fire department and other town bodies to ensure social distancing is maintained.

“Aside from our staff being in patrol and monitoring it, we are also being informed by the public,” Harris said. “There’s several of us who have a role in this and we’re responding to what we’re hearing.”

While there has been fewer occurrences of social gatherings in the past week, concerns about crowds in the town’s fields and parks remain.

“There certainly has been a lot fewer occurrences of social gathering, but we have still gotten some concerns to look into it,” Harris said, adding the Parks and Recreation Department and police will look to address the situation in the coming days. “We’re still looking at a holistic process that can address what’s going on at the parks, especially with the nicer weather that’s coming.”

Obstacles with social distancing still exist at grocery stores and pharmacies in town, two businesses that are listed as essential and remain open.

“Concerns have been that people have been too close within the grocery store,” Harris said. “That’s difficult because it could be happening at certain times of the day. There are hours currently for seniors to shop. ... We advise people that if you see a gathering occurring, step away. It does have to fall on the individual at the immediate occurrence.”

While there are currently no plans to fully close beaches or parks to the public, Harris said the administration continues to review the issue every day.

“Our neighbor Fairfield has closed their parks. It is an option, so we need our residents to comply,” Harris said. “We hope it doesn’t come to that. We really want to encourage our residents to be out and remain active.”