How Delaware beach rules could impact your Memorial Day weekend

Maddy Lauria
The News Journal

Let’s go fly a kite! No.

Play ball? No.

Enjoy a cocktail with our toes in the sand? No.

Go skinny dipping? Definitely not.

There are a lot of ways to have fun on Delaware's beaches. But as more and more people pack onto the sand, safety issues are manifesting in the form of an ever-growing list of what you can’t do along the surf.

One example: A couple years ago, a growing trend of setting up seaside canopies and tent structures — sometimes equipped with walls, changing stations and even portable toilets — resulted in three Delaware beach resort towns passing laws to ban them.

A large crowd fills the Bethany Beaches during this holiday week on July 3, 2017.

That created another problem: How to enforce it, especially when it's new and many beachgoers don't know about it.

“We have to pretty much monitor every minute, every hour that we’re out there on duty,” said Rehoboth Beach Patrol Captain Kent Buckson. 

When tents were allowed, no one knew what was going on inside the structures, he said. 

Drinking. Smoking. Changing. Toileting. And who knows what else.

The structures also blocked the view for both emergency responders and parents trying to watch their children play in the surf. The canopies often dominated the surf line, meaning incoming storms or high winds created the potential for a “tidal wave of flying tents,” said Catts Beach Service umbrella workers Luke Branner and Rick Townsend.

“Our priority," Buckson said, "is to preserve life and keep people from drowning, to make sure everybody’s safe and goes home alive." 

Rehoboth Beach Patrol Captain Kent Buckson said a ban on tents has meant more work, but safer conditions for lifeguards.

For Branner and Townsend, both of Rehoboth Beach, people watching is included free in their job of setting up and breaking down Catts umbrellas, which rent for $14 for the day.

The new rules have added some drama, and meant a little more business for Catts.

“People set the tents up, they get busted, they come to us upset and get an umbrella,” Branner said.

Townsend said they’re lucky they don’t have to enforce the rules because people can be very territorial about the space they’ve staked out in the sand.

“If you want space, you’re in the wrong place,” Townsend said. He suspects it will take another summer or two before all the kinks of enforcing the new rules are smoothed out.

Other no-nos at most Delaware oceanside beaches include bans on dogs, alcohol, fires and grills.

In Rehoboth and Dewey, taboos include flying kites and throwing objects, including balls, frisbees and anything that could injure someone, while lifeguards are on duty. Rules are generally less strict on Delaware Bay beaches and private beaches with no lifeguards.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” Branner said of the uptick in safety-minded beach rules. What’s next? He suspects it will be drones.

Looking out for trouble

With nearly 2 miles of beach to patrol for everything from drinking and smoking to medical emergencies, scanning the horizon for tents can make an already intense job even more demanding for the two dozen lifeguards on duty every day, Buckson said.

“It’s just not safe for the guard to look back and handle that,” he said. That’s why Rehoboth now has a compliance officer, he said.

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Rehoboth Beach seasonal officer Brandon Merrill keeps an eye out for tents on the beach, which are not permitted.

And there's no doubt there's more people there. Resident populations have grown and so have the number of visitors. 

State tourism officials say the number of visitors jumped from 6.9 million in 2008 to 9 million in 2017.

Over that same time, spending has increased by 84 percent, from $1.12 billion to $2.06 billion, said Delaware Division of Small Business Director of Communications Michael Chesney.

The tent bans started in 2017 when Rehoboth Beach officials prohibited anything larger than 3 square feet — which allows structures designed for babies —  as well as umbrellas wider than 8 feet. The following summer, Fenwick Island and Bethany Beach followed suit.

Buckson said Rehoboth has averaged 1,800 tent take-down orders each summer making the issue "a hot potato.”

It's also created a Delaware beach version of whack-a-mole. Some days, by the time one person is told to take down their tent, another pops up, he said.

“Then the first person’s already bent out of shape and they can’t understand why we haven’t been by to tell them to take it down,” Buckson said.

Enforcement starts with lifeguards handing out a flyer with information about the city’s ordinances, including the tent ban, to offenders and giving them time to take it down.

If the beachgoers don't comply, the lifeguards will call the compliance officer.

If that still doesn’t work, that officer will call a seasonal officer. If there's still no progress in the dismantling, the beachgoers can face a $25 fine or worse, depending on how belligerent they are.

“It becomes challenging at times when people that are highly agitated have to take down their shade, especially if they have children,” Buckson said. 

Rehoboth's officers also have a little bit of help from the private sector. There’s at least one unnamed local helping the cause, said Catts' Branner and Townsend — a gentleman who frequently scans the horizon from a balcony at Henlopen Hotel, beckoning the police whenever he sees a tent go up.

Gearing up for summer

On the Wednesday before Memorial Day, it was tough to spot any tents, canopies or unruly behavior along Rehoboth's sandy shores.

But there was one tent-like structure that looked more like a beach umbrella tipped on its side.

Inside, Bianca Quintana of Baltimore relaxed with her 2-month-old son and other half. They had not been told to take down the tent, dubbed a “sports-brella” by Catts' Branner and Townsend.

But if she was asked to take it down, that would be no problem, Quintana said.

“I’m on vacation, I’m not going to waste time breaking the law,” she said. “I think rules are in place for a reason.”

Even umbrellas can pose a serious threat, said North Bethany Beach Patrol Chief Tom Perry.

Last summer, a 46-year-old Pennsylvania woman was impaled by a beach umbrella that went airborne in Ocean City, Maryland. A 67-year-old British tourist visiting the Jersey Shore that summer also was injured by a flying umbrella. Both women survived, according to the Asbury Park Press.

A Virginia woman, however, did not survive her encounter with a beach umbrella carried away by the wind in 2016. Emergency officials responded for a call that the woman was in cardiac arrest, and found her with a life-threatening injury. She later died at a hospital, USA Today reported.

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So, while all the beach rules may seem extreme, they’re popping up for more than one reason, Perry said.

“That’s the friction point,” he said. “We want these rules to be enforced, but not too aggressively enforced. It used to be no ball playing. Now it’s no more airborne objects. ... There is no best answer.”

Perry said the private beaches he patrols, which include seven homeowners’ associations north of Bethany Beach, are considering their own tent bans. Nearby states like Virginia and New Jersey are even considering a ban on umbrellas, according to media reports.

“From a pure safety standpoint … when you leave the beach for any reason other than to go in the water, drop your umbrella down. That’s the best advice,” Perry said.

“Most people comply,” he said of advice his patrols offer. “But some shake their head and give you half a peace sign.”

The tent effect in Bethany

Down in the family-friendly resort town of Bethany Beach, the year-old ordinance banning tents and canopies has meant a handful of people vowing to never return, said Mayor Lew Killmer.

“A lot of people coming here for the first time, they don’t know,” he said. In his town, officials created a special seasonal job to enforce those rules.

“It was too critical not to have lifeguards taking their eyes off the water looking for tents,” he said.

When the town considered following in Rehoboth’s sandy steps last year, Killmer was the lone dissenting vote because he sympathized with the families of young children and elderly visitors in need of shade on hot summer days.

“We pride ourselves in being a family-oriented beach community, and I think it’s important that families have the opportunity to get together and these little umbrellas just don’t do the trick, especially for the older people more prone to having issues with sunburn and potential skin cancer,” Killmer said.

Umbrella's can be seen for miles at the Bethany Beaches during this holiday week on July 3, 2017.

But he said he understands the safety concern and need for visibility.

“There’s a lot of good stuff here in Bethany Beach,” he said.

While most attention has been paid to the tent bans, lifeguards also said there are significant issues with other rule-breakers.

Digging large holes in the sand can be a life-threatening situation for kids who might get buried alive or people trying to take an evening stroll without breaking a leg.

Then there’s rules on alcohol — no glass is allowed on most beaches, and in places like Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany, public intoxication can get you in big trouble. Most beaches also ban smoking outside of designated areas.

In Dewey, possession of alcohol on the beach after May 15 could result in an $85 fine and court summons, said Dewey Beach Patrol Captain Todd Fritchman. And if those drinking are also belligerent, it may be the end of their day on the beach.

Dewey Beach Patrol welcomed new lifeguards last summer after they completed a grueling rookie test of lifeguarding skills.

“Dewey is still recognized as a party town,” he said. “We don’t search until there’s probable cause, but if everybody’s drinking out of solo cups for three hours and the music goes up … then we come and enforce.”

Buckson and Fritchman encourage visitors who arrive on a beach to follow a few simple habits: Check in with the lifeguard on duty to check for potential hazards, heed the signs along the beach cross-overs for rules and important information, and above all else, be smart about planning.

“Whether it’s a cloudy or sunny weekend for Memorial Day, just slow down, relax, be safe, know what you want to do and how you want to do it and don’t just rush down here,” Buckson said. “That’s my advice, just slow down and relax.”

More people at the beach

In Bethany Beach, which is just over 1 square mile, the population surges in the summertime from 1,250 year-round residents to 27,000 people. 

Rehoboth similarly swells in the summer from about 1,500 people to more than 40,000, according to previous stories by the USA Today network.

And more are coming.

Projections show that Sussex County is helping Delaware push to a total population of 1 million residents. Over the last decade, Sussex County has added about 30,000 residents, and another 40,000 people are expected to settle down by mid-century, according to the Delaware Population Consortium (and reported in this story:

Southern Delaware tourism also is growing. State officials say visitors have jumped from 6.9 million in 2008 to 9 million in 2017. They’re also spending more. Over that same time, spending has increased by 84 percent, from $1.12 billion to $2.06 billion, said Delaware Division of Small Business Director of Communications Michael Chesney.

Have a good story about the Delaware beaches? Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.