NEWBURY – The beaches on the town's portion of Plum Island may be closed if visitors can’t learn to keep their distance.

In an update on the town’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a selectmen meeting held remotely Tuesday, Emergency Management Director Michael Reilly, the police chief, warned that if people continue to fill the beaches on the barrier island, they will have to be temporarily closed in the interest of public health and safety.

Deputy Police Chief John Lucy is overseeing the Police Department so Reilly can dedicate himself to his emergency management duties on a full-time basis.

Police continue to review beach crowding with officials in Newburyport. New Hampshire has closed its beaches and Crane Beach in Ipswich is only open to residents, leaving Plum Island as one of the few open spots of seacoast in the area, Reilly said.

Ipswich Police Chief Paul Nikas said about 3,350 people passed through the gates and used the beach March 20-22, including 1,700 vehicles on that Saturday.

“Those car volumes represent a good summer weekend count and became a management concern for us and the (Trustees of Reservations) from a social distancing perspective,” he said, “Simply put, the number of visitors were subjecting the public and staff to an unnecessary risk of exposure.”

Since limiting beach access to residents to only Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., vehicle numbers at Crane Beach dropped to about 250 a day, with no more than 40 to 60 at one time, Nikas noted.

Access to the town-controlled portion of the beach is monitored by a police officer stationed at a gated entrance on Argilla Road.

“The last thing we want to do is close public spaces,” Reilly said of beach access.

He encourages people to take a walk on the beach but not to congregate or stay all day. Shorter visits will give more people a chance to safely use the beach during this difficult time, he said.

Reilly also said signage at Plum Island Airport stating nonresidents were not allowed on the island was incorrectly posted.

“There are no plans to close Plum Island to residents only,” he said.

Reilly said he has received lots of emails on both sides of the issue.

“There's no right answer,” he said and hopes the state will soon provide guidelines.

He praised the expertise of Health Agent Deb Rogers with whom he is working closely. He has seen no panic among residents and has been reaching out to the small-business owners in town.

“I can’t say enough good things about the way the townspeople and business owners have acted," Reilly added.

In other news, Town Administrator Tracy Blais reported receiving a $5,000 grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council that will help with the Health Department’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

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