As temperatures rise and state borders ease, Australians are looking forward to getting back to the beach for daily swimming and domestic holidays.
Warmer weather in the autumn was a pressure test of the public’s ability to adhere to Covid-19 restrictions early in the pandemic, and authorities are working hard to minimise scenes of crowding at beaches this summer.
Most states appear to have contained community transmission of Covid-19, but beachgoers will not be able to forget about the pandemic when going for a swim.
The risk of coronavirus spreading in mucus in the water, new life-saving protocols and crowd control measures are set to alter the beachgoing experience.
Surf lifesavers across all jurisdictions will continue to conduct water rescues without restrictions, but authorities in each state have brought in slightly different rules around administering first aid and CPR on beaches.
In June, the Australian Resuscitation Council considered how some elements of CPR posed a risk for Covid-19 transmission, advice which is reflected in several states’ surf lifesaving rules.
Mouth-to-mouth ‘out of the equation’
The director of lifesaving at Surf Life Saving NSW, Joel Wiseman, says that while “mouth-to-mouth is definitely out of the equation during Covid”, responders will still perform CPR.
He says lifesavers will use an oxygen therapy mask to release oxygen into the lungs, rather than suction (when a tube is used to clear a patient’s airways).
Chest compressions on the shore will be administered while the lifesaver wears a mask, but if a rescue boat is used to retrieve a patient and they require compressions while still in the water, it can be done without a mask.
For minor first aid, lifesavers will talk a patient through how to treat themselves. Details of all those treated will be recorded for contact tracing purposes.
In Queensland, beachgoers requiring CPR will be ventilated, and lifesavers will conduct chest compressions if they are willing to do so.
Ken Clark, Surf Life Saving Queensland’s commercial manager, says mouth-to-mouth is not regularly used, so most beachgoers will notice little difference in the way lifesavers work, provided they adhere to 1.5 metre social distancing rules.
Clark says there will be a heightened awareness of cross-infection among lifesavers this summer.
In Victoria, where patrolling of beaches begins in November, training for the summer season has carried on through the lockdown.
Liam Krige, Life Saving Victoria’s general manager of lifesaving services, says: “When it comes to administering first aid, all non-essential patient contact needs to be minimised.”
However, Western Australia, which has successfully contained Covid-19 over the past several months, has eased tighter lifesaving protocols that were introduced earlier in the pandemic.
Covid-19 in the water?
Prof Brett Mitchell, an infection prevention specialist at the University of Newcastle, says the Covid-19 virus can survive in seawater, but no studies have been conducted documenting this type of transmission.
“If you see someone cough up a big mucus plug, it would be important to avoid that wave,” Mitchell says.
“The virus is likely to last a little bit of time in seawater because the virus can survive on hard surfaces for hours. But wet surfaces would be less than that because of dilution, and because it is likely to be inactivated when it gets caught up in waves.
“I would suspect Covid-19 could survive for a matter of minutes in water at the beach, but it’s theoretically possible,” he says, noting saliva spread could also be a concern at a crowded beach with many people in the water.
Australia’s Bondi beach closes after crowds defy coronavirus rules – video
Mitchell stresses that the more significant risk of Covid-19 transmission at beaches will be crowding, when beachgoers fail to keep a distance from one another on the sand and in the water.
“And if you think you’re sick, it’s important you don’t go to the beach,” he says.
Managing the crowds
Governments and beach authorities across Australia have formulated policies to maintain social distancing, with specific plans for hot days when demand for sand space surges and safe capacities are reached.
The New South Wales government recently announced its Covid Safe Summer Plan, which includes a slogan urging beachgoers to “keep a beach towel length between you and anyone not from the same household”.
Waverley council, which encompasses Bondi and other beaches in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, unveiled its plan on Tuesday for managing public spaces this summer.
The mayor, Paula Masselos, noted the importance of avoiding the scenes in March when images of crowds of beachgoers defying gathering limits of 500 people forced the council to close Bondi.
This summer “beach ambassadors” will prevent people entering Bondi beach when a capacity of about 6,000 is reached – this can change based on tides and how people are spread out.
No one on the sand will be told to leave, but those barred from entering will be diverted to local shops and cafes, until enough people leave to reopen the entrances.
If beachgoers defy the orders of beach ambassadors, police may be called. Police in NSW are also carrying out special operations monitoring crowds at beaches this long weekend.
The ambassadors will be in contact with colleagues at nearby beaches, and may tell some beachgoers to try moving to one with more capacity.
Drones may also be used to monitor crowds on beaches in NSW, but guards will be relied upon to gauge when a beach reaches its capacity. The council will coordinate capacity alerts with the public transport network, so that people travelling from the suburbs to the beach are notified if their destination has reached its limit.
Similar crowding rules apply in other states in line with social distancing restrictions, and gathering numbers can change depending on community transmission over the summer.
Outdoor gathering limits still apply at beaches, with groups exceeding 20 people in NSW and 30 people in Queensland liable for fines.