Following the state’s lead, Newport and Middletown said yesterday, April 1, they will close parking at some of their most iconic natural resources beginning Friday, April 3 – including the Cliff Walk and Easton’s Beach in Newport, and Sachuest Beach in Middletown – to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The two communities will not stop people from walking on the beaches and in parks, as long as they observe rules of “social distancing.” But by restricting parking, they are making it impractical for most residents to easily reach the affected open spaces.

Portsmouth was the only Aquidneck Island community not instituting a parking ban and said that golf courses would stay open – for now. But if the town finds people ignoring physical distance rules, “we will discuss further measures.”

The April 1 announcements by Newport and Middletown, and a further statement by Gov. Gina Raimondo at her regular briefing that afternoon cleared up some uncertainty about the scope of the governor’s order first announced Tuesday.

Are parks and beaches completely off limits? The answer is no; if you can walk to a nearby park or beach, you can go on a trail or beach as long as you follow “social distancing” rules – staying in small groups of five or fewer people, and keeping six-feet from one another.

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Tom Shevlin, Newport’s communication officer, said that both the state and the communities are trying to strike a “delicate balance,” limiting parking, and therefore the number of people who can conveniently get to the areas, while at the same time encouraging fitness and stress relief.

“Go out, exercise, take a walk,” Shevlin said. “But do it close to your house.”

In her daily coronavirus briefing that afternoon, Gov. Gina Raimondo said much the same thing. 

“We want to make it hard for you” to get to the recreational areas, she said, but added: “If you can walk there and want to go for a walk, that’s fine.”

In its announcement posted on the town’s website, Middletown likewise said police will be enforcing the parking ban, and take action involving pedestrians if they see too many people too close to each other.

 The uncertainty about the scope of order came after Raimondo said on Tuesday she was reluctantly going to “close” the state’s beaches and parks, because of reports of big groups gathering over the weekend at Colt State Park in Bristol, Goddard Park in Warwick and Lincoln Woods State park.

Access to Goodard Park was closed off on Tuesday | Photo by Morgan Macia

“I don’t know why people are still doing this,” Raimondo said with the exasperation of a disciplinarian who had lost patience with those ignoring stern warnings. “I honestly don’t understand why you would still be doing that. You’re risking your life and your neighbors’ and hurting Rhode Island. So stop it.”

And the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) likewise implied that the parks and beaches were no-go areas. Said Janet Coit, the department’s director: “I ask you to respect the closure and stay away from state parks and beaches,” 

But at the same time, Raimondo on Tuesday had indicated some flexibility.

“I know that’s going to be hard, because we’re all super cooped up and anxious to get out,” she said. “You still can use the bike path. You can still, as I said, maybe go for a walk on the beach if you are close enough to be able to walk there.  But you cannot park in the parking lots and you cannot do this in big groups.”

Yesterday, as a powerful and cold wind blew across the sand at the major beaches, there was a scattering of people, some with dogs on leashes. Most walkers were alone, and others were in two’s and three’s. 

Easton’s Beach | Photo by Brian C. Jones
Sachuest Beach | Photo by Brian C. Jones

Newport posted illuminated signs at Easton’s Beach announcing the April 3 lot closings.

The Newport and Middletown parking bans are extensive.

The big lots at Newport’s Easton’s Beach, also known as First Beach or Newport Beach, which hold approximately  300 cars, will be blocked, as well as roadside parking on Memorial Boulevard and side streets near the graceful beach

And it will be harder to get to the Cliff Walk, the spectacular 3 ½ mile path that winds behind The Breakers and other private mansions overlooking the ocean. 

The affected streets include: Narragansett Avenue, Ruggles Avenue, Shepherd Avenue, Leroy Avenue, Webster Street and Ledge Road. Shevlin, the city’s communications chief, noted there is construction on a Cliff Walk retaining wall between Webster and Narragansett, narrowing the path. Visitors should avoid crowding the narrowed path might crate.

Newport’s Braga Park, next to Easton Pond, will be similarly affected, with no parking signs posted on Ellery Road and Kay Street, off which are entrances to the park.

Restrictions of recreational areas began with closing of playgrounds earlier, with equipment bound with yellow “caution” tape. Later, more play areas were impacted, with nets removed from outdoor tennis courts and hoops taken down at basketball courts.

“Please note that while parking is being restricted, Newport’s parks and open space may still be enjoyed for the purpose of exercise or in small groups,” Newport’s written announcement said. “However, police will be monitoring for gatherings over five people.”

Similarly, Middletown “encourages all residents to continue to be active and get out for walks or bicycle rides, but to do so close to their homes,” the town’s statement said, while posting a long list of parking areas to be closed.

Sachuest | Photo by Brian C. Jones

They include lots at: Sachuest or Second Beach, Third Beach, Albro Woods, Demery Park, Dunlap-Wheeler Park, Howland Park, Linden Park, Middletown Public Library, Paradise Park and Pebble Beach. School lots will be closed at Aquidneck, Forest Avenue, Gaudet, Middletown High and Oliphant schools.

Also, lots at Taggarts Ferry Landing; Valley Park; War Memorial Field at Berkeley Peckham School, West Main Road Recreation Center and Wyatt Road soccer fields.

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