12th April 2020 – (Hong Kong) Since the long Easter holiday began on Friday, Hongkongers have been defying the social distancing advice by thronging the streets of Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po and Causeway Bay etc. Hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts were also spotted at various parks and hiking trails. They queued at the bus terminus in Sai Kung to make their way to multiple locations within the UNESCO Global Geopark vicinity in the last two days.

Hundreds were seen sunbathing on Repulse Bay Beach at 2.45pm today. Video copyright: Dimsumdaily.hk
Repulse Bay beach at 2.45pm today. Picture copyright: Dimsumdaily.hk

The perfect sunny and cool weather today has encouraged many to go out again to enjoy nature. Repulse Bay was full of people sunbathing on the beach ignoring the advice this afternoon.

Stanley beach at around 3pm today.

In March, authorities in Sydney closed Bondi Beach after crowds gathered at the iconic waterfront site to take in the sun and swim, effectively ignoring warnings about the importance of social distancing to help prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading.

Beachgoers swarm Bondi in Sydney, Australia last month. John Fotiadis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

According to BBC, Hannah Sassi, an environmental virologist from the University of Sydney told BBC that “Could virus particles be taken up by ocean breeze and travel? It’s probably not that likely, and it could happen on the shore just as easily (if it at all).” She says there’s no consensus the virus can be transmitted through airborne contact: “Research and medical data are pouring in very quickly. We’re learning new things about COVID-19 every day, and the situation is constantly evolving.”

Close contact transmission, whether on land or at sea, is the biggest risk, she says: “Much of what we’re cautioning against [such as not covering coughs and sneezes] is to prevent large droplets carrying the virus from expelling and settling on surfaces.” There’s a positive for surfers and swimmers though, she says: “We haven’t isolated the virus in ocean waters yet!”

According to the Straits Times, all beaches in Singapore were closed to the public yesterday as circuit breaker measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus and get Singaporeans to stay home were tightened further. Announcing the move in a Facebook post on Saturday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said the Government has to do what is right and necessary to protect Singaporeans in a public health crisis. “In theory, we could keep most places open, so long as safe distancing measures are strictly adhered to. But increasingly we see that this is hard to achieve. So tougher measures are necessary,” said Mr Wong.

Similarly in the United States, all beaches are closed in Los Angeles County, Orange County and California etc.  Long Beach, Laguna Beach, Seal Beach and San Clemente beaches are fully shut down to the public to prevent the spread of virus.

Kim Prather, a leading atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said that “I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now,” The beach, in her estimation, is one of the most dangerous places to be these days, as COVID-19 marches silently across California. Prather fears that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could enter coastal waters in similar ways and transfer back into the air along the coast. In her research, Prather has found that the ocean churns up all kinds of particulate and microscopic pathogens, and every time the ocean sneezes with a big wave or two, it sprays these particles into the air. She believes that this new coronavirus is light enough to float through the air much farther than we think. The six-feet physical distancing rule, she said, doesn’t apply at the beach, where coastal winds can get quite strong and send viral particles soaring.

“It’s not going to kill you if you miss a few surfing sessions, but it could if you go out there and get in the wrong air,” she said.

“Once things are in the air, they can go pretty darn far. People are shocked whenever I talk about stuff becoming airborne,” she said. “I see pictures of the beach shut down, and the signs tell you don’t walk on the beach, don’t swim, don’t surf, but nobody tells you: Don’t breathe,” quips Kim Prather.

Beaches definitely pose a health threat by drawing large crowds of people who will congregate too closely and trigger a chain of infections, especially during a long Easter break. Hong Kong government should perhaps close down all the beaches for the moment after the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) shut down all the country park barbecue sites and campsites until April 23rd.