Ben Rimalower, 44, has been vacationing on New York's Fire Island since 2005. The island's Pines section, a popular beach destination for gay men dating back to the 1920s, has been a reliably safe and sunshine-filled locale for Rimalower and his friends, primarily other gay men, to spend the summer.
“I first fell in love with Fire Island from afar while in college in California during the early ‘90s,” he told NBC News. “It seemed like Shangri-La to me.”
Rimalower said even on the “queerest blocks” of New York City, where he lives, he’s “uncomfortable kissing or holding hands” with another man, “but on Fire Island, I’m free.”
This year, however, his annual trip to Fire Island Pines is shrouded in uncertainty.
“If we can go at all, it will be with lots of changes,” he lamented. “I hope we can be safe on the beach, because that’s my favorite part.”
“This is all so new and complicated,” he said, adding there’s still a chance he and his friends will cancel their trip. “We haven’t even broached the topic of house rules yet, but I imagine at least at first we won’t be having any hookups or friends over.”
With the typically busy summer season kicking off, LGBTQ beach destinations in the Northeast — a region particularly hard-hit by the global coronavirus pandemic — are bracing for a new normal, and some of their loyal patrons are apprehensive.
New York’s Fire Island
Fire Island is a narrow, car-free, barrier island just south of Long Island and not far from the ritzy beaches of the Hamptons. While Fire Island boasts 15 communities, two of them have long been popular with LGBTQ beachgoers, with the Pines historically catering to gay men and Cherry Grove to lesbians.
The Pines only has one hotel, which is currently closed, so nearly all visitors rent houses during their stay. According to a community newsletter published May 14, brokers shared that vacation renters “have generally made their last payments and are planning to come to the Pines this summer, even if bars and restaurants are not open.”
P.J. McAteer, a co-owner of the Outpost Pines, which make up the majority of the Fire Island Pines’ commercial businesses, opened two of his restaurants May 15 for to-go service, and he plans to continue opening additional venues and expanding services as Suffolk County and Gov. Andrew Cuomo allow.
At his businesses, there will now be temperature and hand sanitizing stations at the entrances, a 50 percent capacity maximum and a mandate that employees wear masks and other personal protective equipment.
McAteer, who typically employs about 40 people during the summer months — from event photographers to drag queens — said his employees are eager to get to work.
“All of my staff and entertainers are chomping at the bit to come back,” he said. “They all cannot wait to be back here and bring back the life that is Fire Island Pines.”
"The gay community is very creative and inventive, especially in a crisis ... We survived the HIV epidemic and made a comeback. I think the same thing about this. Those same creative energies will be out this summer."
Jay Pagano, Fire Island Pines Property Owners' Association
And when beachgoers return to the island for the summer, they won’t be alone. Jay Pagano, president of the Fire Island Pines Property Owners' Association, said occupancy has been higher than usual over the past few months, because many homeowners opted to quarantine on the island starting in mid-March.
“A large number of residents chose to spend the pandemic in the Pines,” he said in early May. “They thought it would be a safer or nicer venue to be locked down in. I'm guessing that's probably 200 to 250 homes are occupied full-time right now, and that's unusual this early.”
And while there hasn't been much to do over the past two months, there’s always the beach.
“The beaches are open, and they will remain open,” Pagano explained. “We have a wonderfully wide beach this summer. We are going to encourage the residents to use it, but the requirements for social distancing and masks will be implemented on the beach as in the community, and the police will be enforcing those requirements.”
In neighboring Cherry Grove, the beach is also open to sunbathers, swimmers and strollers.
“It’s as safe here as it is anywhere,” Diane Romano,president of the Cherry Grove Community Association, said, adding that “the people in Cherry Grove have been really great at implementing social distancing.”
And for those thinking about heading to Fire Island’s Cherry Grove section, Romano said, “We want to make sure you're someone that will follow guidelines and work with the community to make sure you protect yourself and others.”
In order to ensure everyone’s safety, Romano said local law enforcement, starting in mid-June, will patrol the beach to make sure everyone is following proper social distancing guidelines, which include limiting large groups from congregating.
Fire Island regulars, such as Rimalower and Zach James, who reserved a house for a week in July, are preparing for a different Fire Island experience than they’re used to, which typically includes large beach dances, drag shows and house parties.
“It’s going to be an isolated house trip without the fuss, which will be just fine,” James said. “We will change what we do out there to be in line with the world we live in.”
Arguably the most popular event in the Pines — the annual Pines Party dance and fundraiser, which is typically held the last weekend in July and draws an estimated 3,000 attendees — will not go on as planned this year. However, Guy Smith, the event’s creative director, said his group is “hard at planning” an alternative “to bring together our community and continue the Pines Party magic.” He said this year’s event will include live performances streaming from the Fire Island Pines that will “broaden the reach of our event and raise much-needed funds for our 2020 beneficiary, Stonewall Community Foundation.”
As for ferry service — the only way in and out of Fire Island unless you own your own boat — the schedule is more limited than recent years due to a decline in ridership amid the pandemic. The boats will be running at a maximum of 50 percent capacity, and all passengers must wear face coverings.
“Fire Island has so much beauty, and there's so many things out here to do,” McAteer said, looking ahead to the next few months. “Whatever the new normal is, it's going to be OK; we're going to figure it out.”
“Summer 2020 is not canceled in my book,” he added. “Summer 2020 is just going to be done differently.”
New Jersey’s Asbury Park
Asbury Park, a 1.6-square-mile city located along the Jersey Shore, has been attracting an increasing number of LGBTQ homeowners and beachgoers since the ‘50s, when New Yorkers started purchasing and restoring Victorian homes, leading to the city’s rejuvenation.
While the city’s beach and boardwalk had been closed due to the pandemic, they recently opened ahead of the Memorial Day weekend. In order to ensure everyone’s safety, officials have put a number of new measures in place.
“We know our residents are looking forward to summer, and Asbury Park has always welcomed visitors — we know how much they help our economy,” Mayor John Moor said in a statement. “That said, this is not a normal summer season. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we need to be smart. We are going to have to limit numbers, practice social distancing, wear face coverings and masks, and make the experience as contactless as possible for the safety of beach visitors and our staff.”
The city’s measures, which can be found on its website, will include the limited sale of beach passes, which are required for beach entry; one-way travel in each direction on the boardwalk; and a face mask requirement except when sunbathing or swimming.
“The next few weekends are going to be our tests to figure out how to do this, because all of this is so new, and we are learning as we go,” Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn said. “If people do not respect these rules, we will make changes.”
Michael Cook, who has lived in Asbury Park since 2005, said he’s preparing for a “Jersey Shore summer with a twist.”
“We all will learn a slightly new way of living this summer,” he said.
As for the shops and restaurants that line the city’s downtown area — including the popular gay venue Paradise — they remain closed.
“Right now, the music isn’t playing, and the cocktails are not flowing, but this is simply a moment,” the last post on Paradise’s Instagram reads. “We will all dance together again.”
Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach
Rehoboth Beach along Delaware’s coast has for decades been a popular beach destination with LGBTQ travelers from Philadelphia down to Washington, D.C. The resort town boasts over 200 gay-owned businesses, according to GayCities, and its Poodle Beach section is particularly popular with queer beachgoers.
While Delaware has not been as hard hit by the coronavirus as New York and New Jersey, Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns said the town is taking precautions and heeding the governor’s guidance on reopening.
“About 80 percent of the homes in Rehoboth are owned by people from out of town. What we have seen is a lot of those second-home owners have come to Rehoboth in order to get away from where they were, but they have been very positively practicing social distancing,” Kuhns said earlier this month. “It has been very manageable, but as we get more crowds coming in, it will be a difficult situation.”
As of 5 p.m. Friday, beaches along the Delaware coast will be open for exercising, sunbathing and swimming. Guidelines, which can be found on the state’s website, require social distancing among those from different households and encourage face coverings. There is a catch, though: Those who reside out-of-state will have to maintain a 14-day quarantine upon entering Delaware in order to enjoy what its beaches have to offer.
Kuhns, however, said, “We will not have police at the entrances of Rehoboth checking your ID and making sure you live in town or not.”
As for the town's shops and restaurants, many will be open with restrictions, with most offering only curbside pick-up.
As the artist’s colony in Provincetown began to thrive in the early 20th century, so did its gay community. By the 1970s, the bohemian village at the tip of Cape Cod became known for its cabaret and drag scenes. Today, Provincetown boasts around 300 businesses that are part of the Provincetown Business Guild, an organization that focuses on drawing LGBTQ visitors to the destination.
“We are spending a lot of time talking about what the P-Town experience is going to look like this summer and trying to reimagine the Provincetown experience, because we believe there will still be people that come here,” Bob Sanborn, executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild, said. “We have a lot of these large-scale events and theme weeks that won’t happen as they have historically happened. With that said, we aren't expecting the up-swells and crowds that traditionally happen here week to week.”
During the typical summer peak season, Provincetown has a population of about 30,000 to 50,000, with peak holidays and events seeing nearly 100,000.
“Eighty percent of the homes are second homeowner owned, so those people will still come with their house guests,” Sanborn speculated. “And we still believe there will be some tourists. So it’s going to be a slower but steady summer.”
Both of the region’s most well-known beaches — historically gay beach Herring Cove and Race Point — are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and have not been closed amid the pandemic, though their operations have been limited. The area’s smaller beaches, those around the harbor, have been closed, but will open on Memorial Day. Social distancing will be expected on all beaches: Household clusters will be allowed to gather, but larger groups, especially with 10 people or more, will be prohibited.
“This summer will still be uniquely Provincetown,” Sanborn explained. “It will be a special summer. Many people are saying this will be like Old Provincetown, before the big theme weeks became such a part of our culture. People used to flock here years ago for the sun and the fun and the joie de vivre and the simple, colorful life. We believe it will be a summer like that.”
And, just like in years past, Sanborn and other community leaders acknowledged the resiliency of the LGBTQ community when unforeseen threats arise.
“The gay community is very creative and inventive, especially in a crisis,” Pagano said. “We survived the HIV epidemic and made a comeback. I think the same thing about this. Those same creative energies will be out this summer.”