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Gov. Lamont, how about some beach guidelines?

So far, as temperatures climb and summer looms closer by the day, Connecticut's municipalities have been left on their own to devise a COVID-19 strategy for their beaches.

This is a thorny problem. There's pent-up demand ready to explode, and Connecticut's beaches cannot safely accommodate even a normal summer's beach traffic with any kind of meaningful social distancing.

Gov. Ned Lamont needs to consult the talented pandemic advisory board he has assembled and issue some guidelines about how beaches can be used this summer. And he needs to do it soon.

Indeed, I heard Groton Town Manager John Burt's wish for the governor to issue some guidance, in a news story in The Day Thursday, as almost a cry for help.

Beach opening strategies and restrictions seem to be all across the board up and down the East Coast, everything from total closure to allowing runners and strollers but no beach chairs or towels.

Some communities are closing parking lots. If you are lucky enough to live near the beach, you can use it.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey said this week he is preparing guidelines for municipalities for opening beaches, but he pointedly warned that communities cannot legally restrict beach access to residents.

That is exactly what East Lyme did this week, knowing full well that a 2001 ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court said discriminating against nonresidents at public beaches is unconstitutional.

"It is clear that a town cannot broadly restrict nonresident access to a town beach," the state's highest court ruled decisively almost two decades ago.

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson defended the unanimous decision by the town's Parks and Recreation Commission to exclude nonresidents from beaches, it spitting on the constitution.

"I'm willing to fight this one," Nickerson said. "I'm willing to look the judge in the eye and go, 'Listen, we did it for the right reasons . . .  ' "

I hope we can all be spared the first selectman's imagined confrontation with a judge.

Gov. Lamont, just like Gov. Murphy, must tell municipal leaders they can't break the law and threaten to stare down judges just because there is a pandemic.

The constitution lives on, and the last thing East Lyme needs now is a nasty court fight. There are lots of ways to limit beach attendance without violating people's civil liberties.

East Lyme would do well to look to more thoughtful approaches being considered elsewhere along the eastern Connecticut shoreline.

Indeed, Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick told The Day this week that he has sought a legal opinion about whether nonresidents can be excluded from beaches. Presumably he will follow the lawyers' advice, which I suspect will almost certainly direct him not to limit beach attendance to residents.

Hedrick is wisely also soliciting opinions from the public about how to safely open the beaches, considering options like closing the concession stand to marking quadrants on the sand, an idea which has already been dismissed as unworkable.

It's time for Gov. Lamont and his experts to weigh in here.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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