A week after the city struggled mightily to direct and manage Patriots Day beach traffic, Mayor Carolyn Kirk has called for an after-action report from the city's Public Works and public safety departments, with an eye toward at how the city has and should manage offseason beach days.
Drivers flocked to city beaches over the April 14-15 weekend and especially on the April 16 Patriots Day holiday, when motorists tied up city streets and state roads from Nautilus Road at Good Harbor Beach to Exit 14 on Route 128.
The 80-degree temperatures also coincided with the start of school vacation week, and the jams led to at least two multi-car accidents. Between the accidents and a series of parking tie-ups, Tally's was called upon to tow some two dozen cars before sundown, officials said.
The city also faced two relatively balmy beach days in March, and with days like that becoming more common, Kirk said she asked the departments to review how to help the city come up with a plan to deal with or change Gloucester's beach ordinance and policies.
To do that, Kirk asked police Chief Mike Lane, acting fire Chief Steve Aiello, and Public Works Director Mike Hale to prepare a joint, internal after-action report. The report, according to a memo from Kirk's office, should consider public health implications of opening the beaches with no running water, bathrooms, attendants or lifeguards on duty. It also, Kirk stated, will consider recommendations for changing regulations and ordinances governing the beach, including triggers for opening the beaches early and traffic management plans.
Lane said he would figure out what needs fixing on the public safety side, adding he would consider recommending additional personnel, mobile signs, and part-time or per-diem attendants.
"It was an incident that affected the entire city, and it's something we need to look at and prevent it from happening again," said Aiello.
Yet opening the beaches in the off season isn't easy, or simple, said Hale. The city's beach ordinance and policies require the city to collect for parking by Memorial Day weekend, and it can collect as early as May 1. But it makes no specific provisions for days prior to that, or after Labor Day.
On Patriots Day, police opened the beach parking areas to a flood of beach-goers, but the city had no one in place to manage the parking areas or provide other services.
The city, Hale said, has to do three things before the beaches open — hire staff, turn on plumbing, and issue resident-only beach stickers. The city, he said, probably should have a plan for early beach days so residents at the very least can access the beaches, but he said he's not yet sure how the city would execute that.
Public Works hires seasonal employees, usually students, to work as lot attendants and lifeguards. Those positions haven't been filled for this year yet, given that students are still in school. Running the beaches with less than a full staff wouldn't be feasible, especially with lifeguards, he added. The state gives a small window for seasonal employment, 16 weeks or less according to state law.
Even if the city could staff beaches, collecting revenue would be a problem. The city's beach stickers, Hale said, aren't usually fully rolled out until April. If the new stickers aren't available, Hale added, what does the city use to determine who's a resident and who isn't?
Also, he noted, it takes a few weeks to reopen the winterized bathrooms. Public Works, he said, is rebuilding the Good Harbor Beach bathrooms, and only turned on the water to Wingaersheek Beach on Sunday, April 15. The water service to that beach is seasonal, and Public Works generally turns it on later in the spring to ensure it won't freeze. Those bathrooms are also run in conjunction with the concession stands — which don't open until May.
"It's not just opening the gate and expecting the same service you get in July," Hale said. "We don't have the capacity."
Aiello added that the beach traffic wasn't just a Gloucester incident; the weather and holiday caught a lot of municipalities unprepared. The backup in Gloucester, he said, wasn't insurmountable for the Fire Department, and had a lot of factors contributing to it. While the event was somewhat of an abnormality, Aiello added, the city still has to find a way to deal with it.
No matter what comes out of the after-action report, Kirk said, the city can't keeping opening the beaches half way.
"My administration has come to no conclusion about changes in public policy, except to say that this state of 'limbo' is unacceptable," Kirk said. "The beaches are either to be opened in the off season with proper services ... or closed in the off season with proper notice to the public ..."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.