Words by Matt Pruett
Brian Nevins’ wife Samantha, a registered nurse at the IMCU of a New Hampshire regional hospital, has been exposed to COVID-19 for the third time, which on top of all the long, hard hours spent working at, or just under, ceiling capacity, requires a heart-wrenching quarantine away from her husband and daughter until she’s finally cleared.
Once she is, she will watch the news, which shows tightly packed American citizens exercising their First Amendment right to protest. Some of them are dressed up like nurses. Several are holstering sidearms and waving signs claiming the coronavirus is a hoax. Few, if any, are wearing masks. Samantha has to physically sign out for her own strictly rationed PPE, and she only gets one mask per day.
Forecast: New York and New Jersey
Brian is a lifelong New Hampshire surfer, a former Surfer Magazine staffer, and one of the East Coast’s top action sports photographers. More importantly, he’s a husband and a father. He begs her to quit her job. She doesn’t, despite the likelihood that this is what her daily grind will look like for a long while.
“I scream at the top of my lungs daily,” says Nevins. “I’m going through the same rollercoaster as everyone else, because we’re all feeling some sort of trauma over this pandemic. And for some people, their biggest life disruption is that they can’t go surfing right now. They’re really upset, and I get it. But surfing isn’t even on my mind. I just want my wife to be okay. That’s all I care about.”
Surfing? Oh yeah, that’s still a thing on the East Coast. The difference now is, unlike those blissfully naive days of 2019, it’s not the only thing.
As this piece was run, the CDC reported that New York had 318,915 cases and 25,779 deaths; New Jersey, 131,890 cases and 8,549 deaths; Massachusetts, 72,025 cases and 4,420 deaths; Florida, 38,002 cases and 1,539 deaths; Georgia, 30,607 cases and 1,306 deaths; Maryland, 28,163 cases and 1,437 deaths; Virginia 21,570 cases and 769 deaths; North Carolina, 11,509 cases and 420 deaths; Rhode Island, 10,205 cases and 370 deaths; South Carolina, 6,936 cases and 305 deaths; Delaware, 5,939 cases and 202 deaths; New Hampshire, 2,740 cases and 111 deaths; and Maine, 1,330 cases and 62 deaths.
All that dark math equals a cold reality: the East Coast of the United States — New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, in particular — is the epicentre of COVID-19.
Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island formed a coalition focused on a regional recovery plan while resuming working operations: Massachusetts’ reopening advisory board will provide a plan by May 18th. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo extended that state’s stay-at-home order through May 8th and hopes to open Rhode Island’s beaches this month. In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills has been formulating a plan with New Hampshire and Vermont, while New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu extended their state of emergency until May 15th. He has not yet released a reopening plan.
Surfing is not legally permitted in New Hampshire at the moment
“Surfing is not legally permitted in New Hampshire at the moment,” says Nevins. “We’re doing pretty good in cases here compared to Boston, and we’re fighting viciously to keep it that way. We’re tourism-based like a lot of beach towns, and ours come from Massachusetts and Connecticut. So we’re trying to keep them out, because it’s very, very bad down there. Once the sun’s out and it hits 60 degrees, there will be bumper-to-bumper traffic for all 14 miles of our coastline like it’s July fuckin' 4th.”
While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has outlined a 12-step plan to reopen parts of New York, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced his own reopening plan, though the stay-at-home order will remain in effect until further notice. We couldn’t find anyone on our side of the cultural pendulum challenging their decisions. Frankly, they’ve got it worse than anyone.
“The scariest thing isn’t the virus itself, it’s the flood of people filling the hospitals all at once,” says Long Beach-based big-wave surfer, Will Skudin. “The idea was to stop that wave of humans flooding the hospitals, which they did. Now, if you get sick, they’re ready for you with a bed and a ventilator. At one point, if you had a cardiac arrest and they couldn’t bring you back in the ambulance, they weren’t even taking you to the hospital. When New Yorkers got that text message, that’s when we knew this was some serious shit.”
“They closed the boardwalks and parking lots in New York, but they couldn’t close the beaches,” Skudin continues. “Our police and firefighters and medical workers are so busy trying to keep people alive, they don’t have time to yell at people practicing socially distant activities like surfing in the ocean, which is basically this giant, UV-blasted, saltwater shower. And for the most part, the surfing community here is doing all the right things: wearing masks, following CDC guidelines, and working together on some level to put an end to this as soon as possible.
Because this is really scary, and behind every mask is another story. You have to respect that, because you don’t know everybody’s situation
“Because this is really scary, and behind every mask is another story. You have to respect that, because you don’t know everybody’s situation. You don’t know if the person you’re walking by just lost a grandfather or their business, or they’re bankrupt or can’t get their payouts quick enough to feed their family.”
Will is getting his updates from a direct source, his brother Cliff, who put his New York State EMT certification to good use. Accepting a temp management position on the frontlines near JFK, Cliff helps transfer patients that are discharged from hospitals to hotels, where they’re monitored for two weeks before returning to their homes. Meanwhile, further south, Ocean City pro surfer, Rob Kelly did his part, too — fashioning a mask from his underwear for a lighthearted Instagram PSA.
“The reality is a bit closer to home for us in New York and New Jersey,” Rob explains. “Most of us actually know people that have been infected or gotten sick or whose family members have passed away from it, so it’s easier for us to take it seriously as opposed to other states where they’re not feeling the effects personally. I’m proud of the way our surf community has handled the situation. For the most part, everyone’s doing a good job of sticking to their own town, spreading out the pack, being low-key and adhering to social distancing. Because bottom line: surfers will find a way to surf whether they’re allowed to or not. And the fact that everybody’s making an effort to do the right thing has helped the situation as a whole, and allowed our mayors to kind of turn a blind eye and let us do our thing.”
“It’s probably 50/50, which Jersey beaches are closed and which are open,” Rob continues. “That being said, even where the beaches are closed, they haven’t been enforcing it too hard. I think the mayors and police understand that surfing isn’t any different from walking your dog or riding your bike."
Forecast: Cape Hatteras
The first phase of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s three-stage recovery plan is not yet in effect, but it involves lifting the state’s stay-at-home order. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s order extends until June 10th, making it one of the longest statewide mandates implemented so far; while North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper extended his stay-at-home order through May 8th with a three-phase plan allowing North Carolina to reopen.
“The beaches here are open to surfing,” says Virginia Beach’s Jason Borte, a former pro surfer-turned-author and surf camp operator who was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2016. “They’re not supposed to be open for anything else, but it’s pretty crowded down there at the oceanfront — not so much on the beach, but the boardwalk’s been packed.
“When there’s waves, we can spread out. It’s when there’s no waves that the jetty’s the only place to go. I haven’t gone out there when it’s crowded. And knowing the Outer Banks is off the table, I haven’t been thinking about it that much, even when there’s surf. It’s like, ‘Okay, this is what we’ve got.’”
For VB surfers like Borte, a couple dozen froth jockeys at knee-high 1st Street isn’t the most aggravating thing. It’s the elimination of their sanctuary a couple hours south, which closed its bridges to non-residents way back on March 17th. Dare County officials have since lifted restrictions to allow non-resident homeowners to return. But in the ocean, it’s been a locals-only affair all spring. And the waves have been cooking.
“That was really done to limit the local population,” Nags Head mayor Ben Cahoon explains. “There was a lot of chatter — they blocked the bridges so people don’t bring the virus here — but that wasn’t it, because we’ve been letting the workforce go back and forth every day. It was about the number of people here and the resources we had to serve them. Period. Admittedly, we used the one hammer that we had, which is closing the bridges, and we used the designated system we had in place for passes.
“We weren’t trying to single out a class of people. Generally, [the towns] try to do the same thing so we don’t leave mixed messages. And when you’re doing something for the right reasons like safety, and in this case, health issues, everybody stays on the same page. This was an unusual emergency, and being consistent with our message makes it easier for people to have confidence in their government and the decisions we’re making.”
“Closing the beaches to residents was never on the table,” Mayor Cahoon adds. “There was never any evidence presented to us suggesting there was any problem with being in outdoor spaces, as long as you were practicing proper social distancing. So we never considered shutting the beaches down.
“The Outer Banks is an iconic surfing destination and it’s part of our culture, and I actually wish we could recognize and celebrate it more than we do. We describe ourselves as a ‘tourist economy,’ but that has some limitations. I wish we’d describe ourselves as an ‘outdoor recreation economy’ because that captures everything. That’s the reason visitors come here, but it’s also why people live here. That encompasses more than the tourists, but also the boatbuilding and the board-shaping and all the other things people do here.”
And that’s largely how local surfers have been riding out this crisis: the high road. Sure, there have been a few innocuous petitions in the Carolinas and Florida here and there, but no over-the-top demonstrations or protests. In fact, many towns’ top surfers have morphed into stewards of sorts, and not without some grief. Brett Barley’s normally chirpy vlog morphed into a full-blown PSA/confessional at one point.
And the minute Jacksonville Beach became one of the first American beaches to reopen after being closed for more than a month, local pro Cody Thompson put himself in the crosshairs of hater traffic by encouraging smart, safe behavior. And for the last two months, social media has been brewing with surfers regurgitating the same suggestions local health departments everywhere are encouraging, if not insisting.
“Oh, it’s all good,” says Cody. “There’s been some stuff online with people wanting all the beaches to be open, but nothing too wild. No one’s in full riot mode or anything — just a few people waving signs, quietly protesting while practicing social distancing and wearing masks. It’s actually been peaceful here since the day they opened the beach, and every day is becoming less crowded. It’s like people got their fix, the novelty wore off, and now it seems like just another beautiful day in Jax Beach.
On Monday May 4, the beach opened all day for exercise only, which includes surfing, whereas before we were on limited hours. And the surfers are being very respectful and mindful, realising there’s other places to surf when the waves are decent, not just the hotspots. I’ve never looked at the Surfline cams and gone, ‘Oh God, the surfers are blowing it right now.’”
On Monday May 4, the beach opened all day for exercise only, which includes surfing, whereas before we were on limited hours. And the surfers are being very respectful and mindful
Florida Gov. DeSantis began phase one of his state’s reopening plan on May 4th. Meanwhile, from Florida to Maine, the #StayLocal thing is being well-championed by the East Coast surfing tribe. Even better, sacrosanct etiquette principles passed down from the late, great Duke Kahanamoku before disappearing into the ether with every mainstream plunge the last two decades — those are being reinforced now. Like peer pressure in reverse. Less space between us means more eyes upon us.
“I haven’t been taking the route I normally would to chase a swell, or leaving town at all,” Rob continues. “There were five or six swells that have come and gone where, under normal circumstances, I’d be loading up the van for a road trip up to New England. It’s not like anyone’s checking the road, so you could get away with it if you really wanted to. But out of respect for those people up there — and coming from Jersey, which is kind of an epicentre for all this — I’ve taken the stance where, even if the beaches do open up during this pandemic, I’m not going. It just wouldn’t be a good look.”
“Besides, not being able to travel makes me appreciate all the times that I could,” Rob finishes. “And we have miles and miles of beachbreak right here, where conditions are pretty much the same at every jetty. But there’s usually this pack mentality where everyone wants to make sure they’re surfing the best spot. People have been pumping the brakes on that and saying, ‘I’ll just go a block over and surf by myself. Maybe it’s not as good as this jetty, but I’ll still get waves.’”
“I feel for those who aren’t allowed to surf,” Skudin finishes. “And I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of restrictions to come. But as far as our freedom as human beings and as United States citizens to move from point A to point B as we please, I really do think they’re working as hard as they can to give people those freedoms back.”
“I’m jealous,” Nevins finishes. “Surfing is a beautiful thing, and I’m jealous that people get to be upset about not being able to do it. I wish that was my number-one problem. I really do. But priorities are way backwards right now. Our health care workers are being treated like second-class citizens. As soon as we start taking care of them, then we can move on to surfing. And I will be the first person in your corner fighting for the beaches to be open.”
In the meantime, silver linings do exist. Even in the epicentre of COVID-19. Even for those who aren’t surfing at all right now. Perhaps those unlucky few might borrow some wisdom from Jason Borte, who five years ago documented his self-imposed, yearlong exile from surfing as a social experiment in his blog, “How Surfing Ruined My Life.” “After spending 30 years doing something, you think you know it,” he says. “And it’s not until you spend one year away from it that you really figure out what it means to you. I don’t enjoy surfing any less [after the experiment]; in fact, I probably enjoy it more. But surfing doesn’t control me or my decisions anymore. So getting away from it during that time was good for me.”
Are we suggesting that everyone should take a 365-day sabbatical from surfing to gain a better appreciation for it? Sure… Or not. It is, however, in the East Coast surfer’s DNA to survive, thrive even, while being periodically starved for surf — in extreme cases, flat spells can last for an entire season. Ask any surfer in Tybee Island (if you can find one): Once you’ve been out of the water for three months, what’s a couple more?
And for those who can surf right now, try this: Think back to when you were a grommet — like way, way back before you even had a driver’s license, a passport, FOMO or any standards whatsoever beyond the waves out front — long before you took a very simple, very minimalist thing and complicated it with experience. Back in the day, when surfing was nothing more than pure, unadulterated fun. “It’s like being a young kid just playing around your house,” Borte finishes. “Then all of a sudden, you get a bike and can take off around the neighbourhood. Now we’re back to just playing around the house again.”
That’s where we’re all at right now: rejuvenated through circumstance. In that way, perhaps the ocean always was the fountain of youth our hippie forefathers touted it to be.
Sadly, it took a coronavirus to drive the point home.
A version of this article first appeared on Surfline. Cover shot by Chris St Lawrence.