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Update: Rehoboth Beach lifts outdoor mask mandate

Katie Tabeling

People walk the boardwalk in late April, with some wearing masks as mandated under Rehoboth Beach guidelines. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

REHOBOTH BEACH — With Memorial Day weekend inching closer, Gov. John Carney has eased the outdoor mask mandate, opting to fall in line with federal guidance that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear them outside, including the popular Rehoboth Beach boardwalk.

Carney signed the 28th modification to the state of emergency Wednesday afternoon that eliminates most business capacity restrictions effective May 21, but also  signaled that Delawareans may go without masking up outdoors, which superceeds earlier orders to wear one on the boardwalk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that risk for COVID-19 spread increases in large crowds of unvaccinated people, so wearing a mask in those circumstances is advised.

“Delawareans have worked together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, and we still have more work to do. But we have the tools to prevent severe illness and hospitalization,”  Carney said in a recent press statement. “Get vaccinated. Ask your friends and family if they’ve gotten their shot. That’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself and those you love.”

The Rehoboth Beach city commissioners voted Tuesday afternoon to lift the mask mandate in public spaces, anticipating that Carney would loosen restrictions and noting that not many follow the ordinance now that the state is 15 months in the pandemic.

Since April 2020, Rehoboth Beach officials have maintained a mask mandate to require visitors to cover their faces in all other public areas, like sidewalks and the boardwalk. At one point, masks were briefly required to be worn on the beach last summer, but the commissioners rescinded that after public outcry.

In Delaware, the indoor mask mandate is still in effect and the Division of Public Health may require masks for crowded venues and large gatherings like on the boardwalk as of Tuesday afternoon. Rehoboth Beach Mayor Stan Mills said that he expects the state to revise its outdoor mask mandate for the boardwalk in time for the official start of the summer season.

Last week, Carney announced he would be lifting capacity limits in restaurants and businesses come May 21. Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for the governor, told the Delaware Business Times that the new mask advisory also applies to the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk.

While Mills urged the commissioners to wait until next week, a majority voted to lift the city-wide mandate in a bid to make the message clearer for the tourists who will soon arrive.

“With all of this information that we have ahead of time, getting the word out may help our businesses and visitors alike on whether to make decisions on whether to come here, and whether to keep their reservations or not,” Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski said. “Those running accommodations are going to be getting a lot of calls asking whether they have to wear masks.”

Over the summer, Rehoboth Beach charged police to ensure that visitors on the boardwalk were complying, and the city hired beach ambassadors to help spread the message. But Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks reports that compliance with the mask mandate dropped from 85% to 40% in the past two weeks.

“Considering the hostility of people when our police officers approach those not wearing masks, frankly, I’m fine with our police avoiding aggressive enforcement of the mandate here on out until May 21,” Mills said.

The mayor said that he was more in favor of a voluntary mask policy in the next few days leading up to when the governor’s latest regulations — or slackening thereof — will go into effect.

But the four members of the commission opted to go ahead and relax the mask mandate to send a message that Rehoboth Beach was falling in line with the latest nationwide and statewide guidance. 

“It’s a better headline and for the practicality of our lives on the downtown streets in the next 10 days,” Commissioner Richard Byrne said.

Editor’s note: this story has been updated with Gov. Carney’s latest modification of the state of emergency.

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