REHOBOTH BEACH — One sandy step onto the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk on Friday afternoon and you wouldn't know southern Delaware was in the midst of a pandemic, the Salisbury Daily Times, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported.
Partly sunny skies and a warm breeze seemed to open up a parallel universe in which the novel coronavirus, which has infected close to 20,000 people in the United States according to Johns Hopkins data isn't an issue, despite public officials warning people to stay home and practice social distancing.
Bathing suit-clad people waited in packed lines to get Kohr's frozen custard and caramel corn from Dolle's. A nostalgic waft of grease and malt vinegar coated the air outside Thrasher's, a french-fry hotspot.
Families and spring breakers tanned on the beach, and kids screeched as they dipped their toes in the cold ocean water. Young sisters buried each other neck-deep in the sand as dogs playfully ran up to one another, trying to catch a whiff.
While Delaware has shut down businesses like movie theaters and limited restaurants to takeout-only, other states moved to further keep residents at home. That includes California, which issued a shelter-in-place order this week that forces residents to stay home except for necessary trips out.
And in Florida, spring breakers poured onto beaches this week, with photos and videos showing many undeterred by the threat of COVID-19. The state shut down beach parking lots and added other measures to try to dissuade gatherings.
Delaware Gov. John Carney said Friday that closing the beaches "might have to be something that we need to do" if "we get to the point where we can't see the social distancing that we need."
Meanwhile, Rehoboth Beach city manager Sharon Lynn has called on residents to stay at home and be mindful of the "potential exposure to thousands of visitors who choose to come here."
"The demographics of our city include a majority over the age of 60, the most vulnerable age at risk to be infected with the coronavirus," Lynn said in a statement. "We live in a very small community with limited hospitalization facilities that cannot handle the potential number of illnesses this crisis may bring."
The Bethany Beach Police Department had similar concerns for its older residents.
"This isn't the time to send your kids to 'the beach', this isn't Camp Runamuck," the department said in a Facebook post. "Now is not the time to start a project at your beach house. This isn't the spring break we were all hoping for. We are all in this together."
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan also called on visitors to stay home.
“To further protect our residents, visitors and town employees, we request that visitors postpone trips to Ocean City beginning immediately,” Meehan said Thursday.
Hammerheads, a restaurant in Dewey Beach, Delaware announced Friday it will no longer offer takeout or delivery, stating in a Facebook post, "Due to recent events, updated information, and the large influx of visitors coming to the Dewey Beach area, we have decided to close."
Still, cars with Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other out-of-state license plates pulled into Rehoboth Beach.
Melissa McDermott, a resident of Wilmington, Delaware, drove down with her daughter and pooch for the day. She wanted to get in some sun and fresh air in case the state locks down or closes the beaches. They stayed at the shore's edge, away from people, except the occasional child who ran up to pet her dog.
Others practiced social distancing as a group, like Kate Cauly and her crew of six friends, who sat in beach chairs a few feet apart.
"It's better than Skype," Cauly said.
Cauly's friend, Jovanna Ciambella offered disinfecting wipes and said, "We're really happy to be on the beach."
University of Delaware sophomore Jalen Adams was out with his film camera, taking photos of beach goers from a distance. His school saw several positive cases of coronavirus, including a faculty member.
"It's so nice out that people forget about all the stuff that's going on," Adams said.
He will stay with his family in Dover during his university's closure, and will start online classes in a few weeks.
Dr. Kara Odom Walker, secretary of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, was concerned about the influx of people at the beaches Friday, and suggested people act as if they have the virus out of precaution.
“This time last year we would have been out and enjoying a typical spring day, excited to be outdoors,” she said. “Unfortunately, this day presents a different challenge, a unique challenge, one that we have to think about how to protect ourselves and others.”
The News Journal's Maddy Lauria contributed to this report.