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Rockaway Beach Is Partially Closed. That’s Not Stopping These Beachgoers

When Barbara Lyn and a friend arrived at Rockaway Beach on Sunday morning, they found the perfect spot on the sand, near Beach 96th Street.

But as Ms. Lyn waded into the surf, a city parks employee blew a whistle and shooed her out of the water.

Ms. Lyn, 44, was not surprised. “To be honest, we wanted a good spot,” she said, confessing that she had known the area was technically closed to the public for swimming. “This is our rebellion.”

The two friends were among those who were undeterred by the construction-related closures along Rockaway Beach, in Queens, and who still flocked to one of the city’s most popular summertime destinations to sunbathe and dine over the holiday weekend.

Swimming and sand access is restricted along a popular stretch of the beach — going west from Beach 86th Street — until at least mid-July as the federal government presses ahead with a $336 million project to protect the shoreline from coastal flooding. Some areas are fully closed, while others are open except for swimming.

The project, which began in 2020 and is estimated to be completed in 2026, requires federal contractors to install stone jetty-like structures, which will keep sand from washing away. On Sunday, a pair of giant earthmovers were corralled behind dune fencing in an area dotted with “Keep Off” and “No Lifeguard” signs.

At Beach 91st Street, surfers in dark wet suits ignored the restrictions as they ducked through a gaping hole in a chain-link fence affixed with a large red stop sign.

“Nobody’s going to stop anything,” said Aaron O’Toole after he finished surfing on Sunday morning. Holding up his surfboard with one hand while peeling off his wet-suit boots with the other, Mr. O’Toole, 27, said Rockaway surfers had been navigating closures and other restrictions for years.

Molly and Nick Stamos, in town from Michigan for the long weekend to visit their daughter, had no idea about the limited beach access.

“We’re not supposed to be here?” said Ms. Stamos, who was seated with her back to a bulldozed wall of sand.

Ms. Stamos said the family did not see any “Do Not Enter” signs as they walked from the boardwalk to the beach. They set up along a cove-like stretch of sand with few sunbathers, no lifeguards and an ocean view dotted with surfers who were technically restricted to waters farther east.

Visitors snuck past beach closure signs on Sunday.Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

Informed of the restrictions, the family decided to stay put.

Enforcement up and down Rockaway Beach appeared light on Sunday, with only the occasional park worker or police officer on a fat-wheeled ATV ushering people out of the water. Most visitors appeared oblivious to the restrictions.

Small business owners at Rockaway Beach had worried about the economic impacts of the beach closures.

Susan Povich, an owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound, a restaurant which serves lobster rolls and seafood, estimated that revenue from her restaurant would decrease by about 50 percent thanks to reduced foot traffic from the restrictions.

“A lot of businesses were closed during Covid,” she said, “so this was the year we were expecting to make up for all the blood sweat and tears of recent years, and now we’re not sure we’ll get a lot of return.”

Ms. Povich was one of several small business owners who started a Change.org petition earlier this month opposing the closures. The petition, which has received more than 5,900 signatures, implores the city to halt construction on the erosion project until September, warning that the closures might be “the straw that will break the camel’s back.”

Aaron Broudo and Belvy Klein, the owners of Rockaway Beach Bazaar, a concessionaire along the boardwalk, said they welcomed the restoration project, but that the timing of the construction was a bit “tone deaf.”

“We and all of the peninsula’s small businesses absolutely depend on the brief, three-month summer season to make it through the rest of the year,” the owners wrote in an email. “While we don’t agree that summer is the best time to do the beach restoration, and it would have been nice to see the jetties finished before the start of the busy season, we do understand that the work is needed.”

Dan Kastanis, a spokesman for the New York City Parks Department, said the city had worked to minimize the economic impacts on business owners and to keep as much of the beach open as possible.

Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times
Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

The Rockaways were battered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as a 10-foot storm surge destroyed 1,000 structures and homes, damaged the boardwalk and caused widespread flooding. In the wake of that storm, city, state and federal officials called for a more comprehensive plan to protect the coastline from the ravages of future storms.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which began the Rockaway resiliency project in 2020, is installing stone structures called groins — similar to rock jetties — into the ocean to fortify sand along the beach. The next phase of the project will be to install dunes, reinforced with stone and steel, to provide protection from breaking waves and to stop coastal flooding.

The Queens borough president, Donovan Richards Jr., stressed that the coastal restoration project was necessary to ensure the region’s long-term survival.

“When you’re a waterfront community, your community is on the front lines of climate change,” he said, adding, “We want people to live in the event of a storm. And if that means missing half the summer of you being able to jump in the water, just walk a few blocks down and utilize other parts of the beach.”

Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

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