NEW YORK — In late May, Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped a pre-summer bombshell: A treasured stretch of beach in the Rockaways would be closed indefinitely because of heavy erosion.
The newly reopened beach area sits in front of the boardwalk concession stands at Beach 97th Street, the heart of the most popular section of the long Queens shoreline.
But when can a swimmer actually go in the water? During a recent visit to the beach, that was a difficult question to answer.
The beach greeter in the lime green parks department polo shirt said she did not know. The maintenance supervisor in the tan parks department polo shirt said he did not know. The parks enforcement officer in the crisp white uniform shirt with lots of insignia said she did not know.
The one person who seemed to have some idea — a lifeguard lieutenant, Daniel Gil — was not saying. At one point Gil, who wore a white polo shirt, could be seen observing the beach from the closed gate, where a small sign offered some guidance: “The beach will be closed for a period of time around high tide. Beach will reopen when receding tide is past the tide marker.”
The tide marker was a tall pole stuck in the sand. As high tide neared, the gentle waves lapped the sand a foot farther down the beach. Gil stood gazing out at the water.
He said questions should be submitted to the parks department press office. Asked when the beach would open, he did not answer. Asked what he was looking at he said, “The beautiful ocean.”
Beachgoers have been doing that at the Rockaways for a long time. But they also like to go in the ocean.
The de Blasio administration made that more difficult this year with its surprise decision to close a stretch of beach to swimmers, from Beach 88th Street to Beach 102nd Street. (Other parts of the beach remain open.) No one could swim or even walk along that section, except for a couple of blocks where surfing would be allowed on the western end of the closed area.
The reason, officials said, was that so much sand had eroded off the beach there that the lifeguard chairs could not be set far enough back from the water to give lifeguards an adequate view of swimmers. And they said that beachgoers might inadvertently trample the dunes, planted with beach grass, that the city had established behind the beach as a buffer after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area.
Beachgoers, merchants and local leaders objected, but the city held firm. Then last week, the parks department agreed to open the beach in front of the Beach 97th Street concession area — but only when the tide conditions allowed lifeguards to do their job.
The absence of a clear schedule has led to new frustrations. The beach first reopened on June 30, and the vendors said they saw a jump in sales that weekend. But by July 4, exasperation at the seemingly arbitrary nature of the arrangement had set in. Vendors said that the beach did not open until about 2 p.m. on the holiday.
“For a Fourth of July, we were at about 50 percent of what we estimate our potential sales to be on a sunny holiday,” said Elizabeth Gilchrist, a co-owner of La Frutería, which sells coffee, juices and avocado toast at the Beach 97th Street concession.
“Our morning was packed,” she said, adding that many beachgoers arrived expecting to be able to swim in front of the concession area. But when the beach did not open until 2 p.m., she said, “They diverted to other beaches.”
Overall, Gilchrist said her business’s sales, which have grown steadily from year to year, have fallen about a third from last year. Michael Powers, an owner of the Low Tide Bar nearby, said its revenues were also significantly lower.
The parks department plans to evaluate vendor revenues and has offered to temporarily defer a portion of rents.
On Thursday, a day after the holiday, lifeguards opened the beach by the Beach 97th Street concession at about 10 a.m. and it quickly filled up. But they told beachgoers to leave shortly after noon: High tide was about 1:20 p.m. The beach did not open again until almost 3 p.m.
During the morning beach opening, Virginia Cambeiro, a public school kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn; Maureen Pereira, a nurse from the Bronx and Bernadette Vicente, a retired hospital administrator from Queens, told how for years they had rendezvoused on summer days at the spot on the beach — just below the Beach 97th Street concessions — along with many other friends they had met there.
“We’ve always come here so when they closed it we were very upset,” Cambeiro said.
Vicente said she blamed de Blasio. “The mayor should have done something about this beforehand,” she said. “He certainly had time to figure it out. Quote me: ‘He has a lot of nerve.’”
Liam Kavanagh, the first deputy commissioner of the Parks Department, acknowledged the problems in a telephone interview Friday.
“It’s a tough one to message,” he said. “We have to do better in order to get our staff comfortable in explaining what’s going on.”
Kavanagh said the city was considering a plan to dredge sand and pump it onto the beach, a temporary fix estimated to cost about $10 million. He said officials were evaluating technical concerns of such a plan, adding that the city’s procurement process might not allow it to happen in time for this year’s beach season.
“The summer is moving more quickly than our procurement system is,” Kavanagh said.
The community has long favored the construction of rock formations known as groynes — similar to jetties — which jut into the ocean and hinder sand erosion. The Army Corps of Engineers says it will move ahead with a project to build them, but it could still be years before they are in place.
John Cori, president of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association, was frustrated by the city’s emphasis on protecting the planted dunes, which are fenced in, from the possibility that beachgoers might damage them. He showed areas of the beach where the force of the waves had eaten deep into the dunes, and he said that widening the beach with new sand would help protect them.
“If they want to protect the dunes they need to get more sand in here ASAP,” Cori said. “It’s not people killing the dunes, it’s the ocean.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.