Visitors to Hampton Beach on Thursday got a taste of what this popular vacation spot will look like this summer as a section of Ocean Boulevard was closed to traffic and transformed into a so-called “walking mall.”
The bumper-to-bumper traffic that usually greets visitors on warm, sunny days was replaced with pedestrians, shoppers and outdoor enthusiasts like Jameson Salzano, who grabbed his skateboard and owned the boulevard as he sped down the middle with nobody around.
“With the beaches closed I can’t surf, so I’ve just been skateboarding,” Salzano said.
But that’s about to change.
With the state planning to reopen Seacoast beaches for active recreation on June 1, police and highway crews got a jumpstart on the plan Thursday morning by setting up roadblocks to shut down Ocean Boulevard from O Street to Nudd Avenue. Traffic was rerouted onto Ashworth Avenue, which was turned into a two-way street.
It’s a major traffic pattern change that will remain in place through Labor Day and is designed to give visitors more room for social distancing and restaurants more options for extending outside dining beyond the sidewalk, though they won’t be setting up tables in the street.
“I think everybody worked hard to come up with a reasonable, safe plan. … I think it will give the opportunity for people to walk along and the businesses on Ocean Boulevard, be it retail stores or restaurants, will be able to provide their services to people who can now stretch out, if you will,” said John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Nyhan said closing the stretch of Ocean Boulevard is better than having two lanes of traffic passing through and less than a 6-foot sidewalk for visitors.
In addition, parking in town and state lots has been reduced by 50%, but private lots will not be restricted.
Hampton Fire Chief Jameson Ayotte said fire department responses to the beach will be slightly modified because of the closure.
“But we’re used to big crowds and we’re also used to changing operations. We deal with the Seafood Festival and the Fourth of July, so closing Ocean Boulevard is not foreign to us completely because we have history with it,” he said.
While the changes will likely create traffic headaches, they’ve been welcomed by many beach businesses making adjustments to survive during the pandemic.
“What I’m hearing is all support. Everybody on Ocean Boulevard, the small businesses, the restaurants, were all involved in some capacity in the planning and opening up of Hampton Beach,” Nyhan said.
Traci Shaake, manager of JB’s Seafood, said she and others like the idea of shutting down the boulevard for the summer.
“We’re here. We’re open. Come on down,” she said.
The restaurant will be able to offer about 50% of its normal seating capacity once all of its outdoor dining is set up.
“It’s wonderful that the beach is getting open and the road is getting closed down, but we need the hotels to open. We absolutely have to have the hotels open. That’s the key,” Shaake said.
Jeff and Cathy Richard of Derry ate lunch at JB’s and enjoyed walking the strip as they often do every summer. They said they visit the beach almost every weekend and plan to keep coming this year.
“There’s going to be a lot of confusion. It’s a big adjustment,” Cathy Richard said, referring to the traffic changes that will greet visitors.
Nyhan said some businesses will likely delay their openings or not open if they’re unable to figure out ways to safely serve customers and practice social distancing.
“The Casino Ballroom can’t have shows and that’s a major, major blow to Hampton Beach,” he said.
Fun-A-Rama and Playland — both attractions that have made Hampton Beach family-friendly — also remain temporarily closed.
“Those are some of the things we’re sad about,” Nyhan said.