by Yosley Carrero
HAVANA, July 10 (Xinhua) -- Thousands of Cubans have for the first time returned to beaches as the country has started to ease the three-month restrictions aimed at containing the nationwide spread of COVID-19.
In Havana, neither cloudy weather nor rainy days deterred locals from heading to "El Megano" beach, located some 25 km east of the city's entertainment district, which has emerged as a top destination for beachgoers looking for fun amid the excruciating Caribbean heat.
Roy Bartelemi, 39, drove for 40 minutes from Havana's historical downtown center to the beach with his family and friends to relax and take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Aside from regular personal belongings such as sunglasses and beach towels, Bartelemi, who runs a print shop in the Cuban capital, added hand sanitizer to avoid the risk of COVID-19 infection.
The Cuban entrepreneur described the novel coronavirus as "an invisible foe," adding that "discipline and individual responsibility are required to better combat the pandemic nationwide."
"My little son has been away from school for several months, the reason why he needed some relaxation and me as well," he said while helping the four-year-old boy build a sandcastle.
"However, we need to be cautious because COVID-19 is highly contagious, and asymptomatic carriers can even infect healthy people. For the moment, I try to get rid of stress provoked by the terrible disease."
With a white sandy beach, crystal clear waters, and waving palm trees along the seashore, "El Megano" beach has become a retreat of calm for residents in Havana, the province worst hit by the coronavirus in the Caribbean nation.
Cuba has more than 300 beaches across its 5,746-km coastlines, 241 of which are tourist attractions, according to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.
Currently, Havana littoral is benefiting from the implementation of the Cuban state plan for tackling climate change, which will help nearly 80 percent of the country's eroded beaches recover, according to Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.
During the first phase of the country's post-pandemic recovery plan, beaches in Havana have been reopened at 50 percent capacity and people have been urged not to violate social distancing guidelines by taking precautions at all times and trying to stay two meters apart from one another whenever possible.
Local authorities informed that rigorous new social distancing measures for public transportation have come into force due to the pandemic, saying that wearing face masks remains compulsory for passengers, and the number of standing people on board is restricted to 25 in small buses and 60 in the big ones.
"Business as usual, we will reinforce bus services transporting people to beaches during July and August. However, I strongly believe we need to raise awareness about the necessity to keep physical distance from others in public areas," said Guadalupe Rodriguez, a high-ranking official at Havana's public transportation division.
As beachgoers lie on beach towels enjoying a day in the sun, teenagers dance or play soccer on the sand, and hundreds of people take a sea bath, more than 800 volunteers and lifeguards are taking care of people and monitor strict fulfillment of social distancing measures on Havana beaches.
Among them is Yunier Estevez, 39, a Cuban lifeguard who starts working early in the morning before beachgoers arrive at "El Megano" beach.
Although he has to work more for the moment, he said, lifeguards are playing a leading role during the post-COVID-19 pandemic period in Cuba because they focus on not only performing rescue operations and ensuring the safety of swimmers in the traditional way but providing visitors with a sodium hypochlorite solution to help them keep sanitized.
"We also check the number of people seated under a single umbrella. In addition, beds should be placed at least 1.5 meters apart from neighboring umbrellas," he told Xinhua.
Earlier this week, local governments in Havana reinforced sanitary measures provincewide to avoid a surge in new infections after two local cases of COVID-19 transmission were reported in El Cotorro and El Cerro districts.
Yanet Perez, 32, who works for a travel agency in Havana, said after Cuban authorities started to ease COVID-19 restrictions in the Cuban capital, she first felt afraid of going out, but finally changed her mind and headed to the beach with her relatives.
"The ocean is deeply embedded in the identity and culture of people living on the island. Maybe from now on, we realize we need to protect the environment even more," she said while bottle-feeding her one-year-old baby.
"The ocean belongs to us all," she added.
So far, 86 people have died from the virus in Cuba as 10 new cases were reported on Friday, bringing the total to 2,413.