While we adapt to the changes COVID-19 has brought and wait for the day we can put the pandemic fully in the rearview mirror, scuba divers now have the option to get out on the charter boats in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Working off the guidelines provided by the White House, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as Florida’s own Surgeon General, at the end of April Governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-112, outlining a phased approach to re-opening the state.
Phase 1 went into effect on May 4, 2020, giving local governments the discretion to allow businesses such as restaurants and retail shops to resume operation–as long as capacity does not exceed 25%. With the exception of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach County, Hospitals were also given the green light to reinstate elective procedures. By that same decree Palm Beach County was able to re-open boat ramps and marinas to the public (as listed in Section 5 – Boating and Marine Activities of Palm Beach County’s Covid-19 Emergency Order – document 2020-05). In doing so, recreational dive operations have received the green light to resume running dive charters.
What does it mean for scuba divers?
This is wonderful news for everyone eager to go offshore to the reefs and wrecks Palm Beach County is known for. At the same time all parties involved must understand and adhere to the expectations and conduct required in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the County on pages 9 & 10 of Attachment 2 of the 2020-05 document. Failure to do so could result in officials taking action and even shutting down an operation.
The New Normal (at least for now)
Following is what you need to know to get the most of your next diving experience in Palm Beach County (PBC), FL.
1. Recreational dive operations are now restricted a max load of 10 passengers per boat, including the crew plus 8 dive guests.
Given the average size a dive boat in PBC runs is between 43 and 48 feet long, the ability to apply the social distancing recommendation of 6 feet from one individual to the next is unrealistic. As such, the most workable solution was to mandate that all Commercial Recreational Vessels cannot exceed a total of 10 people on the vessel’s main deck at any given time. In other words, if the charter vessel has an upper deck flybridge from which the boat’s captain can remain while piloting, the boat’s main deck can run with a maximum limit of 8 paying divers plus two crew. Should the boat be without that feature, the overall complement (captain, dive guide/deckhand and passengers) is reduced by one so as not to exceed the maximum of 10.
On the bright side, a lower passenger load translates into plenty more elbow room as on-board tank placement and seating will be spaced as far apart as possible with 2 to 3 feet of separation. Cool!
2. In accordance with CDC Guidelines, all persons utilizing Commercial Recreational Vessels must practice social distancing and wear a face cover (surgical mask, bandana, buff, or gaiter at the very least) before approaching the dock or sign up station. This applies to all dive guests, captains, dive guides and deck hands, no exception.
With this in mind, preboarding processes at the dock could likely be a lot longer than it was in the past. If you’re not prone for arriving early, now is the time to change that habit. Of course, the line will include spacing of 6 feet between individuals to ensure proper social distancing while guests are checked in.
Fortunately, most operators provide the opportunity to book and prepay a trip online with most even including the option to either download and print, or electronically file, a liability waiver in advance. To help expedite the entire preboarding process, divers should be sure to have all required paperwork completed and in hand as well as all gear ready for loading on board.
Additionally, once on board, things will likely be structured differently.
In addition to ensuring all restrooms onboard display CDC cleanliness guidelines, the County also mandated that all Commercial Recreational Vessels are required to sanitize every part of the boat–from the marine head to all other communal surfaces, handrails, benches, etc., before, during, and after each charter.
Those requiring tanks or rental gear will need to inquire/arrange those services with the dive shop and charter outfit well in advance. Currently a number of local dive centers are providing curbside pickup and delivery for servicing or repair of dive equipment, tank fills and gear purchases.
Furthermore, you may need to bring your own reusable water bottle & snacks as some operators may not be offering that service. For those that do provide fresh drinking water, sodas and snacks, for your safety and convenience those items will provided to divers by a crew member.
3. As for your in-water diving experience, well nothing really changes there. It's business as usual and you can get as close you want to be to the things you come here to see and be with.
Back at the dock, if your ocean excursion includes spearfishing or lobstering, access to fish cleaning stations are limited to one person per station at a time. In addition, proper cleaning and sanitation processes should be practiced.
Don't Forget the Crew
Last, but not least, please be as generous as you can when tipping the crew when back at the dock as their earnings are largely derived from tips. While they’re dealing with a smaller number of people during the charters, their workload, responsibility, and even health risk is greater now than it was before Covid-19. It’s important to show appreciation for their hard work. We’re all in this together!
It’s time to dive the Palm Beaches again!
To find out more on diving in this area of South Florida, Palm Beach County Diving Association's website DivePBC.com is good source to start with.