GIUGLIANO IN CAMPANIA, Italy — The lifeguard turned his back to the water and looked for danger on the sand.
All around him at the beach club west of Naples, children on their stomachs dug moats while adults reclined on beach chairs, catching rays, eating stuffed shells and reconnecting with friends on the first Sunday back at the beach after a monthslong lockdown. Some maintained the new social-distancing restrictions. Some did not.
“I look a little this way,” said the lifeguard, Salvatore Scardazone, 31, shifting from the sea to the land. “And I look a little this way.”
As the temperatures rise, sun-starved Europeans are desperate to get to the beach and tourism-starved Mediterranean countries are desperate to have them. In Greece, the government is trying to negotiate an “air bridge” from Britain, with promises of 40 bathers per 1,000 square meters and disinfected chairs. The Spanish are trying to convince Germany to send tourists their way, while Baltic Sea resorts, which had a far less severe epidemic than Spain, are trying to poach them.
But it is Italy, which endured one of Europe’s worst outbreaks, that is most counting on the economically restorative powers of its beaches and seas. Tourism accounts for 13 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product, and 40 percent of that is from beach activity. Officials and beach club owners have expressed hope that foreign tourists will spend time and money in their country when the borders reopen on June 3. But in the meantime, it is the Italians who must pick up the sunbathing slack.
On May 18, the national government, citing the dipping curve of infections, allowed Italian regions to reopen beach clubs. Different regions have reacted with varying degrees of caution. Tuscany allowed them to reopen on May 18, Campania on May 23, Lazio on May 29, and Sicily on June 6.
This week, the governor of the island of Sardinia, which had hardly any cases, said visitors could come without quarantining, as long as they carried a “health passport,” without detailing how such a document would work.
But the national government has also said that any sharp rise in new infections would prompt another lockdown, and the mayor of one small town in the southern region of Puglia closed the beaches this week after seeing an “invasion” of sunbathers, many, he said, “wearing their masks as necklaces.”
Italians have been waiting to get back to the beach for months and have obsessed over their summer prospects essentially since the lockdown began in March. (“This summer, we will go to the beach,” the under secretary for culture, Lorenza Bonaccorsi, assured a troubled country in April.)
In the Italian news media, detailed graphics and videos have regularly illustrated the possible restrictions and proposed bathing innovations. There were the rows of plexiglass cubicles — resembling ice trays — each holding an umbrella and recliners, or entry gates that sprayed disinfectant on bathers like cars entering a carwash, or a village of eco-friendly bamboo and fabric beach huts. (“We were in Mongolia for many years,” the architect explained.)
None caught on.
Salvatore Trinchillo, the third-generation owner of the Lido Varca d’Oro club in Giugliano in Campania, said that the plexiglass cubes were only ever promoted by “a guy who makes plexiglass” and would “turn sunbathers into rotisserie chickens.”
Instead, Mr. Trinchillo, who is also the vice president of Italy’s union of beach club presidents, opted for more traditional arrangements, with more room between the umbrellas and lounge chairs. The people around the pasta and coffee and cocktail bars wore masks and those who wanted to eat in the outdoor restaurant next to the DJ booth had their foreheads scanned with a thermometer.
(Jole Santelli, president of the neighboring region of Calabria, has called such temperature taking “a joke” because, she reasoned, people’s temperatures would go up in the heat.)
Campania’s measures were adopted at midnight last Friday, when Vincenzo De Luca, the governor, perhaps best known during the coronavirus outbreak for threatening to take a “blowtorch” to illegal gatherings and for calling his citizens “doubly imbeciles” for bothering to wear masks but then letting them hang around their necks, decided that infections had gone down enough for beach clubs to open. The region also allowed bathers to remove their masks on the beach, as long as they observed social-distancing measures.
It didn’t help on Sunday when a group rode black horses on the surf in front of the club, drawing crowds of children.
“Get out of here, morons!” Lina Devigo, 61, said jumping out of her chair and lashing out at the horseback riders. “We’re all here with the masks and the disinfectant and you morons come with these horses that poop where the kids are playing.”
Ms. Devigo described herself as a year-round beach enthusiast. And she said that after months of going stir crazy in her nearby home, the opening of the beaches and the ability to stare out at the hazy island of Ischia was “a mercy from God.”
“And we can see our friends,” said Rosaria Meola, 49, who reclined a few feet away.
“We all got fat!” Ms. Devigo added, referring to the “quarantine kilos” she said she had put on.
Mr. Trinchillo agreed that “everyone is a little chubbier,” but said through a mask that he was nevertheless delighted to finally see people back in the beach chairs. To observe social-distancing measures, he had to reduce his beach-chair capacity to 1,200 from 2,000. He also created broader corridors for people to pass through and spaced his chairs out even more than required by the region.
Yet there remained a dense and vibrant forest of orange umbrellas. As he took it in, Mr. Trinchillo said more exclusive and expensive beach clubs in the region, such as on the Amalfi Coast or on the island of Capri, spots known for their crystalline waters, coves and rocky cliffs, “were now jealous of us” because they lacked the space for proper distancing and could not open. “Life is bizarre,” he said.
Beach locales, like so much in Italy, can be status symbols. The superwealthy tend to prefer luxury hotels or pristine coves reached by sailboat or yacht. Certain segments of Rome’s upper class reconstitute at beach clubs in Tuscany or walk though pine forests to isolate themselves in secluded spots. Some prefer to be among other people.
“It was the beauty of our community,” Antonio Decaro, the mayor of the southern city of Bari and the president of Italy’s association of mayors, said of the boisterous beach scene. But he added that, until there was a vaccine, people had to go to the beaches “some at a time, few people, far away.”
At the Lido Varca d’Oro, people didn’t seem so few or far away. A toddler with goggles and a face mask the colors of the Italian flag scampered into the sea, next to a circle of adults with their bare faces pointed up at the sun.
Since Italy eased its lockdown this month, the country’s mayors have wrestled with crowds drawn to newly reopened bars, but also to its boardwalks and beaches. To break up the gatherings, officials have proposed a volunteer army of scolds, possibly made up of the country’s unemployed welfare recipients. They would not be imbued with any actual powers, but would get official-looking jackets.
At the beach on Sunday, policing duties often fell to the club’s staff, wearing orange shirts to match the orange umbrellas.
“I ask people if they are relatives or friends,” said one of the club employees, Luca Telese, 19. He said that people were generally behaving because “they’re scared.” Then he turned and excused himself. “See over there? I have to go there and remind them that assemblies are banned.”
He walked toward the part of the beach where two cousins from Naples were spending the afternoon sun bathing and taking tinfoil-wrapped cold cuts out of strollers to feed their husbands and small children playing in the sand.
“Feel this air, smell the sea,” Enza Ponticelli, 30, said. “It’s safer out here.”
Her cousin, Valentina Rubino, 31, agreed,
“It’s freedom,” she said.