Featured in Tracks Magazine
Navigating Portugal during the COVID-19 Spread.
Written by Morgan Bernard
When I decided to continue with my plans to embark on my scheduled ‘work’ trip to Portugal in early March, COVID-19 had spread around the globe but was, by some definitions, under control.
The virus had spread from China, and new epicenters emerged in South Korea and Italy. The United States and most of continental Europe both had relatively low numbers of reported cases, and I felt safe merely taking a few extra precautions while travelling.
I had travelled to Portugal with plans to write a piece highlighting Lisbon as an urban centre for outdoor adventure while simultaneously completing copywriting projects for local hotels up and down the coast.
I began my trip to the Lisbon-adjacent town of Cascais, where the coastal bend provided me with my pick of dozens of south and west-facing surf breaks. Due to north winds and a maxed-out swell, I spent most days surfing the protected south coast on either side of Lisbon’s iconic Ponte 25 de Abril Suspension Bridge. After a day or two of thorough coastal exploration, trial and error, and with the help of a few friendly locals, I managed to tune into the rhythm of a cruisy right point. The wave stretched out across an otherwise calm cove situated below a series of red-tile roofed apartment buildings that dominated the craggy coast. For the remainder of my time in Cascais, screaming, speedy right-hand rides dominated the daylight hours, while aimless wandering, shared bottles of tangy Port wine, and heaps of seafood filled each night.
As COVID-19 spread, the situation in Europe and elsewhere devolved, I took to the road, navigating the Portuguese coastline in my ‘Nissan Juke’ equivalent.
In Ericeira, Europe’s only World Surfing Reserve and the centre of the Portuguese surf industry, I found a vacant town, idle streets, and shuttered businesses. At first, I had assumed that many businesses remained closed because the tourism season hadn’t officially begun. But as my time in Ericeira continued, I learned that the town’s desolation was abnormal, even for the low season. Businesses continued to close as confirmed cases of the virus skyrocketed in neighbouring Spain, and misinformation and confusion surrounding the newly announced US travel ban drifted across the Atlantic Ocean. Magic Quiver Surf Shop & Surf Lodge cancelled their weekend premiere of the Electric Acid Surfboard Test, each day fewer restaurants served customers, and at night the town’s streets and alleys could be explored without bumping into another soul.
As Ericeira shut down further, I decided to head south to the Algarve, a warmer, sunnier area that was noticeably less affected by the COVID-19 panic. Once in the Algarve, I enjoyed a few days of surf and a few nights exploring Lagos, before the virus was hot on my heels once again. Each night, fewer businesses opened their doors to travellers and local patrons, and each day the situation in Europe and elsewhere deteriorated. It had become abundantly clear that the spread of this virus was in no way under control.
Throughout my travels and the ensuing viral calamity, I took solace in the fact that ‘surf can’t close’. I even posted an Instagram with the somewhat insensitive, braggadocious hashtag of #coronadontsurf.
It turns out surf can close. On March 14th, the Portuguese National Maritime Authority issued a beach ban, which included surfing in groups of five or more. Surf shops suspended rentals, surf schools were forbidden from stepping foot on the beach, and police patrolled many of the popular city adjacent surf breaks and beaches. Seeing this as the end of the line for my surf trip, I called the airline to find a way out. A few dropped calls and a six-hour hold period later, I booked a flight for the 17th, praying the borders would remain open long enough for me to make my escape.
As local authorities in Lagos forced the closure of the town’s nearby beaches, I packed my things and headed to a distant, heavy lipped beach break that was flanked on both sides by towering sea cliffs. After a few fun waves and a near guillotining, I retired to the beachside café, had a beer, and left for Lisbon, hoping my flight would depart as scheduled.
In Lisbon, the roads were void of vehicular and foot traffic, and I checked into an otherwise empty hotel. The streets of Lisbon were no indicator of how the airport would be the next morning. Upon arriving, I was engulfed into a herd of indolent moving, skittish travellers sporting masks and desperately clutching tubes of disinfectant wipes and keychain bottles of hand sanitiser. Despite the crowd, the gate was relatively quiet, yet on edge. Every sniffle, cough, sneeze, or burp was scorned at by the masses, and the perpetrators were shunned as pariahs.
Shortly after landing in the US, I walked off the tarmac into a short screening queue where my temperature was taken and then proceeded into an empty airport. Across the Atlantic, Western Europe was in complete lockdown, the Spanish-Portuguese border, among many others, had shuttered, and the US (in part) would soon follow. Surfing has since been banned in France, Spain, and Portugal, as each country does its part to stop the viral spread. In the US, beach bans are a state by state and county by county issue that have been the subject of heavy criticism.
Looking back at my time in Portugal, it’s clear that the measures that previously seemed extreme were tactfully taken to slow the spread of a virus that is still shrouded in mystery. While things seem oddly Mad Maxian, it’s clear that these closures are for the best. In time, things will return to normal, and the surf will be there when they do. For now, wash your hands and maybe invest in a bidet.