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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Study Explores the Impact of COVID-19 on Surfing Community

By Jonah Grinkewitz

When officials closed beaches in the U.S. and across the world early in the pandemic, Lindsay Usher immediately thought of one group: surfers.

Usher, an associate professor of park, recreation and tourism studies at Old Dominion University and an avid surfer, studies surf culture and tourism.

"We all went into lockdown around March 2020, and we kept hearing in California and other places that people were banned from surfing," she said. "And I thought, 'Why don't I do a research study to find out what surfers are experiencing during this period?'"

From April to November 2020, she did in-depth interviews with close to 30 surfers from across the globe - including three from Virginia Beach. It was a diverse pool of surfers, including 15 men and 14 women from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The first two rounds of interviews were done over Zoom, and the final round was an email check-in. She developed two sets of questions, one for people who lived in places where they could still go surfing, and one for people who could not. Participants were also asked to keep a photo journal, and approximately 18 of them provided anywhere from one to dozens of photos and entries capturing their experiences.

Participants who could surf used the sport to escape the stress of the pandemic and stay connected to friends.

Participants also reported seeing more people in the water. In some cases, that was due to unemployment. In others, more people were learning how to surf because of a lack of other safe activities to do. "One guy said, 'I'm seeing a lot of dates,'" Usher said, referring to some people who used surfing as a romantic activity since most restaurants and movie theaters were closed at the time. Other research has shown that many people took to the outdoors during the pandemic because it was a safe space to keep active, and transmission of the virus was unlikely to occur.

Participants who could not surf for multiple weeks or had difficulty accessing surf due to stay-at-home orders reported feeling restless, depressed and bored. Usher noted: "An important thing to understand is that for many people, surfing is a way of life and even a part of their identity. Taking that away was devastating for many during such a stressful time." Despite these feelings, most expressed understanding for the situation since so little was known about the novel coronavirus at the time.

Many people in this group also did other activities to stay busy, such as working out, hiking, biking, yoga and skateboarding. They also took up activities common to non-surfers, like baking, gardening, and making face masks. For most participants, these severe restrictions were temporary, and they had been able to return to the water in later stages of the study.

Those who lived in popular tourism destinations shared interesting observations. Several participants said it was nice not having tourists, but recognized it was also bad for the local economy. In Latin America, one participant described how a surf community had gone back to fishing to make it through the pandemic, but another nearby community had relied on surfing for so long it did not have a back-up means of income. When the access bridges to the Outer Banks were closed for two months and surfing was restricted to locals only, a participant noted the "vibe" in the water was friendly because everyone knew one another.

"I think this study demonstrates the ways in which an immediate response to a crisis affected one group's health in a negative way, even though it was done in an attempt to protect health," Usher said. "This will likely not be the last pandemic we have to deal with. Hopefully, we can take the lessons learned and apply them in the future, achieving a better balance between safety and access to recreation, given the importance of it in people's lives."


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