MEDICAL SUPPLIES, DEAD RATS KEEPING BEACHGOERS AWAY
RANKS ARE THINNING ALONG DIRTY ATLANTIC SHORELINES SINCE VIALS OF AIDS BLOOD WASHED UP EARLY IN JULYThe summer of '88 is already over in the minds of countless Northeastern beach lovers revolted by a tide of dead rats, syringes and sewage that has left miles of shoreline deserted and seaside businesses shuttered even on the hottest days.
"They finally did it - they ruined the beach," said Joe Lovecchi of Brooklyn. He will limit his ocean dips to "ankles only for the rest of the season."Others are not so brave. Attendance has plummeted at Atlantic beaches since the scare began July 6, when needles and vials of blood, some of which tested positive for the AIDS virus, began washing up along Long Island's 120-mile southern shore.
Since then, on beaches from New Jersey to Massachusetts, lifeguards and rangers with rakes and rubber gloves have harvested gruesome garbage after nearly every high tide.
"Whoever did this is the Typhoid Mary of garbage carters," said New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern. "This has ruined the summer for millions of people."
Although health officials say chances of contracting AIDS from ocean-borne waste are almost nil, in New York officials are playing it safe. When needles are found, the beach is closed for at least two relatively "clean" high tides.
Rhode Island beaches remained open after syringes, catheter and colostomy bags and intravenous tubing washed up last week; scientists doing computer studies of ocean currents said the waste was probably dumped near New York in June.
Medical waste is not the only reason beaches have closed. Beaches around Asbury Park, N.J., were closed because of contamination from human waste, which is a more potent threat to public health than hospital waste.
As in past summers, high levels of fecal coliform bacteria also have forced beaches to close on Long Island and around Boston harbor.
John Rafferty, a New York City lifeguard, said he will enter the water only when his job requires it.
"I'm not afraid of AIDS. It's just dirty water. The water's been dirty for years. I don't enjoy swimming in it," he said. "You come out and you don't feel refreshed."
Lovecchi has taken the same position. "Why take a chance? It's not just AIDS, but hepatitis, a host of things," he said. "If they opened up a stand selling Clorox, they could sell out to people who want to wash their feet."
Bleach might sell, but hot dogs and beers are not in demand at deserted beaches.
"It's real bad," said Wayne Horner, who operates the food concession at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, where attendance is down from a million last July to 457,000 this month. Horner said sales are down by two-thirds. "Nobody's coming out, and there's nothing we can do."
Fear and confusion did not prevent Loli Reyna of Queens from taking her two young children to the beach last week.
"If they get scared of the ocean now, they're never going to go in again," she said. "Nobody gets AIDS at the beach. You use drugs and needles, you get AIDS."
Problems with sewage plants also have contributed to the beach crisis. An old sewage plant in Asbury Park overflowed and dumped waste into the ocean; the nearby town of Bradley Beach is now threatening to sue Asbury Park for lost business.
Heavy rains are being blamed for drowning dozens of sewer rats that washed ashore in New York. While they have determined that the rats didn't come from a lab, officials haven't pinpointed the source of the medical garbage.
"It's real possible all the material came from the same source," said New York City Sanitation Commissioner Brendan Sexton. "There are particular outlets and people we are watching."
Among lifeguards, who frequently outnumbered sunbathers last week, there was an almost fatalistic consensus: Tidal debris is not new and garbage of all kinds will continue to wash ashore as long as offshore dumping continues.
"Things have been washing up for a long time, but AIDS is scaring people so much they are blowing it out of proportion," said lifeguard George Triffon.