Can we enjoy the UAE outdoors this winter amid a pandemic?

Observing social distancing guidelines in public remains essential

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Over the past few months, as Covid-19 has continued to affect lives, I have held on to the hope that there are glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. That is a hope, I guess, shared by all.

As the number of cases globally continues to rise sharply, over 40 million now, it is clear that a second wave of infections is upon us. I will have to hold on to my hopes for a bit longer.

The increased testing programme across the Emirates continues to identify daily new cases in numbers that exceed those recorded earlier in the course of the pandemic.

Regular tests apply not just to those travelling between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I was talking to a teacher the other day and she had just had her fifth test, to ensure that her fellow teachers as well as students are properly protected.

In certain sectors, I hear, tests every week or every fortnight are mandatory, depending on the location of work. That repetition of tests helps explain why the UAE, with a population of around 9.5m, has carried out nearly 12m tests.

Transmission within the community, though, is clearly still taking place. To deal with this, tests or wearing of masks is not enough. Proper observance of guidelines about social distancing remains absolutely essential.

That applies not just in offices and malls but in places where people gather outside, particularly now that the weather is becoming more pleasant.

In recent weeks, I have observed with interest what has been happening at a couple of popular outdoor spots.

Wandering through mangroves is not everyone's idea of relaxation, however. For many, a visit to the beach is more attractive

Last weekend, I dropped in to the Jubail Mangrove Park, on the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed highway from Abu Dhabi to Yas, which re-opened for visitors on October 1.

Their management has implemented a strict policy of prior online booking, which helps limit visitors. Those who turn up without a booking are politely turned away. To ensure that there is no crowding, specified time slots are allocated for access to the boardwalks that run through the mangroves.

Plans for school group visits and field study trips remain on hold, until such time as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, even though the main focus of the park continues to be on education. “Everyone who visits,” says one park official, “should take away at least one piece of information, even if it is just the knowledge of the tides, meaning that the seawater flows in and out of the mangroves.”

It is reassuring to see such a carefully planned and consistent approach to customer safety. With around 8,000 visitors since the beginning of the month – including over 2,800 this past weekend alone – the public seem to be making good use of the opportunity.

Wandering through mangroves is not everyone’s idea of relaxation, however. For many, a visit to the beach is more attractive. Here too, though, it is important to ensure that common sense on social distancing is applied.

On another weekend this month, I paid a quick visit to the Hudayriat beach, on the other side of Abu Dhabi. With temperatures dropping, and with parking space for several hundred cars, it has become wildly popular.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 27 MAY 2018. Opening of Hudayriat beach next to Al Bateen beach.
Beach facilities with life guards pre opening. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Haneen Dajani. Section: National.
Hudayriat beach, next to Al Bateen beach in Abu Dhabi, May 27, 2018. Antonie Robertson/The National

That is fine for those who choose to go on a leisurely stroll around the island. But it presents a slightly different challenge in terms of the numbers of people wishing to access the beach itself.

Whether it is the need to queue up – no time-slots for access here that I could see – or the relatively limited area of the main beach adjacent to the car park, maintaining appropriate social distancing has clearly been a bit of a challenge.

I welcome last week’s announcement that additional leisure facilities on Hudayriat will open next month. They will provide new attractions on what has already emerged as a key local leisure spot. In years to come, post-Covid-19, it is set to become a vibrant part of life in Abu Dhabi.

I am confident that those responsible for managing these attractive facilities on Hudayriat will pay due attention to the need to ensure the safety of all those who visit, with social distancing being key. Another element could perhaps be the setting of limits on the number of visitors allowed at any one time. That way we can ensure no irresponsible behaviour that could contribute to further spreading of the coronavirus that we all wish would begin to fade away.

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National