UPDATE: The swimming advisory has been lifted for the area that includes 22nd to 37th streets. The entire Oceanfront now is open for swimming.
Bright sunshine beckoned beachgoers to the Oceanfront on Thursday, but just off the Boardwalk, a neon yellow sign stopped most in their tracks.
"Swimming and/or wading prohibited," it said. "Bacteria levels do not meet state water quality standards."
The ban began Wednesday with warnings not to swim between 22nd and 70th streets - half the Oceanfront. By midday Thursday that area was shortened to between 22nd and 37th streets, still much of the resort strip.
For those 15 blocks, red flags flew next to the lifeguards' orange beach umbrellas. Sunbathers kept to their chairs, children played in the sand instead of the surf, and hotel pools filled up.
"Last year it was cold and raining," said Mame Ndiaye, a New Yorker who reclined in the shade near her children. "So we came this year, and we can't get in the water."
"Hopefully tomorrow," she said.
This isn't the first time a bacteria surplus has frustrated beach lovers. It isn't even the first time this year - First Landing State Park had a beach closing May 21, and Sandbridge had one Aug. 6, said Dan Horne, a spokesman for the city's Department of Public Health.
In those cases, just one of the 22 swimming spots tested weekly was found to have bacteria. This week, three points tested positive at once.
The Department of Public Utilites' lab tests them for enterococci, bacteria that show up when there are organisms in the water that can cause gastrointestinal illness and skin, eye and respiratory infections.
Lab Supervisor Susan Sadowski said technicians dilute the samples, add a chemical agent that seeks out enzymes and pour the mixture into containers like tiny ice cube trays. The sealed trays spend 24 hours in an incubator. When they emerge, any cubes with bacteria glow under ultraviolet light.
A calculation based on the number of glowing cubes determines how much bacteria is in the water, Sadowski said. The limit is 104 "colonies." The highest number this week was 228 colonies but, for comparison, she said, raw sewage has at least a million.
So a relatively tiny amount of pollution can cause results over the allowable limit. Horne said the culprits are primarily dog and bird feces - nothing huge like a sewage leak.
Beachgoers can help prevent such bacteria surpluses - and beach closures - by cleaning up after their pets, properly disposing of food trash and baby diapers, and fighting temptation to feed seagulls, which can hover over the water and defecate into the ocean, Horne said.
For people living or staying at the beach, Horne said, it's helpful to avoid throwing pet waste into yards or storm drains where it can wash into the water, and to avoid putting fats and oils down garbage disposals, where they can get into the sewage system and cause backups.
"Those are things individuals can do that would help greatly," Horne said.
The water was tested again Thursday, and the results will determine whether the beach reopens today.
Elley Polonkey and her children will be waiting. After spending 10 years abroad in England and Thailand, they arrived in Virginia Beach on Wednesday for a vacation.
"We're going to think of a non-beach plan at the beach," she said Thursday as the group headed down 27th Street, away from the water.
"Water park!" suggested Evie Johnson, 7.
Despite the inconvenience, Polonkey said she appreciates that Virginia has water standards. Not every beach does, she said.
"We were in Thailand," Polonkey said. "Who knows what we were swimming in?"
Elisabeth Hulette, 757-222-5097, email@example.com