Second-home owners and others are continuing to go to the Shore, and Cape May County officials are changing tactics — from discouraging them to planning for a gradual reopening of towns and their beaches by June 1.
The county, in conjunction with mayors and health-care representatives, is asking Gov. Phil Murphy to “relax and/or modify” provisions of his executive order that prohibit unnecessary travel and restrict nonessential businesses to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
But at his daily briefing Wednesday, Murphy made no mention of the 35-page plan submitted to him by the Shore county, and said continued adherence to social distancing will allow the state “to move the ball down the field on things like what’s the beach scene going to look like.”
Cape May County, which relies on a multibillion-dollar Shore season for its economy, is getting impatient.
Of Murphy’s decision to extend the state of emergency for 30 days, State Sen. Michael Testa (R., Cape May) said later Wednesday during a virtual chamber of commerce town hall: “That is not a plan of action, that is a plan of non-action. Shore communities need to be open.”
The county will now allow rentals of longer than 30 days beginning Monday, in part to accommodate seasonal workers. Rentals of less than 30 days will be allowed beginning June 1. (Separately, Wildwood and North Wildwood mayors said they would allow short-term rentals to resume May 26, the day after Memorial Day.)
Hotels and motels may operate at 60% of capacity beginning June 1, and at capacity beginning June 22, the Freeholder Board voted.
Jerrel Harvey, a spokesman for Murphy, said in an emailed response that “guidance for Shore towns in regards to beaches and boardwalks will be forthcoming.”
“Gov. Murphy previously signed Executive Order No. 108, which invalidates any county or municipal restriction that in any way conflicts with any of the provisions of the stay-at-home order outlined in Executive Order No. 107,” Harvey said in the email. "Municipalities or counties may not enact or enforce any rule or ordinance conflicting with any of the provisions of the stay-at-home order.
In the proposal sent to Murphy this week, the county proposes that towns ramp up beaches to a full opening on June 1 and consider spreading out swimmers beyond designated beaches by offering additional Beach Patrol locations.
“All activities would remain subject to social distancing, and groups would be limited to no more than 10 people,” the county proposed.
The proposal recommends allowing active recreation on boardwalks beginning Monday, with a full opening June 1.
“Social distancing would be required, and gathering and idling would be prohibited,” the proposal says. Wildwood has announced that its beaches and boardwalk would be open beginning Friday, though most stores remain closed.
The officials noted in their memo to the governor that “a safe, thoughtful, and progressive reopening of public facilities and businesses is proposed over the course of the next several weeks with an acknowledgment that a traditional Memorial Day weekend opening is unlikely to occur.”
The announcement from Cape May County was greeted with mixed reaction on social media, with some rejoicing at the prospect of a salvaged summer, others worrying about health consequences, and many wondering how this impacts their ability to get deposits back for rentals they might not feel safe about using.
Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron said families whose children were scheduled to come to motels for senior week have been complaining that they’ve been unable to get their money returned even though the motels are still closed.
The county urged Murphy to consider “the safety of the community, the dampening of the spread of the virus, and the economic future of Cape May County.”
As of Wednesday, Cape May County was reporting 404 positive cases and 30 deaths, which the report to the governor noted represents just a small fraction of statewide numbers (about 130,000 and 8,500).
The proposal lays out a framework for reopening, and proposes mitigation efforts in social distancing, sanitizing, and other activities as an alternative to stay-at-home orders.
It proposes relaxing zoning to allow bars and restaurants to use outside space, and proposed 65% capacity for indoor dining as of June 1.
And it urged towns to use banner planes and other signage to encourage social distancing and consider online reservation and ticketing systems that could limit capacity at businesses, food establishments, and even beaches and parks.
The county’s Business Recovery Task Force is co-chaired by Freeholder Vice Director Leonard C. Desiderio, who is also the mayor of Sea Isle City, and Freeholder Will Morey of Wildwood’s Morey’s Piers family.
Desiderio said Wednesday that he believes the plan is credible and responsible. It looks past Memorial Day weekend, and recognizes that people are coming down and will continue to do so.
Still, Desiderio’s own city, along with Ocean City and Strathmere, had not reopened beaches or promenades or boardwalks as of mid-week, and there were no set plans to do so.
“We’re still closed, because we’re taking a safety approach,” he said, though he anticipated that the towns’ beaches would be open for walking by Memorial Day weekend.
“Each weekend we find more and more people are coming to Cape May County communities,” Desiderio said. "We can’t keep them out. We can’t just say we’re not opening for summer of 2020. When we do open the beaches up, there will be different rules and regulations.
“This is going to be something like none of us have ever dealt with,” he said.