On Sunday, Capt. Irv Hurd took the Miss Avalon out on the water — with significantly fewer passengers and a lot more hand sanitizer than is usual for his family’s fourth-generation Jersey Shore charter fishing service.
It was the first day New Jersey fishing charters, for-hire vessels, and watercraft rentals were allowed to resume operations since the coronavirus pandemic shut down nonessential businesses, another step toward reopening the state’s normally booming seasonal Jersey Shore economy.
In an executive order Saturday, Gov. Phil Murphy cleared the services, including boats that take people on fishing trips, to operate under strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including limiting vessel capacity to 10 people and requiring crew and passengers to wear masks.
That meant Hurd’s small group of passengers on the Miss Avalon were staying six feet apart; he was spraying down the boat’s restroom after every use; and everyone’s hands were getting raw from repeated sanitizing. The sun was in and out as the wind blew out of the east. Everywhere the group dropped the lines, they started catching fish.
“It was a different way of having to do business. It was unique, because I must’ve cleaned the bathroom 35 times today,” said Hurd, 58, of Avalon. “But after doing it for one day, our first day, I certainly understand why the procedures are set in place, and we just had to adapt and do them that way if we want to stay in business.”
But Hurd and other fishing captains said Murphy’s restriction on passenger counts would keep them from making money on boats that are large enough to hold perhaps two dozen people while still maintaining social distancing.
Hurd planned to cancel a trip booked for Monday and had canceled other trips into June.
At Point Pleasant Beach, Capt. David Riback had sold more tickets in the few hours after Murphy’s Saturday announcement than in the last two months, and he took out a group of eight on Sunday to fill bags with sea bass and red hake. But after bringing in his boat, he said he considered his business basically closed until passenger capacity could increase.
“I’m not in any hurry to go out and break even or lose money. I might as well stay tied to the dock,” said Riback, who had to cancel a group of 25 he had booked for Sunday before the executive order detailing the restrictions came out.
Murphy said his order was an effort to open up more outdoor recreational activities to New Jerseyans as the state makes progress in slowing the infection rate of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 10,000 people and infected at least 146,000.
He announced last week that beaches and boardwalks would be permitted to open in time for Memorial Day weekend.
“Reopening charter fishing services and watercraft rental businesses restores an extremely important component of our Shore economy," Murphy said. “The social distancing measures that we are putting in place will ensure that these businesses can sustain themselves while still adhering to public health guidance.”
Riback was hoping he won’t have to refund any of the ticket orders that have flowed in since Saturday, which are booked from Memorial Day weekend through July. Operating an 85-foot vessel, his typical weekday trips have 30 to 40 people aboard; 50 to 70 on weekends.
“We can socially distance people — we can do a much better job than Walmart, that’s for sure,” said Riback, who operates the Queen Mary and has been a full-time fishing boat captain since 1994.
Riback and others said they were hoping Murphy would increase the allowed capacity before Memorial Day weekend; there had already been “quite an outpouring” from the industry in response to the governor’s order, Hurd said.
“We just hope that they relax and give us just a few more people so we can at least make a little bit of money at the end of the day,” said Hurd, whose son operates the family’s second boat, the Avalon Lady.
Away from the Shore, other watercraft rental businesses were also studying the executive order. Pinelands Adventures, which offers canoe and kayak rentals in the Pine Barrens, was hoping to confirm Monday that they could resume paddling services in the state forests.
Even then, they still have to figure out how to ensure safety on the buses that normally take customers to the water. They’ve already sourced disinfectant and foggers to clean buses, life jackets, paddles, and kayaks, said director Rob Ferber.
“We’re going to need to reopen at some point, somehow ... [but] it’s not going to be business as usual,” said Ferber, who also remained concerned about the spread of the coronavirus in the state. "Yes, I want to get open, but I want to be able to do it safely and I don’t want to put anybody at risk. I don’t want to lose sight of that.”
At Bayview Marina in Ocean City, owners Maira and Wally Middleton were feeling cautious, too. They planned to hang signs telling customers: No mask, no service.
“We’re taking every precaution to keep everyone safe,” said Maira. “A lot of people choose not to wear the mask, but we choose to be a good example.”
She planned to reopen Friday for their 33rd season of jet ski rental and other water sports services. They were preparing to disinfect all vessels between each use and follow the precautions mandated by the state. With so many visitors coming to the Shore from out of state, Middleton said she hoped people would respect the need to be cautious.
“Even though this is our livelihood, I’m very nervous,” she said of the Shore reopening. “I just hope it’s going to be a safe season and that the opening of the oceanside wasn’t too, too, too rushed. … We have to do it at some point, but I guess this’ll be a good trial.”
Still, she predicted she would feel “ecstatic” to reopen and see customers.
“We’re very grateful. It’s affected us a little bit. Normally in past years … we’ve hit the water by April,” she said. “I’m just very excited, and I’m welcoming everyone this Memorial Day Weekend.”
Capt. John Williams of Blue Chip Sportfishing in Point Pleasant Beach was spending Sunday getting ready for customers, but he too planned to be “going full blast” by Memorial Day — and he was feeling “good! G-O-O-D” about being able to reopen, he said.
“With the economy, business might be off a little bit,” Williams said, “but people love to fish. They wait all year to fish as a family or with their friends.”
The closure of businesses during the pandemic meant charters like Williams’ missed out on the striped bass season, but Murphy’s order gives them time to catch the sea bass season, which opened Friday, and fluke season, beginning later this month, Williams said.