Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday questioned his counterparts’ decisions to reopen beaches in two states, and Philadelphia’s top health official bluntly told residents to stay away from the Shore on Memorial Day weekend.
With the start of the unofficial summer season imminent, their pointed remarks underscored the tensions and frustrations over the pace of restoring the coronavirus-devastated economy even as virus-related death tolls continue to creep upward.
“Don’t go to the beach,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. While that likely wasn’t a message the Cape May County Tourism Department had in mind, Farley argued that public safety trumped any other consideration.
Wolf said he was nonplussed by his fellow governors’ actions. “I’m not sure why the governors of Maryland [Larry Hogan] and New Jersey [Phil Murphy] have opened their beaches," he said. "but they have.” He reiterated that he would not be modeling swimwear at a Jersey Shore beach any time soon.
While the rates of case increases continue to decline, the grim statistics constitute a horrific portrait of a pandemic. With 83 additional deaths reported on Monday, New Jersey’s toll increased to 10,435. Pennsylvania added 87, for a total of 4,505. Worldwide the virus has been blamed for over 300,000 fatalities.
Public officials continue to plead for patience and for their constituents to err on the side of staying away from each other.
During last weekend’s dry run at the Shore, people appeared to be practicing social distancing on the beaches. But it was evident that even if crowds could gather safely on spacious beaches — Wildwood’s, for example, can seem as large as the Sahara — the boardwalks and other attractions could present challenges.
Legions of social distance violators and the maskless occupied the Ocean City boardwalk on Saturday, and Farley warned that Shore venues might be ideal for spreading a virus that visitors would bring back home.
“You might have gone to the beach every Memorial Day weekend for years,” he said. "But this is not the time to do that.”
The beaches are open as part of the first phase of New Jersey’s overall reopening plan, on which Murphy elaborated Monday.
“The data we have been seeing over the past weeks has signaled that it’s becoming safer to dip our toes back in the water,” Murphy said. “We are opening up businesses in a way to still provide maximum protection for residents, while allowing more of our workers to get back on the job.”
In this first phase, businesses that have curbside pickup, nonessential construction, beaches, and elective surgeries are allowed to restart activity. Data permitting, the state will move into stage two, in which more retail establishments, restaurants at limited capacity, personal-care businesses, museums, and libraries will be allowed to reopen.
Stage three will include green lights for bars, with some restrictions, more dining, and “critical in-office work.”
But Murphy said the state would proceed with caution. “This is not going to be quick,” he said. “We’re going to move deliberately based on data.”
Wolf has continued to be circumspect about the reopening timetable. On a day that gym owners in Bucks County and across the river in Bellmawr defied official orders and opened their doors, Wolf said he couldn’t say when gyms could resume operations.
“Again, we have a timeline that is being set not by the state. It’s being set by the coronavirus,” the governor said. “We’re looking for ways to defeat that virus.”
About 200 people gathered outside the Atilis gym in Bellmawr not long after daybreak Monday as it prepared to get back in business. “Formally, you’re all in violation of the executive order,” a Bellmawr police officer who arrived at the scene said to the owners and their supporters. “On that note, have a good day.” With that, the officer walked away as the crowd erupted in cheers.
Officially, Camden County later served the owners with a citation and court summons.
In Montgomery County, Commissioner Joseph C. Gale announced that he deliberately violated social distancing protocols by joining VFW members in placing U.S. flags in veterans’ graves at St. Matthew’s Cemetery in Conshohocken. That was in response to the county’s decisions to defer the annual Memorial Day flag ceremony to July Fourth.
Commission Chair Val Arkoosh, a doctor, said Gale’s behavior was an excellent example of a bad example. She said Gale should have been in quarantine because he has had direct exposure to someone who has tested positive. She said that during the event he did not wear masks and was not wearing gloves while handing flags to older participants. “This is not a comment about veterans, this is not a comment about a lack of respect for veterans,” she said. “I urge others not to copy this behavior."
The county learned that it would lose the JCPenney department store in Montgomery Mall, among nearly 250 that were closing for good, including stores at Oxford Valley and Cherry Hill Malls.
And in a list that is likely to grow, three local restaurants — Farmicia in Old City, Mad River in Manayunk, and Vitarelli’s in Cherry Hill — announced they were going out of business.
But a positive development emerged on Wall Street Monday, driven in part by promising results from a coronavirus vaccine trial, which acted like a performance-enhancing substance on the stock market.
The Dow rocketed 700 points at the opening and partied all day, finishing up 911, or nearly 4% higher than Friday’s close.
But the future of the virus still appeared to be about as uncertain as that of the stock market, as it remained unclear what effect the loosening of restrictions was having.
“Data trends seem to be good,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “but it’s too soon to tell.”