By the time Ben Miller finally had to shut down his “Cool Cape May” Facebook page last Wednesday, the site had been overwhelmed by days of fighting and vitriol over whether second-home owners should ride out the coronavirus pandemic down the Shore.
“It got crazy,” Miller said Sunday by telephone from his home in Northampton, Pa. “Battle lines were drawn. Up until that time, Cape May hadn’t had any cases. Then out of nowhere, [a case] came in and it was somebody from New York. It was the ideal situation to light that fire.”
When “Cool Cape May” resurfaced to its 42,000 followers a day later, it had been scrubbed.
“Consider it a “Disney” version of Cape May,” Miller wrote.
If only. As people in New Jersey, like elsewhere, are bracing for the full hit of the coronavirus pandemic, akin to awaiting an invisible tsunami headed for shore, old rifts between locals and don’t-call-them-shoobies have deepened at the Jersey Shore, where year-rounders trying to hunker down suddenly found streets filling up with BMWs and Porsches bearing Pennsylvania and New York plates, and boardwalks incongruously populated with the summer crowd.
Was anybody listening to the calls to stay home, that by Saturday had reached all the way to Gov. Phil Murphy? Would Shore mayors put in the awkward position of discouraging some of their biggest taxpayers ever be forgiven? Was this all the confirmation needed by second-home owners of what locals really think of them?
"I urge those who have homes at the Jersey Shore to NOT go to them at this time,” Murphy tweeted, stopping short of a Gov. Chris Christie-like “Get the hell off the beach” edict. “The local infrastructure, especially the health care infrastructure, is not prepared for the influx of part-time residents. Please stay at your primary residences.”
He was being polite, at least compared with the online discussion.
“Amen! Preach it. BENNY’S stay home. I am surrounded by NY’ers who came last night to social distance at their summer homes. #CloseTheStateBorders” tweeted one local in response to Murphy, using the North Jersey shoobie-equivalent term for summer visitors.
“I think my taxes pay for your schools and local/state services. I’ll use my house when I please. Thank you …” responded a second-home owner, echoing a repeated refrain by the second-home people, truly indignant that they were somehow unwelcome. Do locals really look at them this callously when they’re not around?
Would local officials really actually bar them by shutting down bridges, as rumors repeatedly stated? (No, at least not yet, though closing boardwalks is under discussion.) On Sunday, Brigantine became the latest town to have to officially debunk the bridge rumor, its office of emergency management posting on Facebook: “the BRIGANTINE BRIDGE IS NOT CLOSING and there are no plans in the foreseeable future to close the bridge.”
Others said they were used to the attitude.
“It’s always been like that, the whole ‘shoobie’ mentality,” said Tom Reilly of Havertown, a consultant at Vanguard, standing outside his home in Avalon. He is hunkered down there with eight people, including, notably, his ex-wife and her fiance, and all their kids. “I surf. You get the brush off from locals. It’s the tribalism. People down here think it’s their water.”
But he said in a crisis, he knew he could count on his neighbors. The owner of Suncatcher Surf Shop had met him to deliver a needed sweatshirt when he called, he said. “Deep down inside, people will protect each other,” he said.
But even people escaping to the Shore were surprised to see the behavior of people, well, escaping to the Shore. It’s not exactly spring break in Florida, where beaches were finally closed. But second-home owners could be seen dragging coolers to the beach, spreading out yoga mats. (Though a predicted nor’easter for Monday may dampen enthusiasm.)
“We came down last week to escape the madness of Boston, but were shocked to find basketball games, pickle ball courts packed, and boot camp group exercise on the beach,” said one alarmed escapee.
Second-home owners and locals realize that at a time like this their interests diverge. Class divisions sharpen, especially in a beach economy where the shutdown has put tens of thousands out of work.
In Margate last week, real estate agent Dana Hartman said it was “business as usual,” for home buyers. She just sold a new construction home for $1.8 million. “People are trying to focus on their Shore house because they have more time to do so. They finally can make it down this week. No one seems to be bothered.”
In other countries, including Italy and Iran, the impulse to escape to vacation areas exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus, according to reports. Italy, in particular, saw the virus spread from north to south as people fled to vacation properties. Norwegians were banned from fleeing to their rural vacation cabins.
Online, local nurses warned of limited resources. “As a critical care nurse from one of the only hospitals in this area, this pandemic is frightening," wrote one. "We understand the importance of our second-home owners, but at this time we are just trying to keep everyone as safe as possible. Ourselves included!!”
In Margate on Sunday, Jason Sharps, 37, of Philadelphia, shopped at Casel’s and then headed for Longport, where he and his parents were hunkered down. He said his sister, who is pregnant, did not want them staying with her in Bryn Mawr.
And in Avalon, Maura Drumm drank some pink champagne on the beach with about six others in her extended family who had come down.
“It’s a lot more therapeutic and calmer down here,” she said. “The locals are like second family to me."
Though she said her father is clearly in the “we pay taxes it’s our right to come down” camp, Gov. Murphy’s warnings had left their mark on her, and she was returning to Philly. “It’s made things a little more intense,” she said.
The crisis has opened up wounds that some fear may linger, though all would agree, deep down, those kinds of wounds should be the worst thing in the end.
“Second-home owners will be the ones who say ‘I remember,’” predicted Police Chief Doug Biagi in Ventnor, where an uptick in visitors prompted the mayor to urge second-home owners that “Now is not the time," and where lifelong locals were getting muted in the local Ventnor Facebook forum for commenting on the second-home owners in town.
“They’ll remember their neighbor they were sharing hot dogs with last summer is the same one who told them to get the hell out of here and go back to your Audis in Northeast Philadelphia.”