MARGATE, N.J. — The Pennsylvania plates parked around Casel’s Market all weekend and on through the week told the tale: Shoobies think the New Jersey Shore is a nice place to ride out the coronavirus pandemic.
But Shore elected officials (and lots of locals) do not agree. Wildwood is even considering closing its boardwalk to discourage visitors, Mayor Pete Byron said Tuesday.
“The summer condos on my street in Wildwood look like an early May weekend,” noted one local resident, Christina Sweeney.
In a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon, Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton urged visitors to stay home during the next two weeks.
It was a jarring stance for Shore officials to take, rolling up the welcome mat. But these are difficult times. And while people may be drawn to their happy places down the Shore, where at least as of Tuesday afternoon there were no reported cases of the novel coronavirus, Thornton and others say those people are not doing anyone any favors.
[On Wednesday, officials announced three confirmed cases in Atlantic County, and a New York City man who tested positive in Cape May County while visiting. On Saturday, meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy joined the chorus, saying “I urge those who have homes at the Jersey Shore to not go to them at this time.”
“I don’t want to offend our second-home owners and our taxpayers, but this is really not the time,” said Mayor Beth Holtzman of Ventnor, where many out-of-towners could be found (sort of) hunkering down in their second homes, but also outside coffee shops and on the Boardwalk. “The only way the curve is going to flatten is for people to stop moving.”
Some second-home owners say Shore store clerks have been asking for their zip codes and “when they hear Pennsylvania become very cold and dismissive.”
Thornton stressed that it was more than just wanting to make sure locals could find enough chicken in their off-season supermarkets.
“These additional visitors have put an additional strain on the local supermarkets, but could eventually be a burden on the medical system in Cape May County should a significant outbreak of COVID-19 take place here,” Thornton said.
“We love all of our visitors from Pennsylvania, North Jersey, New York, and further away, but this is not the time to be visiting the Shore as we try to focus resources needed during this pandemic to our residents."
But the Boardwalk in Ventnor, the condos in Wildwood, the back bay neighborhoods of Avalon were dotted with people on Tuesday, a crisp and warm day with a pleasant breeze. What could be bad? people wondered.
The Shore seems “brighter,” said one Ventnor second-home owner planning to hunker down for the long haul. “You can trick yourself it’s not so bad.”
Ellen Rubin, who lives on the 19th floor of a high rise in Philadelphia “filled with millennials,” is refusing to ride the elevator. She escaped with her dogs to her Shore house in Ventnor for the duration.
“Just walking the Boardwalk, took the bike out,” said Rubin. “It’s not here yet, there’s no confirmed cases yet."
She’s not under any illusion that the Shore is somehow safer, she said.
“They say there’s people from New York here,” she said. "It’s very crowded.”
Rachel Fishman of Queen Village came down to the family’s beach house in Ventnor with her sister and the three little cousins, two second graders and a pre-schooler, “so my kids could have fresh air, more space.”
“The ocean, the sand, all lifts your spirits,” she added.
Locals have found themselves taking in members of their extended families, either marooned college students or adult children working remotely. In Carol Miller of Ventnor’s case, it was her 90-year-old mother, deposited down the Shore by her twin sister.
“They said she’s safer here than in Philly,” Miller said. She and a friend had come to celebrate their birthdays. “As soon as we opened the door, they said, we’re not staying,” Miller said. “They dropped her off.” (They did end up staying for a couple of hours.)
Others said they believed their mental states were better with a cool ocean breeze and the expanse of the beach.
“People are escaping,” said Ray Damico, who owns an Airbnb in Ventnor that is suddenly busy with people coming from Pennsylvania. “We call them the escapee vacay-ees. We definitely left them cleaning supplies.”
Fights have broken out in social media channels, where second-home owners defended their right to go to homes they own in towns where they pay taxes. “I’m entitled to use my house,” said one poster in a Margate group. 'You have neither the facts nor authority to tell me what to do."
“As a homeowner and taxpayer, we can live in which home we choose,” said another.
Many locals are not amused.
“It’s a kind of ‘keep your germs at home’ kind of feeling,” said Matt McClatchy, sitting on a bench on the Boardwalk in Ventnor. "There’s plenty of tags from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware. It’s like Memorial Day. I have friends from Philly coming to their homes. Why sit in the city if you can sit on the beach?”
“Ask them if they realize there are far more hospital beds and ventilators in the major city hospitals than there is in this area,” suggested a Ventnor local.
Byron, the Wildwood mayor, says officials are looking at ways to convince second-home owners that relocating or just popping by during the coronavirus restrictions is a bad idea. They’ve canceled all events, including iconic ones like Ocean City’s DooDah parade.
“We can’t post guards at the bridges, as some of the residents have suggested,” Byron said.
But closing the boardwalk, he said, “is part of the discussion.”
“It’s just a way to be proactive,” he said. “We can’t stop people from coming. They have a right to check on their houses. We are trying to discourage folks.”