NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. — It felt like fall at the Jersey Shore on Sunday, but the clouds and cool weather did more than chase away beach-goers during the traditional start of the summer season.
They underscored the sudden fragility of a Shore economy that’s been pounded by pandemic-driven store closings, hotel-room cancellations, and dining limits. On Sunday, as some hardy ocean-lovers set out towels on beaches, and others on benches snuggled inside down coats, the boom of Memorial Day weekend turned quiet.
“Our business is down 70% over last year,” said Bill Bumbernick, owner of the Surfing Pig marina, bar and restaurant in North Wildwood. “That’s partly due to the weather. But we’re very concerned. Our customers are great, they really get it. But 70% just doesn’t cut it.”
Frustration among business owners was as thick as the salt air, with restaurateurs and others warning of financial calamity if Shore merchants must stay closed.
North Wildwood is one of many Shore towns where food and alcohol can be purchased only for pickup, then eaten curbside, amid a pandemic that’s raised issues big and small — such as where do people sit once they have their goods?
“If we don’t all get to reopen there’s going to be a lot of tragedy,” said Bumbernick. “I’ve run businesses before this, and it’s the first time I’ve felt like I’m not in charge of my own destiny.”
Crowds were sparse on the Wildwood Boardwalk, as families pushed strollers against the wind, and teenagers in sweatshirts insisted, as do teenagers everywhere, that they weren’t cold. About half the people were wearing protective masks.
Overcast skies and a stiff breeze off cool ocean waters helped pull down temperatures into the 50s.
“It doesn’t bother me, but it’s pretty windy,” said Baden Rizk, who was standing behind the counter at Custom Hub T-shirt store on the Wildwood boardwalk.
Morey’s Pier still jutted into the Atlantic, but the amusement rides sat empty, and the Ferris wheel farther south on the beach didn’t spin.
So far, in New Jersey and across the country, the path toward reopening has been dominated by risk and divisiveness, as protesters demand a quick return to normalcy and health authorities plead for more time and more obedience to social-distancing guidelines. States including Texas, North Carolina, and Arizona have seen rising numbers of coronavirus cases as they try to restart their economies.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on Sunday that “it’s too early to tell” whether social distancing and crowd-management protocols were being followed at the Shore.
He allowed state beaches to reopen ahead of the normally busy holiday weekend, but crowds for Saturday and Sunday were less than those of previous years. That’s cost government officials the chance to see how beaches might operate during a warmer, sunnier summer.
“The weather has not cooperated,” Murphy said on Sunday.
Seventy miles away in Camden County, a church defied the state closure orders — and health concerns that large gatherings create larger risk — and held in-person services on Sunday.
“We’re not looking for trouble, we’re not lawbreakers,” said Pastor Charles Clark Jr. of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin. “We’re exercising our constitutional rights.”
A live internet broadcast showed Clark, who did not wear a mask, exclaiming toward a crowded front pew. “By next week, there’s going to be churches opening all over the state, with permission or without permission,” he said.
Large church gatherings have been linked to major outbreaks in France and South Korea, as have other events where large numbers of people gather in close quarters.
President Donald Trump has pressed governors to allow churches to reopen immediately, declaring them “essential places that provide essential services” and threatening to “override the governors” without clarifying how he would do so.
On Sunday, Trump went golfing for the second straight day, as the national death toll from the coronavirus neared 100,000. He attacked Columbia University, an elite Ivy League school, as a “liberal, disgraceful institution” after it released a study showing that 36,000 fewer people would have died if the government had imposed social-distancing measures just one week earlier.
Pennsylvania counties still under coronavirus restrictions — including hard-hit Philadelphia and its suburbs — will move to the color-coded “yellow” reopening phase by June 5.
Under the Wolf administration plan, the yellow phase means most but not all businesses can reopen. Limitations on public gatherings remain, and restaurants and bars stay closed to in-person dining.
Pennsylvania health officials reported Sunday that 730 more people had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the caseload to 67,713, and an additional 28 had died, increasing that toll to 5,124. About 65% percent of all deaths have involved residents of long-term-care facilities.
“As counties move from red to yellow, we need all Pennsylvanians to continue to follow the social distancing and mitigation efforts,” said Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.
Swarthmore College’s more than 400 graduates heard from a surprise guest during their virtual commencement on Sunday — Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert. He told graduates in a taped message that he knew it was difficult for them to forgo celebrations with family, friends, and professors, but that their talents, energy, and character would help the nation get through this difficult time.
New Jersey officials reported on Sunday that 1,065 more residents have the coronavirus, bringing the state total to 154,154, and 54 more died, putting that count at 11,133.
On Sunday Priscilla Easmael and her husband, Mohammed Easmael were working to staff four businesses they own in New Jersey, including two in Wildwood.
“The weather’s bad, and with the late start business has been interesting, let’s put it that way,” said Priscilla Easmael, who wore a mask while working at both the Mana Ice Co. ice-cream shop and the Cap Swag clothing store on the Wildwood Boardwalk.
Joseph Lerro, owner of Joe Joe’s Tacos & Tequila on Old New Jersey Avenue, just blocks from the ocean in North Wildwood, believes New Jersey politicians are changing the guidelines for re-opening just as the beach season moves toward full swing.
“Our mayor has been great. But the governor?” he asked. “First it was to flatten the curve. Then they now want a vaccine? Is this how the governor runs his business?”