OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Strolling the boardwalk on a public relations mission and, arguably a lifesaving one, two Ocean City officials were out Saturday to award blue tote bags of goodies to families wearing face masks on a very different Independence Day at the Jersey Shore, one coming during a pandemic.

It was harder than you’d think. Michael Hartman, events coordinator, and Mike Allegreto, community services director, had to walk from the Music Pier to the Wonderland Pier before they found their first eligible candidate.

“Hey!” Allegreto shouted to a mother holding her 8-year-old daughter’s hand. “Thank you for wearing your mask on the Fourth!“

”Oh,” said Leah Schiff, slapping the air. “Well, thank you!

“It’s important to me and,” Schiff continued, waving daughter Shira’s hand, “to her.”

Shira had mentioned to her mother that she noticed most people in the beach resort weren’t wearing masks.

”But I told her that we’re supposed to,” Schiff said, slinging the bag of rewards over her shoulder, “so we are.”

Visitors pack the boardwalk in Ocean City on July 4, many not wearing a mask or social distancing.
JEFF FUSCO / For the Inquirer
Visitors pack the boardwalk in Ocean City on July 4, many not wearing a mask or social distancing.

On the Fourth of July, the Ocean City boardwalk was busy, but the beach was crowded. There were many clusters of groups, but the beach was so packed with sun-seekers that most couldn’t possibly have abided by the six-foot social distancing rule that has been in effect as a coronavirus precaution.

Dave Bergen, city spokesperson, said on average about 50,000 people visit the Jersey Shore town on a holiday weekend, and he didn’t expect this weekend’s numbers to be far off. Saturday was most likely the best day for beach-tag sales for the season so far, after numbers dropped in May.

On the boardwalk, water and amusement rides were open, as were mini-golf courses. While people were supposed to wear masks, most didn’t. Hence, the tote-bag handouts.

”Families are going to have to get used to wearing masks on rides and in restaurants,” Bergen said.

Leah Schiff and her daughter Shira walk the boardwalk after receiving a gift bag from the Ocean City Public Relations team as a thank you for wearing masks.
JEFF FUSCO / For the Inquirer
Leah Schiff and her daughter Shira walk the boardwalk after receiving a gift bag from the Ocean City Public Relations team as a thank you for wearing masks.

On Saturday, New Jersey reported 303 new coronavirus cases, and 25 more deaths. In Pennsylvania, 634 new cases and three more deaths were reported.

By pushing mask-wearing and urging Jersey Shore revelers not to be “knuckleheads” by ignoring coronavirus safeguards, Gov. Phil Murphy is trying to avoid the kind of alarming backsliding that Florida is experiencing. The Sunshine State on Saturday reported more than 11,000 new COVID-19 cases, setting a daily state record.

Trying to encourage mask-wearing, Ocean City spent part of Independence Day rewarding those wearing them with tote bags stuffed with beach towels, water bottles, city-branded T-shirts, and gift cards for some of the most popular boardwalk businesses.

Hartman and Allegreto found Jeff Giacoponello and his 12-year-old son, Andrew, from Warwick, Bucks County, in line at Manco & Manco Pizza, and told them to use the gift card to the pizza place tucked inside.

”We wanted to say thank you for wearing masks,” said Hartman, “and helping to keep Ocean City safe.”

Jeff Giacoponello, who was wearing a Marvel Comics-themed mask, said he absolutely wears it on the boardwalk and would wear it in a restaurant, but conceded he didn’t think it was possible to wear it all the time.

”I probably won’t wear it when I go biking tomorrow,” he said.

And then, on the boardwalk at Ninth Street, Allegreto spotted more good examples of model visitors.

”Excuse me, guys,” he said to Kate and Mike Stutzel of Emerson, Bergen County. “I just wanted to thank you for keeping your masks on.”

Holding a giggling 18-month-old Violet upside down, Kate said of life amid a very contagious virus: “It can be a little scary.”

That’s why Hartman and Allegreto were out there. They would hand out at least two dozen more reward bags on their boardwalk stroll.