Nicole Ried stepped on the sand on the Seventh Street beach in Ocean City and quickly turned around.

About a hundred people were on the beach. No one wore masks. Ried didn’t think there was enough room for herself, her friend, and two sons, so she left to look somewhere else.

“There’s too many people right there,” the Pennsauken resident said. “I don’t want to sit on top of somebody.”

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop tourists from crowding beaches at the Jersey Shore on Friday during the first day of the July Fourth weekend. Hardly anyone wore masks on the sand, but sunbathers spread themselves out. There was slightly more social distancing and masks on the boardwalks, but many of those masks were under chins, in back pockets, or held in hands. People played mini golf, slid down water slides, and enjoyed outdoor dining — with social distancing, but masks were rare.

“They just want to be at the Shore. They don’t care about what’s going on,” said Will Helms, a 19-year-old from West Deptford, who spends his summers in Sea Isle City and was riding his bike. “I’m over it, kind of. I wear a mask when I have to. At work, I’ll wear a mask, but now I’m like, it is what it is.”

Across the United States, beaches or bars, or both, have been cited as factors fueling alarming case surges as states attempt to reopen their economy. The daily count nationwide this week hit a record high of more than 50,000, with 40 states reporting increases.

Younger adults make up a growing share of these new cases, reflecting the draw of beaches and bars, as well as graduation parties. In New Jersey, 22% of new cases in June were among young adults ages 18 to 29, compared with just 12% in April, state data show.

At a recent coronavirus briefing, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli lamented, “Individuals were packed together at these locations [bars and beaches], which raises the risk of spreading COVID-19 to one another, and then to a wider community.”

“People of any age can get severe illness from COVID-19,” Persichilli added.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley also sounded an alarm on Thursday.

“We’re seeing cases here in people who are going to the beach and staying in a beach house,” he said. “They’re going to restaurants and bars when they travel.”

In Sea Isle City, bars and restaurants were quiet along Landis Avenue around 3 p.m. Friday, though the crowded beaches and few open parking spaces suggested the businesses could be busier at night.

“It’s a little early, but we’re expecting our normal crowds,” said Frank Taylor, a 59-year-old doorman at La Costa Lounge & Deck Bar.

But Taylor expected that the outdoor bar would have to turn people away to maintain social distancing. It has limited its capacity and spread tables six feet apart. No dancing is allowed, and guests have to stay at their tables, he said.

Despite the warnings and restrictions, tourists said they were itching to get outside after being cooped up at home for months. They wanted life to get back to normal, or something resembling it.

“I think we’re all tired of being stuck in the house. We wanted to get on vacation,” said Kelly Carson, who traveled to Sea Isle City from Branford, Conn., with her wife and three kids. “Yeah, it’s the pandemic, but everybody needs a break. We need a breather.”

The family said they decided to stay at a nearby campground, which they expected to be safer than a hotel filled with other people.

Shore towns and businesses made efforts to encourage healthy behavior. Ocean City had hand sanitizing dispensers along the boardwalks. The town’s famous pizza joint, Manco & Manco Pizza, placed stickers on the boardwalk directing customers where to stand in line, and employees stood outside to enforce it.

Signs in Sea Isle City reminded people to stay six feet apart. In Wildwood, Morey’s Piers staffers wiped down rides, kept track of how many people walked in, and told customers to wear masks. Almost all complied. Cape May County this week urged residents and visitors to wear masks in all public places.

Ocean City officials installed hand sanitizer dispensers and signs encouraging social distancing along the boardwalk.
Christian Hetrick
Ocean City officials installed hand sanitizer dispensers and signs encouraging social distancing along the boardwalk.

Most people were on the beaches, though, and some crowds were at pre-pandemic levels. Many groups were at least six feet apart, but that may have been just a result of normal beach etiquette. In Margate, for example, it appeared that everyone was trying to get close to the ocean, even though there was plenty of available sand behind them.

Local officials didn’t impose specific capacity limits on beaches, but some said lifeguards were permitted to police social distancing.

“Crowds have been doing a very good job at spacing themselves out,” said Ocean City Beach Patrol Chief Mark Jamieson. “At places where we’ve seen higher density, we’ve added a couple new lifeguard stands to encourage spacing in the water. We’ll give them a quick whistle to encourage people to distance. So far, everyone’s been very compliant.”

Cape May City Mayor Chuck Lear said officials would cut off beach tag sales this summer if lifeguards believed that the beaches got too crowded.

“We’re leaving it up to the discretion between the city manager and the lifeguards,” he said. “The lifeguards will notify the city manager, and he’ll have the beach tag people stop selling tags. But it’s a pretty big beach, so I’d be surprised.”

Wildwood had “ambassadors” walk the boardwalk to encourage people to spread apart if they stood too close, Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron said. About a dozen ambassadors wear yellow shirts and hand out pamphlets reminding people how to stay healthy amid a pandemic.

“After four months, people know what they need to do at this point,” Byron said Friday. “But everyone that’s up there [on the boardwalk] that’s associated with the city is encouraging social distancing, but it’s all friendly. No one’s looking to get aggressive.”

New Jersey, which was a national hot spot in April, has seen new case counts plateau at about 400 a day. While it has so far largely avoided the recent surge in new cases seen in other states, that could change quickly if crowded Shore beaches become a transmission ground, health officials fear. The latest cumulative case count is 152,742.

The state has continued to gradually lift or ease restrictions. On Friday, the limit on people at outdoor gatherings was raised from 250 to 500.

But Gov. Phil Murphy also warned in a tweet Friday that “COVID-19 does not take holiday weekends off,” and urged safeguards, including wearing masks and social distancing. He also tweeted news of an additional 58 deaths, pushing the state’s total death toll to 13,308.

But since Murphy and other officials have eased rules, and some adults are now going out more frequently, a group of five kids inside Hollywood Arcade in Ocean City thought everything was safe again. They shot free throws in a basketball game and didn’t wear masks inside the arcade.

“Now that everything is opening back up, and more people are coming out,” said a 10-year-old from New York City, “I feel like everybody is feeling better about it.”