It’s the land of no-shower happy hour. High tides that bunch people and chairs closer and closer together as beaches narrow. Weekly rental turnovers that typically allow just two hours for cleaning.
Is social distancing at the Jersey Shore even possible?
Most Shore towns have already pretty much written off Memorial Day weekend and are casting visions toward mid- to late June or Fourth of July. They will take their cues from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. A surge of coronavirus cases is making its way from north to south, even as daily discussions of reopening proceed.
But as business owners, marketers, property managers, and public officials contemplate how to save the Shore from the economic disaster of a season lost to the coronavirus, the question remains: How do you keep people safely apart in a place whose charm is based, in part, on a gangs-all-here crowding together?
Timed entry on the beach in Cape May? Complimentary masks in Ocean City? Reconfigured miniature golf holes? Bouncers checking people’s IDs and temperatures? Saving the Jersey Shore from a calamitous non-summer is weighing heavily in beach towns.
“I think this year will be different,” said Michelle Gillian, executive director of Ocean City’s Chamber of Commerce, which will air a 15-second spot next week (about a week behind Ocean City, Md.) assuring people the city is getting ready to welcome them home ... “soon.”
But even that innocent spot shows a rather crowded beach typical of Ocean City, but problematic in the coronavirus age.
To that end, Mayor Jay Gillian has purchased 100,000 masks to hand to visitors who may have forgotten their own, said Michelle Gillian (who is also his wife). Protocols are being worked out for enhanced cleaning and sanitizing in rentals, motels, businesses, and amusements, and on the boardwalk.
“This summer we are open to the idea they might have masks on the beach,” she said. “You might have to skip a person at an amusement park. At miniature golf, you might not let your ball drop in the hole. It might have to pop out.
“We’re really thinking outside the box,” she said.
Martin Z. Mollusk, the city’s hermit crab mascot, will make a virtual cameo May 9 “as he attempts to predict an early summer for Ocean City for the 47th consecutive year.” Lots of luck, Martin.
So much is uncertain. As things stand now, restrictions are in place for boardwalks and most beaches. Hotels, motels, and short-term rentals are still prohibited, and second-home owners are being urged to remain at their primary residences.
But when there’s a green light, or even a yellow light, what will the Shore look like?
“What’s keeping me up at night now, I’m trying to figure out how we figure out how to have a great summer on the beach with social distancing,” said Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman, where beaches and the boardwalk are shut down. “The beach is very tricky. I’m trying to visualize it. You can’t put six-foot pieces of tape like the food store."
One thing she’s sure of: “The beach badge checkers, no way will they be social distancing police.”
And what about the ocean? Jersey Shore beach patrols are known for zealously herding people together in front of lifeguard stands. Will there be an easing? An extension of hours?
In Cape May, Curtis Bashaw, who owns Congress Hall and other properties, says he is advocating software that would require people to reserve a specific time of entry to the beach, similar to how you might select an entry time to a popular museum exhibit.
“I think beach by beach we can create capacity limits,” Bashaw said.
He says his own properties will use software so that people can reserve time slots at tables, at the bar, in the pool, on lounge chairs, on outdoor Peletons, so the property can control capacity. The great lawn at Congress Hall will be leveraged for as much outdoor dining and drinking as possible, he said.
Bashaw wants some streets closed to cars so pedestrians can spread out, an idea Cape May Mayor Chuck Lear says appealed to mayors across the county.
On Facebook, anxieties have been shared again and again. Even buying a beach tag at this point — which towns count on for millions in revenue — seems like an act of faith.
“Even if the beach is open, I’m nervous about renting a house someone just stayed in before us,” said one commenter on a Long Beach Island site.
“As a cleaning person,” wrote another, “I just don’t know how to totally disinfect a home with the time [allotted]. People sleeping on same mattress pads..”
Marketers and business owners said their job is to make people feel safe, sanitized, and cared for in a destination many view as their happy place, associated with extended family: the very relatives they may have been denied contact with during the shutdown.
“There is a lot of pent-up demand,” said Ben Rose of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority. “We have a big, multigenerational vacation destination. I think that bodes well. People want to spend some time with family again.”
Morey’s Piers will look to Disney Asia for ways to control capacity and keep distances, he said. Cleaning protocols will be enhanced as elsewhere.
“We will [be] making sure rooms are disinfected, wiping down surfaces, bathroom, room keys,” said Rose. "Every time you go into a room, the main concern is, who stayed in there last week.”
In Wildwood, the half-mile-wide beach will be its own socially distant selling point. (Not so for narrower and typically crowded places like Sea Isle City, where a socially distant beach will be more of a challenge.)
“The main asset we have is our big, wide, spacious beaches,” Rose said.
He added, in what might become a coronavirus-age slogan: "There’s plenty of room to spread out on the Wildwood beaches.” Ads begin next week.
Pat Fasano, who owns bars and restaurants in Asbury Park and Atlantic City, thinks people will default to the Jersey Shore as a safer destination.
“People are getting itchy,” said Fasano, who owns Bourré on New York Avenue in Atlantic City. "We’re going to open up a large outdoor area for the summer so I can do the social distancing. The more space, the better. The guy with land wins.”
He said bouncers could check people’s temperatures. “Bouncers are checking IDs anyway,” he said.
It’s been a tense spring at the Shore, where second-home owners seeking refuge from pandemic hot spots were shown a frosty non-welcome by locals. In Margate, a car with Pennsylvania plates was vandalized with spray paint and slashed tires, symbolizing for many how towns they spent their lives returning to had suddenly turned on them.
Those tensions could exacerbate as second-homeowners insist on summer as usual amid widespread economic suffering at the Jersey Shore, where nearly 27,000 casino workers are out of work, and restrictions on businesses will mean continued economic hardship.
Even in towns where beaches remain open, like Margate or Wildwood, prohibitions are currently in place against actually sitting on a beach chair. Those won’t change until the state issues more guidance.
Margate Commissioner John Amodeo said the town will ask for help from state police if it gets wind of any plans by young people to gather on its beaches for Memorial Day weekend, as they have in the past.
Steve & Cookie’s, the popular Margate institution that books its entire summer reservation book in one day in April, posted on Instagram the ritual was on hold. "We do not know when we will be able to open & at what capacity.”
In Cape May, meanwhile, Bashaw sees a return to basic truths about the beach: healing properties of space and salt air. Along with installing a system to keep ventilation systems purified, he has another idea for parts of his historic properties: Open the windows again.