WILDWOOD CREST — Pat Visalli paced the patio near the pool of his Fleur de Lis Beach Resort with a cigarette, sunglasses, coffee, mask on, mask off, fog rolling in, fog lifting. At this rate, his white Nike tennis shoes will be worn down by the Fourth of July.
The summer season had (un)officially begun, his 26th since he bought this Jersey Shore beachfront classic in 1994, and he had just one room rented, and even that was lucky. Cape May County had lifted the ban on short-term rentals the night before, and now Visalli could only hope people would start to return.
The pool was filled, it looked beautiful. But nobody was allowed to swim.
Around him, cleaning women in Fleur de Lis masks and headbands busily prepared rooms. The ultraviolet device for disinfecting was in the office behind the front desk, along with the yellow safety goggles. Rooms would be disinfected with electrolytic spraying.
Visalli is not ready to be optimistic. He needs the rooms to be filled, the visitors to return, the cascade of cancellations to uncancel. His optimism, like Gov. Phil Murphy’s torturous drip-drip-drip of reopening news, will be data-driven, Visalli joked. Grimly.
“I hope they do,” he said. “But I don’t know. The governor says you can’t go in the pool.”
The governor may be a former Goldman Sachs executive, Visalli said, echoing the frustration heard all along the Shore, “but the guy knows nothing about business."
The coronavirus has turned even the most confident of Shore towns into their own version of Atlantic City in its down-on-its-luck days, with no sure business model, an uneasy customer base, and business owners railing against politicians over whom they have little sway.
“It’s a tough nut,” said Visalli. “We’ve been spit-shining and doing everything we can to provide a safe environment."
One owner tried to open his Mango and Blue Diamond motels anyway over Memorial Day weekend, before they were permitted, but he ended up being fined and charged with a disorderly persons offense.
At the Mango this week, a worker grilled some ribs on a deck barbecue, and owner Frank Mangini, who earlier told NJ.com he hadn’t taken the prohibition seriously enough, declined further comment.
Over at the Daytona Inn & Suites, formerly the Pulaski, things were slightly better. About 12 rooms of the 55-room property were occupied, said owner John Donio, renting for about $71 a night. The motels are allowed 60% occupancy until June 22, when they can fully open.
The pool was empty, to save electrical costs. But the deck chairs had been reconfigured to allow for eventual social distancing and a reservation system.
The iconic motels of this kitchy island, still sort of hanging on to its Doo-wop Revival theme as younger entrepreneurs try to wrench it into a craft beer present, are in theory well positioned for a summer emerging from coronavirus shutdowns.
With outdoor corridors, and rooms that open up to the street, a guest can avoid inside contact. Donio said the rooms will be cleaned, disinfected with fog emitters and the like, and then sealed for the guests. But he also is waiting for reservations to recover. They vanished beginning in mid-March, he said.
“Hygiene is the new luxury,” said Donio, head of the Wildwood Business Improvement District. “It’s the biggest amenity you can have.”
A June’s worth of events — Carrie Underwood, a soccer tournament, American Legion and other conventions — were also canceled.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “It’s definitely better than it was a month or two months ago as far as reservations. They fell off a cliff in the middle of March completely.”
Donio and his staff will be wearing Daytona-branded masks. “We’re trying to make it fun," he said. “We’re not running a hospital."
He said restaurants and bars are desperate for the governor to allow outside seating. The frustration level along the entire Shore, where the sands are slipping through the hourglass of their season, is extremely high.
For all the ballyhoo of Murphy “reopening” the Jersey Shore over Memorial Day, without hotels and motels, and with restaurants limited to takeout, it was of little help to small businesses. An old nemesis, the weather forecast, also made for a difficult weekend.
Some restaurants reported that business was just 10% of last year’s Memorial Day weekend, said North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello. He and Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron, and business owners like Cape May County Democratic Chairman Brendan Sciarra, have been calling on Murphy to loosen restrictions.
“When we talk about mom-and-pop, these are literally mom-and-pop restaurants and bars that are run by owners," Donio said.
(The island’s iconic boardwalk T-shirt shops and restaurants were doing their best to approximate the Wildwood spirit. “Our guacamole is essential,” the Wild Burrito insisted cheekily in a curbside sign. “2020 Sucks” and “Straight Outta Quarantine” blared T-shirts in a boardwalk shop, where a chain barred entry.)
But for those who made the trip to Wildwood, who went online and found lots of rooms at decent prices with ramped-up cleaning and disinfecting, and hand sanitizer wherever you look, a good time could still be had, they said.
Adam Entrican, 27, and Vicky Troendle, 25, employees at a Home Depot store in South Philadelphia, were the first to check in at the Riviera Resort & Suites in Wildwood, on Tuesday. They had made a reservation at another motel, in Wildwood Crest, but found it closed.
“We’re essential workers and needed a little vacation,” Entrican said. "We haven’t had a day off since this all started. We needed to get out.
“It’s strange,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling being down here with the boardwalk being crowded. It’s also a little nerve-wracking being away from home, like, was it a good idea?”
“For my mental health, it was,” he said. “It’s nice to get out of the city.”
Hazel Raboczi, 19, came down from the Philly suburbs with two friends to stay at the Waves Hotel. “Just for the night," she said. "It was really nice.”
“It was definitely quieter,” said her friend Kayla Young, who grew up going to Wildwood. “Seems like they’re doing a good job with precautions.”
For Christina Girard of Carlisle, Pa., and her three children, Nevaeh, 8, Everly, 2, and Nehemiah, 5 months, who checked in to the Caprice Motel, with its fake palms and nautical blue trim, a little afternoon sunshine, a boogie board, and pink bathing suits was all they needed.
A long block’s walk to the ocean would suit them fine. Girard is a day-care worker and returns to work Monday. “It’s a little different than before,” she said.
Rashaad Rand, 21, of Cherry Hill, gave his trip to Wildwood decent reviews. “We just decided to come down,” said Rand, a musician who goes by Shaad318, as he and three friends prepared to drive away from the Waves, the town’s first new hotel in 45 years.
He said the experience was in some ways no different than other times: “Boardwalk, beach, talking to females.”
From the back seat, a friend said about the coronavirus, “That’s got nothing to do with us.”