AVALON, N.J. — The lifeguards at the Avalon Beach Patrol were picking up their equipment from headquarters earlier this week so they could go straight to assigned beaches on Saturday, skipping the traditional roll call with the big group.
There will be other changes as well, said Lt. Erich Wolf, son of Avalon’s legendary Beach Patrol Capt. Murray Wolf, 81, who, yes, is back again for another season — his 65th — a ski buff pulled up over his mouth and nose the other day. (Some things never change.)
Avalon will post one guard per stand, with the partner either in a boat or roaming the beach. Masks will be worn during activities that put lifeguards in close proximity, like carrying boats and moving stands.
As to protocols when people need rescuing in the ocean, where masks will be of little use, the guards said they would undoubtedly come in contact with people.
“That’s the role we have to take,” said Luke Pellucci.
“We’re built different,” assured Gunnar Bogo.
“We’re really just trying to get back on the beach,” Pellucci said.
So, it seems, is all of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.
With nonessential travel bans somewhat paradoxically still in place, the Jersey Shore will usher in its traditional unofficial start of summer this weekend, with the repeated blessing of Gov. Phil Murphy, undeterred by reports of crowded boardwalks last weekend.
Not everybody is on board. In some Shore towns, officials envisioned a gradual ramp up in June, only to have Murphy spring Memorial Day weekend on them. Others, particularly in Cape May County, were itching for floodgates to be opened.
With a typical iffy weather forecast and a chilly ocean, Memorial Day weekend will have a familiar feel. Short-term rentals won’t start until after the holiday at the earliest. But things will look different, as beach towns and beach patrols try to adapt their raucous cultures to a time of caution, their compressed economic metabolisms to a still-mostly-restricted retail and restaurant scene.
Here’s some of what to expect:
Frank Rizzo on a horse on the beach with a nightstick?
Social distancing on a crowded beach has its skeptics.
“It’s never going to happen,” said Ventnor Fire Chief Michael Cahill, a veteran beach-goer and father of four who says he personally will skip the beach scene this year.
As fire chief, Cahill will station two fully geared EMTs on the beach to take over from the lifeguards once they get people in need of rescue back on shore.
“As soon as it gets crowded, it’ll be like Fourth of July every day because there’s nothing else for anybody to do," Cahill said. “Their little clans or herds will get together. When you try to tell them you need to social-distance, are you going to be like Frank Rizzo and ride a horse down the beach and swing a nightstick? Or leave it up to the individual?”
Police in some Shore towns have tended toward heavy-handedness when the issue at hand was just alleged MDW underage drinking (see: then-20-year-old Emily Weinman and the Wildwood police; suburban teens being thrown into the sand by Margate police on a crowded beach; also: Club Wa).
But most towns say they will rely on education, signage, personal responsibility, and gentle suggestion by police, ambassadors, and beach-tag checkers to keep crowds spaced out. Some towns will space lifeguards out to allow swimming in more spots to further spread people out.
Capt. Wolf, when pressed, suggests that the notoriously short-leashed Avalon lifeguards may be more proactive than usual and not let people in much deeper than waist high. Like many towns, Avalon has EMTs already on its beach patrol, who will respond to rescues, but the goal is to prevent the need for rescues in the first place, he said.
While towns won’t be selling daily beach tags, none have yet put limits on the sales of seasonal passes, which towns rely on for revenue.
“Our beach-badge people will be out there,” said Sea Isle City Police Chief Tom McQuillen. “When we reach a certain capacity, there may come a time when they may advise people the beach is pretty full, why don’t you head to another beach. There may come a time when you close off access.”
Drinking will be weird
Just in the nick of time, New Jersey OK’ed to-go cocktails. This plays nicely into the hands of places like the Atlantic City Biergarten, which has already been dishing out beer and takeout to a friendly crowd that just migrates to regular Boardwalk benches. Social-distance minders have mostly looked the other way, though some benches have been blocked off with police tape.
At Atlantic City’s Back Bay Ale House, there’s a sunset view of boats and a parking lot for tailgating.
The absurdity of not allowing a limited amount of people into the outside seating areas of places like the Biergarten, right there on the Boardwalk, where tables could be distanced, or just removed, seems clear. But even though Atlantic City has toyed with allowing open containers on the Boardwalk, it is still not technically allowed.
In North Wildwood, however, the town council voted this week to relax open-container laws in reaction to the to-go cocktail law that had people drinking their way through the Shore town anyway.
Mayor Patrick Rosenello said the town will now allow people to get their drinks to-go and drink them in the area of the bars and restaurants, with tables and chairs now allowed in public rights-of-way. He wants his police officers dispersing crowds, not ticketing Vodka Red Bulls in the wild.
In Sea Isle City, they are taking the opposite approach: Additional rules about the to-go alcohol, including requiring it be carried in brown bags marked as alcohol, said McQuillen.
“We choose to maintain whatever sense of order we can,” said McQuillen. “Even with drinks to-go. We don’t want it to turn into an overgrown outdoor walking bar.”
In any case, in anticipation of Murphy’s loosening restrictions on outside dining sooner than later, Margate, among others towns, is looking to expand outside footprints and allow restaurants to use parking lots and sidewalks for tables.
That requires relaxing zoning laws and tweaks to liquor licenses, said Margate Commissioner John Amodeo. He’s also hoping for relaxed rules for nonessential retail, now limited to curbside pickup. Shops, he said, are barely hanging on.
Trash, curbside fudge, and lines
Rosenello, of North Wildwood, said the inability of restaurants to open for on-premises dining has contributed to long lines and overflowing trash cans throughout the town. There are 10,000 restaurant seats in the Wildwoods that now are off-limits, he said.
“People are getting takeout,” he said. “They’re tailgating. They’re congregating. And then the trash. We don’t have enough trash cans in the city of North Wildwood to handle the volume of trash that is now not going through the restaurants.”
At the Surfing Pig in North Wildwood (“where Chum Bucket Bloody Mary’s are making a comeback”), owner Bill Bumbernick is trying to get permission to use a second-floor deck to eventually expand outside seating, but warned customers that wait times might be long this unusual Memorial Day weekend.
“There’s going to be challenges,” he said. “We’re built to service people in seats, not to service people on streets."
The truth is, this year, the summer people went down the Shore long before Memorial Day.
“Our second home owners came down with the kids when Jersey shut down the schools,” said McQuillen, the Sea Isle chief. “We’re just trying to get through it and get through it together.”