AVALON, N.J. — The crowds are here, and don’t go anywhere. Where else does anyone have to be? They gather on the beaches during the day, come back for twilight, bring their dogs.
Teens gather at night, so much so that Avalon closed its beaches after dark and police warned against “large crowds of minors on the beaches after dark with complete disregard to social distancing, the wearing of masks, and other municipal regulations.”
It’s an unusual summer at the Jersey Shore, to say the least, this summer of the pandemic and George Floyd protests.
Streets are shut down, tents erected, and restaurants shifted to outdoor seating, with varying results.
Houses, meanwhile, are selling fast, up and down the Shore. Fish purveyors are doing brisk business for the cook-at-homers. Amusement parks and motels can open, but can’t find enough staff.
In short: Some are thriving; others struggling.
Trying to carry on as normal
In some ways, the Shore is the place where people are determined to carry on as normal, never mind the occasional pizza parlor shutdown due to positive coronavirus tests, the Monday morning line for coronavirus testing outside the Cape May Court House urgent care, the slightly elevated numbers for nonresidents in Avalon and Sea Isle City.
Masks are rare on the beach, spotty elsewhere, especially in affluent beach towns, where sidewalks are crowded with wine drinkers leaning in to the summer they crave, Range Rovers stuffed into beach-block driveways.
Ice cream parlors turn into the mask-enforcers of their communities, while pizza and sub shop employees get side-eyed and social-media shamed for kitchen mask infractions. Fudge stirrers stare out from above masks and below chef hats in spots by the window. Like a Shore version of the St. Joe’s Hawk, they stir on.
So far, the Jersey Shore has carried on, if a bit wobbly. Almost every day, Gov. Phil Murphy warns that if case numbers go up, things will change. With inside dining on hold for now, and retail constrained, some at the Shore have figured out a way to thrive, while others barely hang on.
As summer inevitably — regrettably — speeds by for businesses and visitors, the effects of the pandemic are becoming clear. Here’s a look:
Restaurants: ‘The shots just keep on coming'
At the Surfing Pig in North Wildwood, owner Bill Bumbernick has rolled with the punches, with large outdoor space on the water and no need, like others, to dress up parking lots.
But still — he can’t find enough people to work.
Staffing shortages are a common complaint this summer, owing to several factors, owners says: no international students on J1 Visas; people collecting unemployment plus $600 who are not tempted, even by promises of overtime; young people who might have taken a summer job they don’t absolutely need but decided (or their moms decided) it wasn’t worth the risk.
Morey’s, the owner of the Amusement Piers and Water Parks in Wildwood who typically rely on international help, has taken a “Help Wanted” billboard on the Atlantic City Expressway.
Meanwhile, the appeal of outdoor dining, even on the water, can be fickle. Between the heat and staffing shortages, Bumbernick shut down breakfast service, then closed altogether one day this week.
“My staff needs a break,” he told people in a Facebook live video. “They’ve been stretched thin to begin with. To throw them in a kitchen tonight when the heat index is 110 degrees is just not how we operate.”
In Ship Bottom, meanwhile, the former Joe Pop’s, a classic Shore bar since the 1930s, is now for sale for $3.495 million.
Real estate: ‘Everything is selling’
But, oh, the real estate market. With interest rates low, and the lure of a second home high, everything is selling within days, in places like Avalon, Stone Harbor, and Margate.
In Sea Isle City, Mayor Len Desiderio says for-sale inventory is nonexistent.
Realtor Ann Delaney says that after a period of uncertainty, it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would create a run on Shore houses, in all price categories.
“The inventory is depleted,” she said. “All price ranges, a lot of high-end, super-high-end, $8- to $10-million properties, but just as common is the $500,000 condo.
“I‘m joking that people are buying quarantine homes,” she said. “It’s not impulsive buys. It’s buyers who have been on the fence, and this was the last nudge to move forward.”
There’s even talk of whether the second-home owners, who arrived in spring, will stay beyond the summer. People say they’re looking for long-term fall rentals. Delaney says she’s heard some summer people were looking into local schools.
School officials in Avalon and Stone Harbor declined to provide information on fall enrollment.
Joe Ferroni, of Chester Springs, who owns a house in Avalon, says he gets approached daily by Realtors asking if he wants to sell. He doesn’t. He spends six months there, and his children and grandchildren are spending more time than ever at Nana and Pop Pops, with no need to leave for work.
He says he feels sorry for renters this year, paying Avalon prices with offerings somewhat limited.
Or, as Bonnie Bloomquist, a Margate summer resident from Chester County, summed up on Facebook: “It’s not as fun as it should be ... or usually is. Ya gotta deal with it.”
Hotels and motels: ‘The island is considerably down’
In the Wildwoods, motel owners waited to open, post Memorial Day, then waited again to open their pools. They are still struggling, says Steve Tecco, president of the Greater Wildwoods Hotel and Motel Association, and owner of Wildwood Crest’s Armada Motel.
Dependent on Canadian business (none this year), on event weekends (canceled), on bars and nightclubs (restricted), and on amusement parks (not fully staffed), the Wildwoods are suffering. “The island is considerably down,” Tecco said.
The impact may be felt long after summer.
“I think people are doing the best they can,” said Mayor Tim Donohue of nearby Middle Township, where in early July, Shore kids were regularly lining up outside urgent care for coronavirus testing, stretching through the Cape May Court House shopping center.
“I think the winter is going to be challenging,” he said. “Every dollar spent here in the wintertime is money that’s generated in the summer.”
Atlantic City: ‘So much more money’
In Atlantic City, meanwhile, developer Pat Fasano says he’s “bringing in so much more money” than in his flagship restaurants in Asbury Park.
Atlantic City never shut its beach or Boardwalk. At his Bourré restaurant on New York Avenue, he has ample outdoor space. Atlantic City has given him permission to expand into a Boardwalk, across from Loteria, his taco place.
Atlantic City’s decision to allow open drinking on the Boardwalk, and on Tennessee, New York, and St. James beach blocks — the “Orange Loop” — has been a boon.
At Girasole on Pacific Avenue, Gino Iovino has created lush outdoor seating, but capacity is down. He can’t accommodate all the people coming from casinos, where options are limited, and is seating as late as 10:30 p.m. “People are anxious to come out,” he said.
The beach itself is ... safe?
Despite all the pictures of crowded beaches, officials believe spikes in Shore coronavirus cases are due to indoor parties and shared houses, not the beach. (And this weekend, officials on Long Beach Island said two dozen lifeguards from Harvey Cedars and Surf City had tested positive after attending a party together.) Cases have been relatively low, as New Jersey overall has trended down this summer.
Since late June, Cape May County has reported 261 “nonresident” cases, 90 of which are active. Avalon has recorded 76 nonresident cases, and Sea Isle 76.
Donohue, the Middle Township mayor, notes that even with the county’s ballooning summer population, cases have not similarly increased. The county has about 900 total cases. Last week, the local hospital reported just two COVID-19 patients, none in ICU.
The beach may give visitors the bit of normalcy they crave, but, says Sea Isle Mayor Desiderio, “most people that I’ve spoken to are just hoping to get to 2021.”