OCEAN CITY, N.J. -- Military veteran Francis McCormac survived World War II and the pandemic to wake up one morning this past May to celebrate his 100th birthday — much to his amazement.

“Who would ever think they would live to be 100? I never knew anyone who lived to be 100,” McCormac said, chuckling.

McCormac, who served as a sergeant in the Signal Corps, a branch of the Army responsible for critical communication among troopers, was the honored guest at Saturday’s South Ocean City Bike Parade. McCormac, born in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section in 1921, spent much of the pandemic isolated from people, hunkered down in his Ocean City home.

Under a slate-gray sky and seated shotgun in an orange golf cart, McCormac smiled broadly as throngs of kids, their bikes fluttering with red, white, and blue garlands, fanned out behind him down Central Avenue. Parade onlookers yelled, “Thank you for your service!” Some ran up to shake his hand. The vaccinated McCormac didn’t hesitate to return a firm grip.

“I feel great,” he said. He had no complaints. After more than a year in lockdown, few did at this glorious start to the long holiday weekend at the Jersey Shore.

The bike parade is a July 3rd mainstay here. In 2019, more than 800 participants decorated their bikes, wagons, and strollers with American flags and tinsel stars. They pedaled, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a glittery stream.

It’s tradition for participants to toss candy — Tootsie Rolls, Starbursts, and Dum-Dums lollipops — to parade watchers who line both sides of the street. It’s also tradition to hand out boxes of Cracker Jack at the end. But that year, Sam’s Club didn’t have any in stock, said John Fallon, a parade organizer. This was scandalous at the time.

“People kept asking, `Where are the Cracker Jacks?’” Fallon recalled.

COVID-19 put things in perspective.

Last year on this day, there was no parade for the first time since 1954. The rides on the boardwalk were closed. They opened the next day, July 4, but only at 25% capacity. And there were no fireworks at all, said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We were living in somewhat uncharted waters about how this virus was contagious. Was it spread by touching? It wasn’t just masks. People worried you were going to get it if you touched a ride or if you touched a table,” Gillian said. “It was a challenging year.”

Last year at Tee Time Golf on the boardwalk, the owners installed plastic glass in front of the ticket booth to protect workers. They bought disposable plastic “syringe sleeves” to cover golf club handles. They also purchased a special machine that used heat to “disinfect” money. The three oldest employees, including 70-year-old Vic Rogers, took the season off “for fear of COVID,” said Rogers, a retired teacher from Somers Point.

On Saturday afternoon, the biggest stress for mini-golf enthusiasts seemed to be which color ball to pick. Business was brisk. Rogers said more than 260 people paid $5 to play a round of putt-putt during his five-hour shift Friday.

Tee Time Golf is one of the oldest in Ocean City, serving three generations for 50 years. Tricia Farhat, 63, of Wallingford, Delaware County, went there as a kid each summer. She took her four children there. On Saturday, she was golfing with three of her grandchildren. She avoided the boardwalk last year.

“We’re in a totally different spot this year — all of our attractions are open and our businesses are doing really great,” Gillian said. “I don’t even think rain could curtail all the celebrations and fun things that are gonna happen in Ocean City.”

The Shore town, dubbed “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” sold more than 112,000 seasonal beach tags and brought in a record $2.24 million during the preseason discount period between late November and May 31, according to Ocean City spokesperson Doug Bergen.

“As always, weather will be a big factor, but all indications point to a blockbuster summer,” he said.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who recently lifted all pandemic restrictions in New Jersey, announced on June 18 that the goal of fully vaccinating 4.7 million people who live, work, or study in the state had been met — a milestone reached nearly two weeks before his June 30 target date. By Saturday, that number surged past five million.

Sounding like a boardwalk hawker, Murphy urged residents to step right up and get vaccinated in the weeks leading up to Independence Day. Under his “Vax and Visit” program, New Jersey residents who got their first dose before July 4 would get free access to state parks, including Island Beach State Park. As of July 2, the state had issued 121,474 Vax Passes since May 27, according to Larry Hajna, spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The passes are good through the end of the year.

Since March 2020, more than one million New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 26,000 died, but new cases have dropped dramatically. By comparison, on July 3, 2020, the state logged roughly 400 new coronavirus cases, compared with 223 new positives by midafternoon Saturday, state figures show.

Even so, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli cautioned residents that COVID-19 “is still circulating,” with Delta, a highly contagious variant of coronavirus, posing extra risk to those unvaccinated.

“It is important for people to still take precautions so we can see case numbers go further down,” Persichilli said Wednesday during the state’s most recent coronavirus briefing. She said residents who aren’t immunized should wear masks while indoors.

Then she gave a last bit of advice for staying safe over the holiday weekend: Wear sunscreen and insect repellent, and practice grill safety. Precautions so pre-pandemic, they sounded almost quaint.

Fallon, 85, the parade organizer who moved to Ocean City from Philadelphia in 1986 and “never regretted a day of it,” said he initially feared the parade would be canceled again. The South Ocean City Improvement Association, which puts on the event, had struggled to put it together. The association’s board had dwindled to five members, including Fallon, down from 15. Between the “lack of manpower” and COVID-19, Fallon said he thought that was the end of the popular bike parade.

With the restrictions lifted, the city government stepped in and rescued it. By 10 a.m. Saturday, more than 200 participants were registered. The clouds gave way to sun. People ditched their rain slickers and sweatshirts. There were toothy smiles all around. Barely a mask or hand sanitizer bottle in sight. Kids on bicycles took practice loops in the parking lot near 40th Street and Asbury Avenue. Fallon offered a word of caution: “Watch you don’t get run over by a bike.”

The parade ended at Reese-Hopson Playground on 52nd Street and as kids abandoned bikes and spilled into the playground, organizers offered free bags of Goldfish crackers. No boxes of Cracker Jack. And no one seemed to care.

“Any day is a good day at the Shore,” said Rachel O’Neil, 39, a schoolteacher from Bensalem, whose five children, ages 1½ to 13, participated in the parade. “Now we just appreciate everything. This summer we were like, `Let’s do anything and everything because we can again — right?!”