SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. — Milissa Walters knew things were shifting this summer when people started buying dresses again, not just sweatshirts and pants. Walters, owner of the Kiwi Boutique on Pleasure Avenue, put away the cloth masks and stocked up on wedding and party attire. Customers poured in, ready to spend.
“This season’s been off the hook,” she said.
Two weeks ago, following reports of the delta variant in the news, Walters posted a sign on her door: “Masks encouraged.” Out came the cloth masks for sale again, some printed with colorful patterns like the ocean. She said those are flying off the shelves.
“I feel like there was a moment when everything went back to the way it used to be,” she said of that early-summer window. “Everybody just wanted to be normal.”
As New Jersey’s season drew to its traditional close on Labor Day, business owners and visitors of Sea Isle City agreed that this year felt much closer to what life down the shore was like before summer 2020, when the coronavirus was raging, the state’s restaurants were operating under public health restrictions, and vaccines were nowhere on the horizon.
But at the end of the second summer of the pandemic, pain lingers. “Help Wanted” signs were posted in the windows of most ice cream parlors and restaurants, and locals said many establishments closed early for the year or cut hours because of staffing shortages. After months during which COVID-19 seemed to somewhat recede from public view, the delta variant has driven up case numbers and hospitalizations just as children are returning to school. Anxiety and frustration are creeping back in.
Michelle Brown, who works as a critical care nurse in Philadelphia, was in Sea Isle on a beach vacation with friend Sherri Kettyle and their families. On Monday they sat on a bench on the sunny promenade, watching the waves and waiting for their husbands and children.
“This is my way to re-energize myself for the surge this fall,” Brown said. “Personally, I am worried about it. Things definitely died down a little; we all felt that breath of relief. But in health care, that also makes you worry that people are going to let their guards down.”
The two said they had looked forward to the vacation for months, blissful downtime spent in a rental just a block from the beach.
“It’s been a rough year, so we’re splurging,” Kettyle said.
At Angelo’s Pizza and Restaurant, a landmark in the heart of the downtown for 40 years, manager Crissy Donohue said more locals have been using their summer homes over the last 18 months, which has meant less tourist business. Finding staff has been so challenging that she said they were closing for the season after Monday, instead of staying open through September or longer.
“It’s been a long, long, long summer,” she said as she rolled pepperoni and cheese into strombolis. “Business was better than last year, but it’s not like it’s been in years past.”
Charles Dalrymple, who owns Dalrymple’s Card & Gift Shoppe just off the promenade with his wife, Barbara, said the store was fortunate to have staff who return each year, as well as loyal customers who go out of their way to buy magazines, books, gifts, toys, and sweatshirts at the shop even during the off-season. Business has been “glorious” all summer, he said.
But he’s worried about the fall, and about what variants might come after delta.
“I worry about my kids most of all,” he said. “They’re all healthy, but in some cases, it looks like that doesn’t matter.”
Dalrymple said the pandemic has changed the way he looks at his store when it’s crowded with people, a sight that once would have made him feel only joy.
“Now, I look at a packed store, and you can’t help but wonder,” he said. “You hope everyone is still taking care of themselves, being safe.”