Jane Argento of Pasadena, Calif., planned a week in Cape May in June with 16 members of her extended family, all coming from different states.
Now, balking at the safety or even legality of that arrangement — gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited in New Jersey — she says she can’t get her $8,000 rent refunded.
“We’re strangers as far as this virus is concerned,” Argento said. “I said to my daughter, we might as well be 15 college graduates meeting up. We’re having a house party.”
As the Shore pushes forward with plans for a Gov. Phil Murphy-blessed reopening, and with some towns allowing short-term rentals as early as May 26, and opening up hotels and motels in June, and people are pouring into Shore towns, others who would never have second-guessed a Shore vacation are, let’s say, still debating.
“I think people are scared,” said Kelly Stipa Mull, of Norristown, a Realtor juggling multiple cancellations. She said she has refunded all deposits despite being so far unable to rebook even in typically peak weeks.
Other homeowners are holding onto deposits and rents until they can rebook canceled weeks, or requiring postponements, even until the summer of 2021.
The coronavirus has upended a traditionally robust rental market at the Jersey Shore. While many have already flocked to second homes from hot spot cities, the run-of-the-mill weekly Shore rental market is in flux.
“They’re afraid of a surge down the Shore,” Mull said. She’s sympathetic to those who canceled — a recent bike ride on a packed North Wildwood seawall scared her, too. But she says she needs the $25,000 in rents to pay the mortgages on her two Shore properties. “One person feels they can’t take off now because they just took all this time. But the biggest thing is the fear."
Some teenagers who had booked motels in Wildwood for senior week in May are having trouble getting refunds — even though the motels were not open, according to Mayor Pete Byron, who has been fielding complaints. But others, along with their parents, are wondering if now is the time to reschedule that ancient Jersey Shore rite.
The idea of a large group of unrelated people sharing a Shore house seemed to take Murphy by surprise Friday at his press conference.
“I’ve not been asked the question of the sharing the house,” Murphy said. "But this notion of the bubble and breaking your bubble and going outside of it, if there’s more than 10, that gives me discomfort. Is that a municipal reality?
“As an individual, that gives me concern, I have to say,” Murphy said. He’s not alone.
Some homeowners who would otherwise have rented out their houses for part of the summer are canceling on renters.
Bill Earley, of Merion, who owns a home in Longport, said he decided not to rent it out as he has done in the past.
“My home is not for rent,” he said. “People are saying, should they be renting a house? Why would I want to have anybody in my house? There’s lots of uncertainty.”
“There’s lots of pushing and shoving,” he said, of ongoing discussions about deposits and refunds or changing dates, some of which has spilled over into lengthy Facebook discussions on popular sites like Main Liners Shore House Rentals.
“People are saying, ‘Am I entitled to get my deposit back?’ " Earley said. "The landlord says, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Allan Dechert, of Ferguson Dechert Realty in Avalon, said people have been calling with questions about cancellations. But every day, he said, new calls come in looking for rentals.
“Some tenants are canceling,” said Dechert. “We also have owners who say we don’t want any rentals in our property this summer.”
Argento, of Pasadena, said she found her rental on VRBO but conducted the actual deal privately, which has complicated her attempt to get her $8,000 back. She said she is in continued discussions with the landlord, who did not wish to be interviewed.
“Realistically, we’re not going to go,” Argento said. “This woman knows this. I understand the plight. But we are being penalized for not just protecting our own health but protecting, really, the potential health of Cape May. We’re in L.A. — L.A. is starting to spike. Oregon is starting to respike. Is an extended family a violation of a governor’s executive order?”
Jerrel Harvey, a spokesperson for Murphy, said the executive order would cover gatherings in Shore houses of more than 10 people, but deferred questions about enforcement to the Attorney General.
The legal case for demanding a refund is debatable.
“I don’t know that they would interpret a rental situation of people sharing a house as a gathering in terms of the prohibition on social gathering,” said real estate attorney Bridget A. Sykes of Atlantic City’s Fox Rothschild.
Because short-term rentals will be permitted as of June in most Jersey Shore towns, the argument that you have health concerns may not be enough to get a refund, since you can still legally occupy the rental, she said.
People can try to claim “frustration of purpose,” in that not everything is fully open, and their original vacation plans have been compromised by the pandemic.
“Right now, it’s coming down to what the status of the rental bans are," she said. “The issues coming up with the owners and potential renters having fears about contracting the virus and liability and whether or not they’re going to come.
“A lot of property owners have been trying to determine what their obligations are in making sure properties are properly sanitized,” she said.
Jarred Kessler, CEO of EasyKnock, a firm that buys real estate and leases back to owners, says the high-end second-home market will be fine, especially as people continue to flee cities.
It’s the more middle-class destinations, and investors, that get caught in a squeeze, as money that once would have gone to a week at the Shore is now going for groceries.
Property owners who may be balking at returning deposits may be coping with their own tight circumstances.
“The owners not able to deliver the deposit, they’re very much under water right now," he said. “A lot of people have one or two properties, and that’s how they’re making their living."
Robin Stein Rodin of Newtown Square had a girls’ week planned for nearly a year, but bailed this month. As she saw chatter about the Shore reopening, she wondered, “Am I crazy?”
“We’re talking and debating, will restrictions be lifted, do we feel it’s going to be safe,” she said. “In the very gut, we didn’t. We did make the decision. We got our money back.”
Now, she says, she feels relief. The week she pictured: happy hour, shopping, socializing, would not have materialized anyway. What’s a week in Margate without the bar at Tomatoes? It will be her first summer in years not to go down the Shore.
“It just does seem crazy,” she said. “For me, personally, it’s too much work and too much stress to be in a place and have to do the mask, washing your hands all the time.”
Even with required social distancing, she’s worried about the mob scene that descends on beach towns like Margate, where the usual summer treats like the bagels and whitefish salad at Casel’s Market will have to wait.