A week before Memorial Day, Reza Kahn wrestled a heavy rack of Atlantic City tourist T-shirts to the front of his Boardwalk shop and faced down an old nemesis, something no amount of hand sanitizer could fix: the weather.
“Pray to whatever deity you subscribe to for nice weather,” said Kahn, who’s been selling T-shirts, sunscreen, and towels to tourists for decades.
Miracles would help for this weekend’s forecast — cloudy and cool — but many business owners are still confident that summer will be a jackpot, a welcome rebound from last year’s disjointed season, where some businesses catering to outdoor activities, like bait and tackle shops and bicycle rentals, prospered, while others, like restaurants that couldn’t implement takeout or outdoor dining, suffered. At My Friends Diner on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, manager Sargis Ghalechyan said the restaurant’s small takeout window was its salvation last summer.
“We were closed about four months and we didn’t reopen until June 10,” he said Monday. “That takeout line often stretched clear across the Boardwalk from people on the beach. We survived and we’re here now.”
Last year, the Lazy Bass Bar & Grill along the intercoastal waterway in Middle Township had its grand opening on June 26. It’s mostly an outdoor venue and owner Terri Hand said it will stay that way for now.
“People have cabin fever and I think they’ll be down here regardless of the weather,” Hand said.
Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist retired from the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, Burlington County, said he always understood how critical forecasts were for tourists and the industries that cater to them.
“But that never affected how the job was done,” he said.
Szatkowski said the Shore has its own unique climate, often cooler than Philadelphia or even towns on the mainland because of winds pushing off the ocean. In July, that feels like a relief, but during Memorial Day, it can make a cool day colder.
“For this weekend, my advice would be to skip the sunscreen and bring a sweater,” he said.
Another timeless worry — finding employees — appears to be particularly difficult this year. “Help Wanted” signs were plastered up and down the coast, in pizza shop windows and on billboards along the marshes into Shore towns and outside the McDonald’s in Ocean City, where pay started at $13 an hour.
Earlier this month, The Inquirer reported that Wildwood’s Morey’s Piers had a backlog of 560 international students waiting to get their J1 Visas processed to staff its amusements. Kahn said he can’t find workers for his store and may be pulling 15-hour days.
“I’ll be here all by myself,” he said. “It’s a long day.”
Kahn said gamblers aren’t necessarily his customers, but for Saqlain Shah, who pushes one of the Boardwalk’s iconic rolling chairs, the three months casinos were closed last year were difficult for every pusher.
“June, July, and August are really good months,” Shah said. “Last year, I only worked July, but I was a little scared, too.”
On Ocean City’s boardwalk, Bill Westerman pried open a large cardboard box taller than him, revealing one piece of a stainless steel walk-in freezer. Westerman is opening a small shop that sells boardwalk staples, like lemonade, funnel cakes, and french fries, though he’s not sure he’ll be open before the curtain rises on the season on Memorial Day.
He said that vacationing at the Jersey Shore isn’t a fad, that the rebound is inevitable.
“It’s going to be a great summer,” he said. “There was a lot of stress last summer.”
Westerman lamented the effect a bad weather forecast can have on a Shore weekend.
“The forecast could say it’s supposed to be cloudy here and it could be sunny and beautiful,” he said. “People plan their weekends off that.”
Szatkowski said there are some Jersey Shore weather myths, like a “bubble” that blocks storms from rolling in or that patterns move quicker there, from cloudy to sunny in a matter of minutes. But forecasts, he noted, are more accurate than ever.
“Cool and cloudy is pretty typical for this time of year,” Szatkowski said.
Even when pandemics and employees are squared away and the weather’s perfect, running a Jersey Shore business is always a game of chance. In January, an electrical fire damaged a portion of Playland’s Castaway Cove in Ocean City, making a difficult year worse. At the boardwalk amusement park Monday, workers were still repairing and rebuilding areas damaged by the fire. Vice president Brian Hartley said nearly every ride would be open for Memorial Day weekend, though, with no limits on social distancing.
“We’re still trying to get stuff done. In a normal year, we’d just be fine-tuning,” Hartley said. “If the last few weekends are any indicator, it’s going to be a great summer. As for this weekend, we’ll see. The forecast is kind of shaky.”