In any other summer, what happened in Wildwood on Sunday wouldn’t have seemed all that remarkable.
A blue-and-yellow tram car trundled over knotty boardwalk planks, hauling passengers who looked grateful to be off their feet. People strapped beach chairs across their backs and made a long, long, long trek across the sand, toward the faint outline of the ocean. Kids ran screaming through arcades, and strangers sat next to each other in restaurants, lost in conversation.
This has always been part of the Shore’s lure, the promise of finding familiar scenes, of being able to retrace your childhood footsteps, and your parents’ and grandparents’, too.
Predictability isn’t usually exciting. But there was a palpable sense of joy and relief to these little moments during the holiday weekend, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shredded our sense of normalcy, and claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.
“It’s like day and night,” said Pete Byron, Wildwood’s mayor. “Last summer, everybody had to wear the mask. You couldn’t eat inside. This summer, it’s pretty much back to normal.”
Although only small handfuls of people could still be spotted wearing masks as they strolled along the boardwalk — New Jersey lifted its indoor mask mandate in May — the pandemic wasn’t far from anyone’s thoughts.
The virus, of course, isn’t gone. Dangerous variants continue to circulate, and the country fell short of President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated by July 4.
“If you haven’t gotten vaccinated,” Biden tweeted Sunday night, “please do it now. It’s the most patriotic thing you can do.”
Signs on one small arcade invited passersby to “Pound the Coronavirus” — in this case, a red punching bag that measured a puncher’s might. Joe McKee, of Philadelphia, stepped up to the attraction, loosened his shoulders, and buried his right fist into the bag.
“I had [the virus] two months ago,” the 17-year-old said. “I didn’t get really sick. I just lost my sense of smell. But my whole family got it.”
James Beck and his wife, Shirley, said the coronavirus didn’t stop them from visiting Wildwood last summer; they’ve been regular visitors for 53 years.
They continue to carry masks with them, in case they ventured into spaces that grew too crowded, but were happy to focus more on being able to take their five great-grandchildren on boardwalk trips.
“I still go on the carousel with the little ones,” Shirley Beck said. “But, mostly, we point [at other rides] and say, ‘See? Pop and I used to do that.’”
“Now we don’t,” James said, “because look at those lines!”
As a steady breeze blew across the boardwalk, Mike O’Neill made his way off the beach with his wife, Heather, and their kids Abigail, 5, and Michael, 8, having already logged several hours under the sun. The family made a day trip from Levittown.
“It really takes me back to being a kid again,” said O’Neill, 48, whose childhood summers were spent in Wildwood.
While his daughter announced some activities she hoped would follow — lunch, then maybe some rides? — O’Neill reminisced about boardwalk landmarks that have long since disappeared: the Haunted House on Morey’s Pier, and Midway Pier’s imposing Castle Dracula, which was destroyed in a 2002 arson.
The landscape continues to change. A Stewart’s Root Beer shop on the boardwalk that was driven out of business by the pandemic is now Papi’s Tacos.
“We were hit pretty hard last year. People weren’t allowed to sit inside,” said Tyler Dougherty, 18, a manager at Papi’s. “Now, business is pretty steady. It feels good, but it’s exhausting.”
The pandemic, Byron said, had been kinder to restaurants that were always takeout-only establishments. Now that the indoor crowds have returned, some are struggling to hire kitchen staff.
There appeared to be no shortage of help inside Sam’s Pizza Palace. The landmark shop had a steady stream of walk-up customers at lunchtime, and workers were counting down the hours to 5 p.m., when its aqua-and-orange dining room typically fills to capacity.
“It’s good to see all of our regular customers again,” said Anthony Zuccarello, whose father-in-law, Sam Spera — the shop’s founder and namesake — died in March. “We were a little concerned last year, when we were just limited to takeout.”
Late in the afternoon, Daniel Araujo wore the face of a happily worn-out father as he led his daughters Gabriella, 12; Eliana, 11; and Ty-Ty, 5, up a wooden staircase that connected the beach to the boardwalk.
They’d left their home in the Bronx, N.Y., days earlier, to spend the holiday weekend at the Shore.
“We’ve done everything,” Araujo, 58, said with a laugh. “The beach, the water park, rides. I just want a cold beer and a hot dog.”
It wasn’t much to ask for, not really. But then simple pleasures now seem so much sweeter.