WILDWOOD — If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
Freed of stifling pandemic restrictions on capacity and behavior, Jersey Shore merchants and visitors contended this year with an old Memorial Day Weekend nemesis: really terrible weather.
It was about the worst holiday washout in recent memory, as a rainy, windy nor’easter kept people off beaches and boardwalks for the traditional start of summer for most of the weekend. Monday’s intermittent sunshine and higher temperatures at least passed for a beach day.
“The weather’s cutting business in half,” said Jaz Christian, an employee at a T-shirt shop on the boardwalk in Wildwood.
Looked at another way, though, the lifting of indoor coronavirus limits couldn’t have come at a better time for indoor venues. Shore bars and clubs whose insides were basically empty of partiers last year, iconic places such as Memories, Maynard’s and Tomatoes in Margate, and the Ocean Drive in Sea Isle, were packed all weekend long.
The scenes of unmasked crowds inside bars and clubs that last year would have prompted a state police inquiry and some shaming at a news conference by Gov. Phil Murphy, this year were a reassuring sign of a rebounding Shore economy.
The sun finally made an appearance Monday midmorning, in time to cast its warming glare on old Wildwood rituals such as the playing of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America,” and giving weekend warriors such as Pat and Michael Jones of Tarrytown, N.Y., an opportunity for a walk on an increasingly crowded boardwalk before hitting the road back home.
Pat, a nurse, was still cautious about coronavirus protocols, but glad to be back in Wildwood, a place the couple came with their children for years. This time, they just brought along a small heater for their hotel room. “We needed a quiet weekend away,” she said.
Likewise, for visitors such as Karina Farrington, a certified nurse assistant from Bethlehem who never made it down the Shore last year due to the demands of her job amid the pandemic, the weather was beside the point.
“It’s cold, but they love it,” Farrington said as she cooked bacon, eggs, and potatoes on the grills beside the pool at the Caprice Inn in Wildwood, as sons Aiden, 11, and Erik, 7, swam in a chilly motel pool (which this time in 2020 was still off-limits). From the second floor, other guests stuck their heads out of rooms and wondered why nobody in their own family was cooking them breakfast.
She and her husband, Chester, were married in Cape May, and their oldest son, Chester, 13, learned to walk on the beaches of Wildwood. Every year, they try to return for her son’s birthday, which was Saturday.
“We love it so much,” Farrington said. “Everybody seems a little bit happy they lifted COVID restrictions.”
In Sea Isle City, Jacqueline Griffin was relishing her time on the beach Monday, never mind that she was bundled up in a sweatshirt. The sun felt good, finally.
“I’m just happy to be here,” she said, using a purple shovel to write her granddaughter’s name in the sand while the little girl danced around her.
Griffin and her husband, Jake, who live in Roxborough but have spent 30 summers coming to Sea Isle, said they were gratified to see people in shops, walking down streets. There was a sense of returning normalcy.
“Masks are off and more people are comfortable,” Jake Griffin said. “It’s not over, but we’re in the top of the eighth.”
As the beach filled up with people lugging carts full of sand toys and chairs, even dipping toes tentatively into the chilly surf, Jake Griffin smiled. “This is what it’s all about,” he said.
By midday, the Ocean City boardwalk was hopping, with day-trippers, locals, and weekenders taking advantage of rising temperatures and clear skies.
Scott and Amy Braidwood of Mullica Hill skipped most of the weekend at the Shore but drove down Monday morning for breakfast and a long day in beach chairs parked by the ocean before driving home to work and reality Tuesday.
“We’ll be here all day,” Scott Braidwood said. “We’ve got to squeeze in one day.”
The beach wasn’t quite peak-summer packed, but crowded enough to hear your neighbor’s conversation on the beach at Fourth Street, where Eileen Saam, who drove from her home near Scranton, watched her two toddler daughters run in and out of the waves.
“This is the perfect weather,” said Saam, who said she would tire the kids out in the ocean and then hit the road for the long drive home.
In Stone Harbor, Ryan Collins and Heather Yoder of Bethlehem sat on the beach with their two children and three of their cousins, a long-standing extended family ritual they were glad to take on. They declared Monday an actual beach day.
“It’s close enough,” Collins said.
At Beachy Keen, a shop at 46th and Landis in Sea Isle, business was steady all weekend, mostly customers seeking out warm hoodies and sweatpants. The tide turned on Monday, with customers seeking out beach chairs.
“The weekend wasn’t what we expected, but it was really OK,” owner Christen Sorenson said.
It’s been a profoundly strange stretch for Sorenson and many merchants. Last Memorial Day, the shop was shuttered; COVID-19 kept the store closed until mid-June. But then “we were busy for the rest of the season,” she said. “We had a lot of year-round business that we don’t normally have.”
At midday, no one in the shop wore masks, and Sorenson said she was going to keep her stock of masks to sell, but probably put them in the back of the store.
At the Well Dressed Olive in Stone Harbor, owner Jane Dawley was leaving behind 2020′s curbside delivery. The man who used to deliver breadsticks never resurfaced, though. The lifting of the mask mandate, she said, “is important to people.”
“It’s been really fun to welcome them back,” Dawley said.
Some coronavirus habits have proven tough to break, said Olivia Patras, manager at the Marvis Diner on Rio Grande Avenue in Wildwood. She said people were still stuck on ordering takeout from delivery services. The popular diner was only about half-full Monday morning.
“I think it’s leftover from the coronavirus thing,” she said. “People got used to takeout and ordering online. A lot of young people would prefer to stay home when the weather is bad. There’s no excuse to get up early.”
Nazira Harrell, 16, and Kamil Moore, 18, of Ewing, N.J., were among many teenagers in Wildwood for a post-prom weekend. Nazira was wrapped in a blanket in her booth at the Marvis Diner, still cold from the wet weekend. “We haven’t been able to do what we wanted to,” she said. “The boardwalk was freezing.”
Still, by midmorning Monday the sun actually made an appearance, and some intrepid day-trippers were heading to the beach in Wildwood, while weekenders packed up their trunks in motel parking lots.
Gerald Burda, of Macungie, Pa., a retired hospital corpsman with the Navy, brought his new family to see the ocean for the first time Monday, in a toss-up between the Jersey Shore and Washington that the Shore won.
Wearing Phillies hats, his wife, Trang, and sons Bao Nguyen, 17, and Long Nguyen, 9, packed balls and bats and got a prime parking spot by the boardwalk. Trang, Bao, and Long had just arrived in the United States from Vietnam in January.
They stopped at the Pink Cadillac for breakfast, and took in the ocean, across a wide beach with a massive roller coaster, a kite festival a few blocks away. “It’s much better” than he imagined, Bao said.
On the boardwalk, Olympic Flame diner owner Tony Papageorgiou was complaining about the weather and the lack of help. The diner was doing counter service for orders, without any waitstaff for inside seating. Tony was trying to make the case that his potential help was “laying there with everyone on the beach.”
“This is rare where it’s a total washout,” son John Papageorgiou said. “But last weekend, we made up for it.”
Jamie Rago and Devon Shimko drove from Pottsville, Pa., without any traffic on Memorial Day, and planned on a beach day. “I heard the sun was going to come out,” Rago said. And that was enough, especially this year, to head down the Shore.