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The Shore weathered the pandemic, but changed in the process

In many ways, as the world struggled with a pandemic, the Shore shined.

A “photo spot” in Wildwood May 22, 2022.
A “photo spot” in Wildwood May 22, 2022.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The idea of the Shore as a place of escape, of healing, a tonic with an ocean breeze — a very old idea, really — was put to a test the last two years.

Under the stress and restrictions of a pandemic, the Jersey Shore beckoned. People realized what locals have known along: This is a soothing place to hang out, and not just in the summer. You could feel kind of normal, at least once people realized it was OK to open the boardwalks (Atlantic City’s never closed in 2020), and sit together on the beach.

People even looked the other way when others brought their pandemic pups onto the boardwalks.. (Not allowed, I know, but so many dogs!)

At the Shore, it’s easy to settle into a routine, go for a walk, see people outside, feel connected, but still basically hunker down.

For me, the experience of living here year-round for the last quarter-century has been to live with opposites: crazy busy and exposed in the summer, calm and remote in the winter. That it made it both an easy place to ride out a pandemic, but also, especially in 2020, to feel a bit invaded, when second-home owners arrived in droves at unusual times. But there we all were, riding it out in a place that felt mostly OK.

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In many ways, as the world struggled with a pandemic, the Shore shined. The place was packed, with visitation up 24% last year from 2020 at 48.2 million people, and remote workers keeping restaurants and shops busy in the off-season.

People took chances, continued gathering, counted on the salt air and ocean breezes to mitigate any outdoor COVID-19 spread. Merchants who suffered in 2020 with shutdowns were deluged with record sales in 2021. Neighbors scouted out vaccination appointments like they used to game out restaurant openings. The end of the season felt like a race with the Delta surge.

And yet. By the end of last summer, it seemed like everyone was unhappy. Fuses were short. People were impatient. There was so much bickering online that Facebook groups were shut down. Many shop and restaurants owners chafed at their newly short-tempered clientele. Large crowds of teens gathered on beaches at night, and police departments struggled with how, or even whether, to contain them.

Changing rhythms of off and on season

With so many more people down at all times of the year and real estate surging, some neighborhoods were feeling newly upscale, and Airbnbs brought in newcomers to old Shore towns.

That sense of ownership people feel down the Shore — my town, my beach, my block, my Shore house — gave way to a sense of vulnerability. Were the locals on the defensive now, instead of the summer people? If you’re ordering dumplings in February in a beach town, are you really just a Shoobie?

People more and more marked beach turf with flags, a good way to keep people distanced, but also, in some instances, to profanely state opposition to the President. A group of beachgoers showed up in Ventnor with their Proud Boys flag planted in the sand.

But mostly, the Shore was that tonic, albeit a bit shaken. People arrived, feeling like they’d left something worse behind.

“I definitely think the Shore certainly escaped the most restrictive sort of attitudes and mentality of COVID,” said Patrick Rosenello, the mayor of North Wildwood and an investor in several Shore restaurants. “Even at the beginning, it was an escape. We were very lucky. The wake caused by the COVID ship — we’re still feeling the wake. We’re still feeling hit by the wake.”

Rosenello, like many, is approaching the 2022 season with uncertainty. In his town, a pre-season storm that behaved more like a winter storm knocked out a third of the town’s beach replenishment supply. Several beaches won’t be ready in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s certainly another unsettled summer,” said Rosenello.

This spring, even with some epic stretches of bad weather, and yet another COVID surge in the air — everywhere you turned, people were testing positive, remember that when you hit your favorite Shore town market without a mask — people were still out there, making the place feel the way it usually does, and should.

There were the old guys sitting on their usual benches, the Pennsylvania plates, the mustachioed runner I’ve passed on the boardwalk since the mid-1990s. It still amazes me how I see the same people over and over again, in the same places. We all fall into the same rhythms, see that glimpse of sun, and find each other. Some of us feel the need to touch every bench on our daily power walks, others are a bit more go with the flow.

The Memorial Day weekend beckoned after a chilly May, but sure enough, with a wink, it was a week ahead of schedule. The season suddenly turned into summer, and the beaches were packed.

Off the beach, there were breakthroughs. After seeing us embark on bikes for an impromptu trip to the Boardwalk Biergarten in Atlantic City with the new across-the-street neighbors, my longtime next-door neighbor was impressed. “I didn’t know the people from that side of the street were socializing with the people on this side of the street,” he deadpanned.

Anything is possible now.