Under a cloudy sky, vacationers wheeled down Ocean City’s boardwalk on beach cruisers Monday afternoon, past the amusement rides locked behind security gates and signs warning patrons to “be kind,” don masks, and wash their hands.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and continued fears of the virus’ spread, the crowds on the traditional first day of the summer season were smaller, and a bit subdued. But there was a determined line of patrons outside Manco & Manco’s pizza shop, a handful of souvenir stores selling T-shirts curbside, and families lining the beach — mostly keeping at least 6 feet away from one another, though hardly anyone wore a mask.
Several beachgoers said they were taking more precautions than usual, adding masks and hand sanitizer to their beach bags. This weekend was the first time beaches had opened since New Jersey eased restrictions it had put in place to reduce the spread of the virus.
“We have extra wipes, hand sanitizer, and face masks, and we’re definitely keeping our distance,” said Elizabeth Martinez, of Millville, N.J., sitting on the beach with a few friends.
Jessica and Steven Schaller, of Downingtown, traveled to their home in Ocean City this weekend but were concerned about avoiding crowds. “We were worried — we figured we would come down and see how crowded it was. If it was too crowded, we probably would have headed back home,” Jessica Schaller said.
But they’d been pleased to see that their neighbors at the Shore had been making efforts to keep their distance from one another.
Others on the beach said they had brought sanitizing supplies and face masks even as their frustration grew over lockdown measures to contain the virus, and the political fight that’s ensued over reopening the economy. “The Democrats are trying to keep [the lockdown] going,” said Paul Miller, of Philadelphia. But he said he was still wearing his mask into stores, and thought it was too soon to be reopening major gathering places like stadiums and movie theaters: “You don’t want to spread it as much.”
For businesses at the Shore, the weekend had been unlike any other. Restaurants on Ocean City’s boardwalk were allowed to open for takeout only. Shops on the boardwalk were cleared to sell items curbside, but couldn’t allow anyone into the store itself so they set out tables full of T-shirts, sunglasses, and hermit crabs, with employees at the ready to grab customers’ sizes from the back.
Gabrielle Laboy, a 17-year-old from Galloway, N.J., started her first summer job on the boardwalk just this week, at the T-shirt store Jilly’s. She was taking orders from behind a folding table — and a cloth mask, while trying to wash her hands often and not touch customers as she handed over T-shirts.
“I was really nervous we wouldn’t open, but we had a plan set forward for whatever quarantine brought,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun, a little bit busy, but we like busy. Everyone is going stir-crazy.”
Down the boardwalk, Don Milora, who has owned the souvenir shop By The Sea for more than 25 years, said he had made about 30% of the profits he’d see on a normal Memorial Day.
“Seasonal businesses at the beach — we have essentially a 100-day season,” he said. “And to lose a weekend. …” He was frustrated, he said, that big-box stores like Walmart and Target had been able to remain open but that small businesses like his had been hit hard by closures. “We did what they asked us to” by closing shop at the height of the pandemic, he said. “And now they keep moving the finish line on us."
Behind him, over the boardwalk loudspeakers, a voice reminded vacationers to practice social distancing. Beachgoers squirted hand sanitizer from the dispensers that were affixed to the boardwalk railings at every block. Outside Manco & Manco’s, patrons waited for pizza on X’s taped 6 feet apart.