This weekend Governor Murphy reminded New Jerseyans that the response to slow the spread of COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint. Speaking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN the Governor said “This is certainly going to be a huge challenge for us, April through May, there’s no question. And the evidence is increasingly showing this is going to spill meaningfully into the summer.”
There are already there are signs that this summer will be different at the Jersey Shore. Restaurants and bars have been closed for weeks, providing takeout and delivery options only. Boardwalks up and down the shore are closed to people, despite the signs of warmer weather arriving. Atlantic City gamblers are not playing the slots or throwing dice on craps tables in the casinos. Over the past weeks several shore town, such as Asbury Park, Cape May, Ocean City and Sea Isle City, all banned short -term rentals. The goal of these orders is to limit the visitors who are coming to the shore area in order to preserve essential services. Monmouth Race Track has pushed opening day tentatively to May 23. Belmar officials have canceled all special events in the town at least until July 1. This includes the popular New Jersey Seafood Festival. Last year the festival had to be moved to Main Street because it had grown in popularity, drawing over 100,000 people over the weekend. This year crowds of visitors enjoying steamed clams and lobsters is an activity that is not in compliance with social distancing.
Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-11), who represents several shore towns noted, “It is pretty apparent that this is not going to be a short-term thing. It is not like by June everything will just be back to normal.” She strongly encourages social distancing as a key tool to “crush the back of the virus, as the Governor says.”
One of the biggest challenges facing government officials, business owners and workers up and down the Jersey Shore is the unknown. While predictive models provide guidance, the models are impacted by variables (both known and unknown). And since this is a new virus, the question of the seasonality of spread—that warm weather will reduce the number of infections—remains unanswered. In this ever-changing context government officials, business owners and individuals are all trying to gauge if some of the Jersey Shore summer can be salvaged this year.
Asbury Park Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn noted that the Jersey Shore town is assessing everything on a month to month basis. Asbury was one of the first towns to close businesses and boardwalks in response to a crowded Saturday night in March when too many visitors were not social distancing in the town’s bars and restaurants. Deputy Mayor Quinn noted that hotels have voluntarily shut down for April, and short-term rentals remain banned for the month. In addition the June Pride Celebration has been rescheduled to October. She said that the first priority of the town is to keep everyone safe. The town is also quite concerned about the economic impact on its small businesses and supporting those businesses as best they can. She remarked that Asbury is a town of “mom and dad places.” She is concerned that, “staying shut through the summer will have a devastating impact on our small businesses.” However Deputy Mayor Quinn stressed the health of residents, business owners and workers. “Getting them back in businesses safely is important.”
Similarly, Mayor John Pallone in Long Branch stressed that the goal is to keep residents safe now and throughout the summer months. The Mayor noted that “we plan to take any action we may need to take leading up to the summer months in regard to social distancing. However at this time, all we can do is monitor the situation and take it month by month.” Like other towns Long Branch has closed its boardwalk, promenade and bike path, along with playground, fields and courts. The Mayor also stressed that “this is a difficult time for our businesses and economy as a whole.” And the City is having the Economic Development Department assist business owners in applying for loans as they become available.
As towns plan for an uncertain summer season, so are Shore business. Michele Siekerka, President and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association told NJ.com in March that in light of COVID-19 “our business along the shore are going to have to rethink their business model.” This may mean a shorter summer season, shorter hours or less customers in one space.
And businesses have been rethinking their summer. Darrell Wordelmann, General Manager of Rooney’s Oceanfront Restaurant in Long Branch has been thinking about what summer at the popular restaurant will look like. Currently Rooney’s is completely closed, not offering take out or delivery, in order to keep employees as safe as possible. When the state shutdown is lifted, Wordelmann felt that the restaurant will open with additional social distancing restrictions. In the days prior to the state shutdown, Rooney’s had put into place social distancing protocols including spreading out stools at the bar to maintain distance. Wordelmann thinks these types of restrictions will continue over the summer, as his first priority is to protect and keep safe his employees. He anticipates using the outdoor space of the restaurant more, which will allow for greater distance between tables and people to be out in fresh air. He also shared that right now, he “doesn’t plan on hiring this summer.” He noted, “our staff have been hard hit, and I want to give them the opportunity to have more tables to serve and more shifts.” And despite the current situation Wordelmann is cautiously optimistic for the summer. “It may be a different vibe, but I think it might still be a busy summer when it does open. No one will be going away on a plane, so more locals and day trippers may be coming here instead.”
As we get closer to the summer, we will start getting more indications about how effectively we have flattened the coronavirus curve and also the shape the summer season will be taking. The summer season will be a work in progress as officials determine if and when traditional summer activities can be held, and businesses can open. Officials will need to couple a slow relaxing of social distancing with a carefully tracking of cases of infection. And public health officials have stressed that the latter will depend on the availability of rapid and universal access to testing (both infection and antibody tests). This was reiterated this morning by New York Governor Cuomo. The Governor stated that widespread testing must be available to safely re-open the economy. As we all wait under stay at home orders, the only guarantee may be that the Jersey shore will be facing a very different and unknown 2020 summer season.