Shore Town Mayors Predict Memorial Day Crowds Will Maintain Social Distancing

Local officials pledge to keep people safe as towns seek recovery from two-month shutdown
Credit: NJTV News
Seaside Heights Mayor Tony Vaz said many people wore masks in the first phase of the state’s reopening, even though they were not required to, a sign that that they understood the need for continued vigilance.

Jersey Shore towns prepared for the Memorial Day start of their economically critical summer seasons by removing more restrictions on using beaches and boardwalks while keeping in place rules to maintain social distancing and prevent any resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the eve of Memorial Day weekend, the towns took another step toward reversing the state-ordered shutdown that has closed all nonessential businesses for the last two months by implementing measures such as allowing swimming and sunbathing, and installing lifeguards on the beaches. Restaurants and bars remain shut for dining or drinking inside but may still serve takeout.

Mayors of several towns said people had scrupulously observed social-distancing requirements last weekend when state restrictions began to ease, and they expressed confidence that visitors would do the same over the holiday weekend, even though beaches and boardwalks are likely to be more crowded.

“This weekend, we’re bringing the lifeguards back, and we’ll be doing a final test,” said Len Desiderio, mayor of Sea Isle City. He said he and two other local officials walked the beach for four hours last Saturday, and found that everyone on the beach was observing social-distancing requirements.

“Everyone was happy to be back, everyone was smiling, and they were doing what they were supposed to do,” he said. “We passed the pretest; now, this is the kickoff to the summer season, and we’re going to be moving forward.”

Recouping heavy losses

Shore businesses such as Desiderio’s own motel are hoping to recoup heavy losses after two months of little or no income, while ensuring that their customers are safe.

“This is going to be like no other Memorial Day weekend that we have ever experienced, with the restrictions and what is and isn’t open,” said Desiderio. “Three weeks ago, we weren’t permitted on the beach. We’re happy and we are moving forward with social distancing, and we are going to do our part in Sea Isle City to hopefully keep everyone safe.”

Desiderio, who was present at Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent announcement of the easing of restrictions in time for Memorial Day, predicted that shore towns will be thronged with people who will practice social distancing while enjoying the beaches for the first time since March.

In compliance with Murphy’s May 14 executive order that further reopens the Shore, effective on Friday, towns will enforce rules such as restricting capacity on beaches and boardwalks; training lifeguards to observe COVID-19 rules, and removing or blocking access to tables and chairs that might encourage people to sit too close.

Continued beach restrictions

Group activities on beaches are still banned; parking is restricted, and beach badges will be issued in some places with phone apps rather than in-person sales. Several mayors said signs are posted reminding people of the continued need for social distancing even though the state has begun to ease its pandemic rules.

Playgrounds are still closed, and at least one town will use “beach ambassadors” to hand out cards reminding visitors that they need to remain at least six feet apart from each other unless they are part of the same family.

Officials in several towns said nearly every visitor observed social-distancing requirements when the first restrictions were lifted last weekend, fueling hopes that they will continue to do so when many more people are expected on the beaches, and for longer periods over the holiday weekend.

But Nick Russo, mayor of Longport, said on Thursday that his town hadn’t yet figured out how to tell lifeguards to observe social-distancing requirements if they have to rescue swimmers who get into difficulty.

Until they agree on a way of doing that, officials are considering permitting only waist-deep bathing, Russo said. “That way, we can keep people under control,” he said.

Enforcing social distancing

He said lifeguards will remind people of the need for social distancing, and will be backed up by local police to enforce the rules if necessary.

In Seaside Heights, too, lifeguards were used to enforce social distancing, and beachgoers complied last weekend, said Mayor Tony Vaz. “It went off very well, people respected each other,” he said, referring to phase 1 of the reopening, which applied to beaches, state parks, curbside retail and other facilities, as specified by Murphy’s multistage plan, presented on May 19.

One indication of people’s awareness of the need for continued vigilance against the virus was the fact that many wore masks in the first phase of reopening, even though they were not required to, Vaz said.

Still, Shore-based businesses have been hit hard, and will continue to suffer while pandemic restrictions on shops, bars and restaurants remain in place, Vaz said. He estimated that 85% of the town’s businesses remain closed.

He described the economic damage to Seaside Heights businesses as “very bad,” and noted that businesses such as arcades and rides still can’t open. “It hurts,” he said.

Outdoor sit-down dining soon?

To ease the pressure on the restaurant industry, Vaz predicted that the state will shortly allow some sit-down dining, perhaps in outside areas.

Brian Kelly, mayor of Sea Bright, said his latest experience on the reopened beaches is that people are being very respectful of the need for social distancing.

“People are keeping to themselves, they are using common sense so far, and we will monitor it as the weekends come and go,” he said. “Hopefully it goes smoothly and if not, we’ll address it.”