On Thursday morning, Shawn LaTourette, acting Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, did a flyover of the New Jersey coast, from Raritan Bay to Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, and back. A few hours later, he stood at the podium of the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium’s 19th annual State of the Shore event and declared the Jersey Shore ready for business.
“I believe the state of the Shore is strong — on balance, beaches in good repair and, from our monitoring [from the plane], excellent water quality,” LaTourette said. “We can all have peace of mind.”
The event was held this year at a boardwalk restaurant in Asbury Park, and the warm pre-Memorial Day weather couldn’t have better complemented LaTourette’s declaration. Outside, the ocean, a deep green, lazily splashed the shore and the wide beach was packed with sunbathers.
For the businesses and residents of Asbury Park and other Jersey Shore communities over the next 14 weeks, however, peace of mind will no doubt be a rarified commodity, as all signs point to a booming tourism season ahead.
Ready for a boom
Not far away, at City Hall, Asbury Park’s city manager, Donna Vieiro was hustling to close out the week before the holiday crush.
“Based on the last few weekends, we’re prepared for an extremely busy season,” Vieiro said. “We’re looking forward to some sense of normalcy as our businesses, restaurants, visitors, and residents come out of this pandemic.”
On Friday, the statewide mask mandate was lifted, along with most of the other capacity and social distancing restrictions that New Jerseyans have endured for the past “truly crushing 14-month period,” as Gov. Murphy put it during a recent coronavirus briefing.
While the pandemic is still very much lurking throughout the state, infections continue to steeply decline from their peak in January.
Hoping to maintain the trend, and to address the slumping vaccination rate across the state, the Murphy administration launched “Operation Jersey Summer,” a campaign to reach 4.7 million immunizations by July. The effort includes perks like beer and wine vouchers, a chance for dinner with the governor and first lady, and a “Vax Pass” that gives any New Jerseyan who receives at least one dose by July 4 free access to any state park through the end of the year.
At the State of the Shore event, New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium’s Tom Herrington unveiled updates to a pandemic awareness social media campaign that his team created last summer. The campaign, called “#BEachSAFEly,” used illustrations to not only inform beachgoers about pandemic-related rules like how to properly socially distance on the sand, but also about basic ocean safety, like how to break free of rip currents.
This summer, the consortium will continue the social media campaign, and also add postcards and posters to be distributed to Shore communities — but, this year, the illustrations might look a bit different. “If we continue to do what we’ve been doing,” Herrington said, “we hope to have no masks on our characters by the end of the summer.”
A ‘wild’ real estate market
In 2019, Murphy set a goal of drawing 150 million visitors annually to the state by 2023. That year, the New Jersey travel sector broke records: Some 116 million visitors spent $46.4 billion, a 3.8% increase from 2018 and the tenth straight year of growth. The pandemic, of course, wiped out that progress — in 2020, the state recorded a 27% drop in visitation (84.6 million) and just $17 billion in tourism revenue.
The Jersey Shore has not only long been responsible for generating about half of the state’s tourism dollars, it has also been a major contributor to the state’s realty-transfer tax. In 2020, healthy proceeds from the tax, driven by an urban exodus, were a silver lining in an otherwise bleak economic landscape. Receipts rose by 11% last year, and home sales by over 5%. The rush for real estate, along with the surging cost of building supplies, pushed the median sales price for homes up 14%.
“The market has exploded,” said Pete Madden, a broker and owner at Goldcoast Sotheby’s International Realty in Ocean City. “It’s been pretty wild.”
With people’s increased ability to work from home, Madden continued, the Shore points have become prized part- and full-time bases for those who can afford it. “I’ve had conversations with folks who have millions of dollars to spend on a house, and I’m telling them, ‘Sorry, we don’t have something for you.’”
Vieiro said the circumstances in Asbury Park are the same. “Our real estate market is booming,” she said. “While I don’t have the exact numbers, I know that our local realtors are closing on properties very quickly, and properties aren’t staying on the market very long.”
Weekly rentals hard to find
Finding a weekly rental at the Shore is even more difficult. “With the uncertainty last year, a lot of people pushed their leases to 2021, and that ate up a lot of the inventory right off the bat,” said Madden, who is also an Ocean City councilman. “You can hardly find a place — especially from mid-July to mid-August, there’s nothing.”
The double whammy of increased permanent resident and visitor numbers and the shedding of pandemic restrictions is already — and will continue to be — felt the most by Shore businesses.
At the southernmost tip of the state, Captain Jeff Stewart, owner of Cape May Whale Watcher, has already seen two months of solid numbers.
“We started this year in March, which is earlier than we ever have,” Stewart said. “We’ve had a very good spring so far; we’ve been doing great.”
Cape May Whale Watcher operates three boats, two of them sightseeing and one a fishing party boat. Combined and at full capacity, they can handle 850 people in one trip. “We’re booked out for months in advance,” said Stewart.
It’s already been a good spring for humpback, fin whale, and dolphin sightings, as well as for fishing, so Stewart is optimistic — especially with Friday’s lifting of restrictions. Last year, he and his team built plexiglass partitions inside the boats’ cabins and painted whale tails every 6 feet on the decks, “and that’s what we’re still doing,” he said. “But with the new rules, we shall see.”
Back in Ocean City, at Playland’s Castaway Cove, the town’s largest amusement park, Brian Hartley, the park’s vice president, described a past year and potential summer much different from any he can remember — in more ways than one.
In January, the park’s arcade and offices were destroyed by a four-alarm fire, but many of its rides were spared. The months leading to Memorial Day weekend were a blur of demolition and reconstruction. Nevertheless, Hartley said, “it’s been busy from the first day we opened in March, so we’re expecting a banner summer.”
What’s causing worker shortage?
Hartley said he hasn’t had any trouble filling the 250 to 300 positions that Playland has each summer. “With no job fairs at high school, no things like that, we saw the writing on the wall and got a jump on outreach early and were able to fill most of jobs by Easter,” he said.
Elsewhere, employers haven’t been so lucky. In Wildwood, Mayor Pete Byron said finding workers is “a major issue,” particularly for restaurants but also amusement parks like Morey’s Piers and Water Parks.
“The good thing is everything’s going to be open,” Byron said. “The bad thing is you’re going to have to wait a little longer because of the lack of help — so people are going to have to have a little more patience.”
A significant source for the Jersey Shore’s seasonal workforce is the J-1 visa program, which allows foreign students to obtain temporary work in the United States. The program was scaled back last year, as part of pandemic restrictions, and remains so currently. Both Hartley and Byron noted that the lack of J-1 workers has had an impact on hiring in Ocean City and Wildwood, respectively.
“But I think it’s a combination of factors,” Byron said. “For a lot of people, it’s more worth it financially to just collect unemployment, and that’s having a huge effect.”
While Byron’s concerns are a common refrain among Jersey Shore business owners, Gov. Murphy has pushed back against the assertion.
Quoting the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo, Murphy said in his most recent coronavirus briefing, “There is zero evidence, study after study, report after report, that the enhanced [unemployment] benefits are keeping people out of the workforce.” Murphy cited other factors like lack of, or access to, child care, schools not being fully back in person, and people’s continued concerns about infection.
The beaches: a report card
While the pandemic and its impacts were at the forefront of many people’s minds at this year’s State of the Shore event, in more normal years, the focus is primarily on the health of New Jersey’s beaches.
Each year since 2006, Jon Miller, an ocean engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and coastal processes specialist for the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, gives a detailed report on the past year’s storm and flooding conditions and how they’ve impacted the state’s 130 miles of Atlantic coastline.
As LaTourette had alluded to, Miller recounted yet another lucky season, weather-wise, at the Shore, which, along with the ever-increasing beach replenishment efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, has rendered most the state’s beaches uniform and wide.
But, for the second year in a row, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting an “above-normal” hurricane season, though not as active as 2020. The agency is calling for between 13 and 20 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), three to five of which could become major hurricanes.
Keeping eye out for hurricanes
Pointing out that major hurricanes typically don’t make landfall in New Jersey — Hurricane Sandy being the most obvious exception — Miller nevertheless urged preparedness.
“Even if those storms don’t make landfall, they can cause some significant impact,” Miller said. “We’ve got to be aware and just alert to what we need to do.”
After the year we’ve all had, Miller continued, it’s more important than ever to emphasize “that outlet the beach provides people, socially and emotionally.”
It seems many New Jerseyans agree. In Ocean City, for example, beach tag sales were already at nearly $1 million by the end of April, a record for that early in the year.
“People are tired of being locked up for the better part of a year and a half,” Byron said. “They want to get to the Shore.”