After 10 weeks of being closed, the beach and boardwalk in this Delaware vacation spot will reopen Friday at 5 p.m., kicking off a holiday weekend that could determine the fate of the rest of the summer.
“There is no secret — I think the spotlight is going to be on us, big time,” said Alex Heidenberger, whose father opened Mango’s in 1997. “Am I scared? A little bit.”
Local officials in Bethany say Delaware Gov. John Carney has made it clear that he will watch closely for adherence to a long list of safety restrictions that include wearing masks on the boardwalk and staying six feet away from other groups on the beach.
Carney (D) has not lifted a mandate that out-of-town visitors quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or bans on restaurant dining and short-term rentals. He faces at least one federal lawsuit from a man who says he has been deprived of his liberty and his property because he is barred from renting his Dewey Beach condo. Three Republican state lawmakers sent a letter this week asking U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr to review Carney’s emergency order. Carney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Sussex County, where Bethany is located, has reported 3,960 positive coronavirus cases and 116 deaths. But the hardest hit parts of the county are inland, where poultry plants saw outbreaks. The state and county have seen declines in new hospital admissions and new cases in recent days, according to state data.
Bethany, a town of about 1,200 that sees its population balloon to more than 15,000 each summer, has a reputation for being family-friendly. It has fewer shops and restaurants than nearby Rehoboth and (far) fewer bars than Dewey. Instead, fudge and ice cream stores abound. Many of the businesses on the downtown strip have been there for decades.
Since 1976, Bethany’s downtown has been marked by a 24-foot totem poll — which officials briefly considered putting a mask on before deciding against it because they worried it would offend the Nanticoke nation.
A flashing neon sign on the lifeguard patrol station informs visitors: “Face masks must be worn AT ALL TIMES.”
Heidenberger, a partner in the D.C. Restaurant Group, grew up scooping ice cream and lifeguarding in Bethany. He met his wife bartending at Mango’s.
The restaurant, located up a flight of stairs just off the boardwalk, will remain closed this weekend. But Heidenberger moved much of the equipment, including his “mangorita machines,” to Heidaway, a second restaurant his family owns on the ground level. He spent $6,000 erecting a plexiglass wall and rewiring electricity, bought masks for staff and developed a takeout bar routine that minimizes contact between employees and customers.
A bucket filled with masks and gloves sits under a neon pink “Aloha” sign where customers will order.
His hope: That the weekend will go smoothly enough that the beach stays open and he can bring back more of his employees when Carney lifts additional restrictions.
His fear: That people don’t wear masks and stand too close together and there is not enough enforcement to keep them apart.
“This could be like the white walkers,” he said, referring to the supernatural creatures in “Game of Thrones.” “And we only have 10 police officers.”
Dylan Murphy, one of Bethany’s police officers, said about half of the people he sees have been wearing masks recently. Police officers have not been strictly enforcing the policy but will begin doing so on the boardwalk Friday, he said.
“They need to wear a mask and try to be distant,” Murphy said of the beachgoers as he sat on his bike on the boardwalk. “I know it’s going to be hard.”
Town Manager Cliff Graviet said Bethany is hiring beach ambassadors to remind people to keep their distance and wear masks — a rule Graviet said had been hard to enforce with limited resources.
The Town Council also voted to dramatically reduce the number of paid parking spaces and designate some spaces only for residents in an effort to reduce crowding on the beach, which has 19 different entrance points.
The town’s public bathrooms will remain closed.
“We know there is absolutely no way everyone is going to be happy with what we suggest,” Graviet said in a recent council meeting on Zoom.
Carney’s decision to reopen all the state’s beaches for swimming and sunbathing this weekend, following the opening of the beach in Ocean City on May 9, surprised many in Bethany, where officials had already voted to keep the beach and boardwalk closed except for exercise until June 1.
“I was blown away — I’m not going to lie,” said Lauren Weaver, who heads the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce. “It was happy shock.”
Bethany Beach lifeguard captain Joe Donnelly, who grew up lifeguarding with Heidenberger, said he has been having weekly Zoom meets with his 38 lifeguards in preparation for when they take the stands at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.
He said if lifeguards are responding to emergencies on the beach, they will wear masks; if they’re in the ocean, they will not be able to. The rope attached to the rescue buoy they use is more than six feet long, but Donnelly said he knows that touch will be unavoidable in some emergencies.
Mouth-to-mouth cardiopulmonary resuscitation will be prohibited, he said, and guards will face daily temperature and wellness checks.
“It is always a little crazy the first weekend, but it always comes together,” Donnelly said. “I am hoping for that. But at this point, anything is possible.”
Delaware’s retailers and restaurants, which are currently doing delivery and carryout, can open at 30 percent capacity, excluding staff, beginning June 1. Retailers were allowed to open by appointment beginning May 20.
At the Bethany Surf Shop, which this week celebrated 40 years in town, there is a desk at the front door with hand sanitizer and paper towels, said owner Jim McGrath, who opened the shop when he was a senior at George Mason University. Employees will ring people up behind glass shields, and someone will stand at the bottom of the stairs telling people when there are too many customers inside, he said.
McGrath said he knows how dangerous the virus is and does not want any of his employees to get sick. But he said he has been frustrated by how slowly Carney has rolled back restrictions, especially given that bigger chains that sell groceries or home repair supplies have been deemed essential.
“We can manage our crowd better than a Home Depot or a Walmart,” he said. “And we’re just getting hammered.”
Below the surf shop is Bethany Beach Books, which Jackie Inman Burns bought 10 years ago when she moved from McLean, Va. She, too, spent summers in Bethany growing up.
She opened the store Thursday by appointment, after weeks of preparation and deep-cleaning and the purchase of 1,200 pens, so that after someone signs a receipt, the pen can be placed in a bucket and, later, disinfected.
“Sanitizer is right by the door,” she reminded longtime customers Debbie and Jeff Powell, who wore masks as they entered the store Thursday. It was their 31st wedding anniversary, and their next stop would be to another local favorite, DB’s Fries.
“Which we’ll eat in the car,” laughed Jeff Powell. “I brought candles.”
Burns said Memorial Day will probably bring a trickle of customers compared with the usual blowout, which she described as the beach-business version of Black Friday.
“The best scenario is that everyone is able to go to the beach and enjoy themselves — eat ice cream with their children and have a cheesesteak or a burger from their favorite restaurant,” she said. “The worst is that the governor pulls it all back.”