With the travel season less than six weeks away, would-be tourists and entrepreneurs alike are struggling to decipher whether the East Coast’s beach towns will open by Memorial Day — and if they do, how social distancing guidelines implemented to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus could reshape what is, historically, one of the country’s most communal activities.
That’s the challenge confronting elected leaders from North Carolina to Maine, as the pandemic threatens to upend dozens of local economies in ways previously unthinkable, except for perhaps from an early-season hit by a major hurricane.
Over the past month, as the coronavirus spread, state and local officials banned sunbathing on beaches, closed boardwalks and pleaded with taxpaying second-home owners to stay away from their seasonal properties. Police in Dare County on North Carolina’s Outer Banks even blocked roads leading from the mainland to keep tourists away. For now, elected officials in many of these places say it’s still too soon to know when their beach towns may open to visitors as the number of infections and deaths continues to rise, including more than 75,000 coronavirus cases in New Jersey.
“Now’s not the time for a vacation or tax-free shopping in our state,” said Delaware Gov. John Carney (D), who oversees a state that includes popular summer destinations such as Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach. “Our economy in Delaware relies on a strong tourism economy, and tourism here is really driven by our great beach towns. But we can’t have a healthy economy until our communities are healthy.”
Jeff Vasser, executive director of the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, has been delivering a similar message. “We are following our governor’s lead, and right now, the message is, stay home and stay safe. . . . When the time is right, we will get the message out that the Jersey Shore is open.”
Yet here in New Jersey, where more than 4,000 people have died of the virus, many local officials and business owners remain optimistic that some sort of beach season will eventually get underway. A complete shutdown for the summer would be catastrophic, they say, driving local businesses into bankruptcy and erasing revenue for state and local governments.
New Jersey’s four shore counties welcome about 47.6 million visitors annually, and they spend about $22 billion, Vasser said. The tourism industry employs about 333,000 people, making it New Jersey’s sixth-biggest industry.
David Bowd, who runs two of Asbury Park’s largest hotels, the Asbury and Asbury Ocean Club, is bracing for this year to be “a very different summer.” Bowd, executive director of Salt Hotels, said he doesn’t expect any international visitors will be arriving this summer. Most bookings so far have come from New York City or the Baltimore-Washington region. And while past summer visitors booked for an average of four or five nights, this year is down to two or three, he said, adding, “I’ve been calling it the locals’ summer.”
Bowd said he remains somewhat optimistic because many who are canceling reservations made for May and June are trying to rebook them for July or August instead of asking for their deposits back. But if hotels aren’t able to scale up their numbers by midsummer — whether due to governmental regulations or because people are afraid or broke — Bowd said the economic consequences will be severe, perhaps driving some out of business permanently.
“If they’re not reopened by July 4, some . . . will say, ‘It’s just not worth it,’ ” Bowd said.
For now, officials in New Jersey say most of the state’s beaches and boardwalks will open this summer. They just aren’t sure whether the summer beach experience will include trips into crowded restaurants or whether there will be restrictions on how many people can pack onto beaches or boardwalks at the same time.
In Cape May, N.J., Mayor Clarence F. Lear III recently announced the creation of a task force that will explore whether local ordinances should be changed to give restaurants and hotels more flexibility to serve guests in a manner that encourages social distancing rules.
Lear said the task force may examine whether alcohol could be purchased at takeout concessions to keep people from packing together indoors. Hotels may have to open more of their green space to allow sunbathing and dining. And new controls on foot traffic could be needed, Lear added.
“Most beaches are fairly large, and people are probably going to spread out more naturally now and not crowd so close to each other, so the beaches are not the problem,” Lear said. “But the boardwalk is one of the issues I see now because there are a couple points where it’s maybe eight to 10 feet wide, and we already were seeing crowds either congregating or getting too close to each other.”
Up the coast in Long Beach, N.J., Mayor Joseph Mancini also expects tourists will need to recalibrate their expectations when it comes to social things such as eating out or patronizing bars. But before his town even gets to the point of establishing new guidelines, Mancini is first trying to ensure that local services, including the hospital, can handle its full-time residents.
Last month, after the virus began sweeping through New York City, Mancini pleaded with out-of-towners to stay away, even if they owned a vacation property on the barrier island.
Many came anyway, and now Long Beach has four times as many people residing there as is typical for this time of year. Police and public works crews — which have yet to buttress their forces with summer hires — have struggled to respond to calls for service. And the 130-bed Hackensack Meridian Health Southern Ocean Medical Center has been operating at capacity for several weeks, Mancini said.
“We just don’t have the personnel at this time of year to service people properly, especially during a pandemic,” said Mancini, adding that Long Beach and adjoining towns have so far recorded more than 100 coronavirus cases. “We want people from out of town to know, if you have a medical event, you are going to be over two hours away from your medical provider.”
The availability of health care is expected to help drive decisions about when state and local leaders will feel it’s safe enough to welcome tourists. Under federal guidelines issued by the White House on Thursday, states are encouraged to allow for the resumption of economic activities only after they are confident in the ability of local hospitals to treat a sudden surge in critically ill patients. Access to health care is also expected to be a major focus of the multistate task force that the governors of seven Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states have created to coordinate the reopening of regional commerce and travel.
“We’ll work together to share intelligence and make decisions deliberately,” Carney, the governor of Delaware, said. “Those decisions will be based on the science and the situation on the ground in our states.”
Vasser, from the New Jersey tourism bureau, said he also hopes decisions about whether to open beaches are made as part of that task force. Such an approach would set clear expectations throughout the region while not giving one destination that opens an unfair advantage economically over another that may decide to remain closed.
“It just doesn’t make sense to have ad hoc rules,” Vasser said.
Some 1,200 miles away, in Parkland, Fla., Tibisay Vasile is eager to learn what those rules will look like. Vasile and her 14-year-old daughter have vacationed in Ocean Grove, just south of Asbury Park, every summer for the past nine years. They rent a two-bedroom apartment just blocks from the ocean, and her daughter attends surf camp in nearby Bradley Beach. “The one thing my kid said was, ‘We’re still going to Ocean Grove, right?’ ” said Vasile, who has already bought her plane tickets for July.
On Thursday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) suggested it is unlikely that his city will be ready to open its public beaches by early summer. But on neighboring Long Island, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said it’s premature to say what will happen in the Hamptons and other beach communities there. More than 600 people have died of the coronavirus in Suffolk County, but Bellone said officials believe the rate of new infections has stabilized.
“Anyone who tells you they know exactly where we are going to be in six weeks, in my view, really hasn’t been paying attention to what is happening with the virus,” he said.
Assuming that beaches are permitted to reopen this summer, Mancini said, New Jersey will probably become a favored destination for those looking to escape big East Coast cities amid what is expected to be continued aversion to long-distance travel.
“I think New Jersey will be mobbed this summer because no one wants to get in an airplane or a cruise ship,” Mancini said.
But in Asbury Park, Marilyn Schlossbach worries that time is already running out for her to salvage her businesses. Schlossbach owns three restaurants and thinks summer will be the hardest weeks her town has faced, including its recovery from Hurricane Sandy, which caused massive destruction along the East Coast in 2012.
The months leading up to Memorial Day usually give restaurants such as hers a big bump after a long barren winter, Schlossbach said. She’s not getting that bump this spring, which is going to force her to reopen with “massive debt with vendors, rents, mortgagors, insurance, utilities and taxes.”
“The abrupt halt to business at the shore in March is deadly,” said Schlossbach, who now spends her days participating in webinars and industry roundtables, filling out loan and grant applications, and home schooling her two daughters. But while she’s exploring the government programs available to small businesses, she’s also looking into her bankruptcy options.
“I am exhausted and tired and broke, and the season has not begun,” she said. “My heart breaks for all of us.”
Craig reported from Washington.