The Jersey Shore’s summer tourism industry normally would be busy now hiring students, stocking up on inventory and booking reservations from visitors weary of the long winter.
But as the region reels from the coronavirus, business owners are beginning to envision a season that, in one of its best cases, includes visitors lounging on the beach at least 6 feet apart from each other.
“We’re going to encourage masks,” said Daniela Barbacini, co-owner of Lucky Leo’s Sweet Shop on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
With the region virtually locked down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Shore’s business owners and government leaders are beginning to envision how to salvage the summer tourism season.
For now, some seasonal business owners say they are moving forward with their plans, turning the utilities on, keeping in touch with returning employees and sprucing up the facade of their buildings.
But Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, is getting closer. The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. And social distancing — kryptonite to the tourism industry dependent on big crowds — remains the only defense for now.
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“I think it’s going to be rough sledding,” said Oliver Cooke, an economics professor at Stockton University in Galloway, adding the decline could be worse than the Great Recession.
The Shore’s tourism industry is fickle by nature, rising and falling on a weekend forecast.
But it generated more than $7 billion in sales and employed nearly 50,000 workers in 2018, according to Oxford Economics, a research firm, and business owners were poised for a strong 2020.
Woody’s in Sea Bright has resorted to curbside pick up during the coronavirus shutdown. (Photo: Michael L. Diamond)
The coronavirus, however, has swept through New Jersey, killing more than 4,000 residents and slamming the brakes on the state’s economy.
Bars and retailers were closed. Restaurants were confined to take-out and delivery. And workers have been laid off in droves. New Jersey lost 31,800 jobs in March alone. By comparison, the state lost 21,200 jobs in November 2008, the beginning of the Great Recession.
Many Shore business owners are in the same boat as Beach Haus Brewery in Belmar.
The business has stayed afloat in recent weeks by offering take-out. But it had to close its tap room and deck. It sent home about a dozen of its 20 employees, although it kept the part-time workers on the payroll. And it rescheduled birthdays, bridal showers and other parties, said Steve Tichenor, events manager.
Tichenor is holding out hope. The deck, for example, is large enough to accommodate visitors and still adhere to social-distancing rules. And he has been rebooking parties for the end of May.
But part of him wonders if he is being too optimistic. A friend of his thought the Shore wouldn’t open until July, he said.
“Going real deep into the summer will be difficult,” Tichenor said. “That’s when you start to feel it.”
Elected officials are searching for a way out of the maze, but they are growing increasingly anxious.
Donovan’s Reef, a landmark bar in Sea Bright, remains closed due to the coronavirus. (Photo: Michael L. Diamond)
They have seen other states take more aggressive approaches. Notably, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed some municipalities to open beaches as long as they maintained social distancing measures. But he also drew fire from public health officials who said it wasn’t yet safe.
In New Jersey, state Sen. Jim Holzapfel and Assemblymen Greg McGuckin and John Catalano, all R-Ocean, on Tuesday called on Gov. Phil Murphy to create a task force looking for ways to assist Jersey Shore residents and businesses once the stay-at-home order is lifted.
Local leaders said it won’t be as simple as flipping on a switch. They would need to hire lifeguards, police officers and parking attendants.
Lavallette Mayor Walter LaCicero said he was confident the town’s boardwalk and newly replenished beach were wide enough that visitors could keep their distance. But that calculation would only work if other towns open their beaches, too.
If neighboring towns decide to stay closed, tiny Lavallette could be overwhelmed with visitors.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “It’s got to be a coordinated effort here.”
Seaside Heights officials are preparing for three scenarios: everything opens as usual, everything remains closed, or business comes back a little bit at a time.
The borough’s economy is based on tourism; it is seeking $2.1 million in state aid to help it weather the crisis.
But Mayor Anthony Vaz said he would remain cautious about opening, noting that residents and visitors bunched tightly together could spark a new outbreak.
“I am very anxious — as the community is — to get things back to what normal might be, but I don’t want to rush this,” Vaz said. “We don’t want to restart this pandemic and find ourselves in a worse situation.”
It leaves business owners making their best guess.
Cashelmara Inn, a bed and breakfast in Avon, has begun to get cancellations in May and June and is rescheduling customers for September. But it still is ready to accommodate visitors in case the virus recedes more quickly, said Mary Wiernasz, the inn’s manager.
The Avon Pavilion nearby has given up on its hope of opening for Mother’s Day, but it has employees standing by in case officials devise a way for customers to eat there safely, owner Rob Fishman said.
Will New Jersey rapidly develop comprehensive testing and tracing methods to safely restart the economy, giving visitors desperate for sunshine the confidence to travel? Will the state continue its shutdown into the fall to stamp out the virus once and for all? Will it offer something in between, say, forcing visitors to don personal protection equipment before being cleared to play Skee-Ball?
Barbacini at Lucky Leo’s Sweet Shop isn’t ready to concede defeat. She hopes much of her staff from last year will return, although she said she won’t have the option of hiring workers from overseas.
And when it does reopen, she expects employees will wear masks and monitor their temperatures.
“That’s my best guesstimate right now,” Barbacini said. “Don’t hold me to it.”
Michael Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy for more than 20 years. He can be reached at 732-643-4038; firstname.lastname@example.org; and @mdiamondapp on Twitter.
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