BELMAR, N.J. – Joanna Eichert longs for the summer days of years gone by at the Jersey Shore, which she recalls as “very crowded and very relaxing.”
But with New Jersey’s governor giving shore towns the go-ahead to begin reopening their beaches amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it remains to be seen if the Summer of Bug will be either of those things.
Thursday afternoon, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy issued long-awaited guidance to officials in shore towns on reopening beaches, directing them to set occupancy limits, require six feet (2 meters) of space between beachgoers except family members or couples, and prohibit groups of 10 or more from congregating on the beach.
Showers, changing pavilions and rest rooms should be open, but amusement rides and arcades will remain closed and beach fireworks prohibited. Murphy also urged towns to set limits on the amount of daily beach badges they sell.
The governor gave considerable leeway to local officials in reopening their beaches, refusing to set a uniform occupancy limit, instead letting individual towns decide how much is enough as they prepare for visitors eager to get sand between their toes.
Among them was Eichert, a Hillsborough woman who came to the beach in Belmar earlier this week to let her 2-year-old son Logan run around on the boardwalk and in the sand.
“It would be nice to have it like it used to be,” she said. “But you have to keep your distance now; I get that. We'll see how it feels and how people are behaving. It's hard to imagine what it's going to look like this summer.”
Murphy issued his long-awaited guidance the day before two of the state's most popular beaches planned to reopen. On Friday morning, Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights will begin allowing people back onto the sand in a phased reopening that officials in both towns characterize as an experiment.
In Point Pleasant Beach, the municipally owned Maryland Avenue beach will open. Once it reaches 500 people, no one else will be allowed onto the sand. Masks will be “encouraged” while standing in line to buy badges, but won't be required once on the beach.
The borough will restrict parking to residents only for much of the area near the beach to discourage large crowds of tourists from coming. Murphy suggested such a tactic in one of his briefings earlier this month as a way to keep beach crowds manageable.
Seaside Heights, famous as the former home of MTV's “Jersey Shore” show, will reopen on Friday with some substantial restrictions. Activities on the beach are limited to walking, jogging, active surf fishing, and surfing. No swimming, beach chairs or blankets, and no sitting or standing.
“Make no mistake about it, our beach and boardwalk operations will be very different from past years," Mayor Anthony Vaz wrote in a post on the Seaside Heights website. “We have the added problem at the local government level of a likely and substantial loss of revenue that has led to a reduction in manpower resources. This means less beach attendants, less lifeguards and less seasonal laborers.”
Sea Isle City Mayor Len Desiderio said his town will be among several that plan to hold a test reopening of beaches Saturday, experimenting with occupancy limits.
“Our job has been to bring as many people to the beach as we can,” he said. “Now we have to practice crowd management.”
Crowd management was also on Pauline Hebeler's mind as she sat on the boards of Belmar's boardwalk — benches have been removed — and wondered what this summer will look like.
“You need to have social distancing on the beach, but I have no idea how they'll be able to do it some days,” she said. “I don't want to just open it up totally and have everyone get sick again. Trying to find a happy medium is not going to be easy. I just want things to be normal again.”
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