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People are hungry for a taste of summer. Aquawn Hill found hers along the Wildwoods’ five miles of beaches.
Hill made the 40-minute drive from her Cumberland County home to pull her beach chair up to a tucked-away spot. This day trip to the shore was Hill’s first outing that didn’t involve groceries, which she welcomed, though she doesn’t think the region is ready to go back to “normal.”
“COVID-19 obviously is still around,” Hill said. “We just don’t know who’s been around who, who has tested positive — symptoms only appear within 15 days.”
To balance potential health risks with self-care, Hill and her cousin decided to take their beach day Tuesday, “before the rush” on shore towns the Fourth of July weekend is expected to bring — and even as such crowd-pleasers as fireworks were being canceled because of concern the public isn’t following safety guidelines.
Delaware, for example, took a step back just in time for the holiday weekend, after a rise in new coronavirus cases among adults ages 18 to 30 along the southern Delaware coast. Bars there, which had been open at a limited capacity, have been shuttered by an order from Gov. John Carney. Restaurants can still serve drinks, but no one can sit or stand at the bar.
Until Hill found a section of New Jersey beach with a 6-foot radius that she could commandeer the other day, she kept her mask on.
“We just want to be safe all the way around,” she said.
Cape May County officials are urging mask-wearing at all public places for people age 9 and over, with some exceptions. Wearing masks is not necessary on the beaches as long as social distancing is maintained. But mask-wearing is urged for all boardwalk activities, except those involving food and beverages.
Though most Wildwood beachgoers ditched their face coverings, Joyce Lee Salinis and her family took the precaution of keeping theirs on while placing their beach towels some 20 feet from the nearest family. Her motto for her 7- and 3-year-old was simple: “Wear the mask, have fun.”
The family made the trip from Montgomery County to stay with her mom for the week. The plan: to get sand between their toes early on and spend Salinis’ birthday weekend away from other visitors.
“I think there’s going to be much more people on the actual holiday,” said Salinis, who was pleasantly surprised by how well people were keeping to their seaside bubbles. “I wanted to enjoy.”
The beaches were certainly busier than they were the week leading into Memorial Day, the last time WHYY checked on the Wildwoods. And boardwalk business owners were certainly happier for it, though the crowds still pale in comparison to previous summers.
Better business, but not like last year …
“It’s been on and off,” said Sissy Rutkowski, owner of Shooters Old Time Photos. That’s a concern for a community that draws billions of dollars from tourism.
Rutkowski’s boardwalk business is surrounded by food stands, claw machines and water gun racing games that offer winners stuffed animals as prizes. All were fairly empty on a humid Tuesday afternoon with temperatures in the low 80s.
“Weekends, of course, have been fairly busy; weekdays are very slow,” said Rutkowski. “We don’t have the normal volume of customers that we have, nor can we operate at our usual capacity. So it’s certainly way off from previous years.”
For a service like Rutkowski’s, the cost of doing business has increased substantially too. Instead of photographing up to four families at once, the studio is taking one family at a time. Cleaning procedures after every photo shoot have also become more thorough, requiring a staffer whose sole focus is to disinfect at a time when workers are hard to come by, said Rutkowski.
“But we found some local youth that are working with us,” she said. “We’ve dropped the age of ability to work here with the working papers again this year. In the past, I usually waited until they were 18, but I have 14- and 15-year-olds on staff, and they’re eager to learn and ambitious.”
Overall, business owners say they’re trying to stay positive as they make the best of the foot traffic they’re seeing.
Restaurants, however, experienced a major blow this week after Gov. Phil Murphy postponed indoor seating, which had been scheduled to resume Thursday at limited capacity.
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House is a Wildwood icon. It opened for outdoor seating for around 100 people on June 15. To offer guests enough room for social distancing, Ethan Noss said the restaurant used up its parking lot, which a lot of smaller restaurants don’t have.
Still, outdoor seating is a lot of work. Noss said the staff is constantly running in and out of the restaurant, “hauling tables … at 6:30 in the morning and bringing them back in at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Indoor seating, he said, would have offered the wait staff a break from all that.
“But that’s the hand we’re dealt, and so we’re going to stay full force outside and we’re just going to continue to be innovative and continue to support our customers and play by the rules,” said Noss, adding that July and August are typically the restaurant’s busiest months of the year.
Delaware’s beach bars, of course, are forced to close for the holiday weekend. No one will be allowed at the bar area in restaurants either, though restaurants are still allowed to serve diners at tables at 60% capacity.
Carney has also limited other activities — dance floors, arcade areas, pool tables and other spots where people “typically stand or engage” are off-limits.
And visitors to Rehoboth Beach will be forced to don face masks — they are required on the boardwalk, on the beach, and at other public areas and commercial establishments. Earlier this week, three Rehoboth lifeguards tested positive for COVID-19.
About 100 people tested positive for the coronavirus in Rehoboth Beach late last week, and a dozen more cases were identified the next day at neighboring Dewey Beach.
Those results, coupled with the earlier disclosure that three teenagers had tested positive after spending senior week at the beach and could have infected up to 100 others, led authorities to urge anyone who has been to the Delaware beaches to get tested.
At motels, activity again
Meanwhile, Wildwood-area motels, which weren’t allowed to take reservations until after Memorial Day weekend, finally were showing signs of life on Tuesday. Cars occupied their parking lots, and guests were jumping into the pools.
Though the motels WHYY reached out to did not want to talk about business on the record, guests like Linda Tirado offered perspective while swimming in a motel pool.
Tirado makes the three-hour drive from York County, Pennsylvania, at least twice a year with her family. This year, she said, she’s noticed more room to sit out on the beach. But as her pool bustled with activity and children’s laughter, she said the motel situation seemed “pretty much the same.”
Tirado said there was really nothing her family couldn’t do, save a few adjustments with dining and favorite arcades. The arcades opened Thursday at 25% capacity, and water parks opened the same day at 50% capacity.
“[Businesses are] doing a lot to accommodate for everything with the coronavirus,” she said.
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