‘Disheartened and sad’: Businesses at the Jersey Shore lament slow Memorial Day weekend

Gray skies and temperatures in the 50s and 60s made for a disappointing Memorial Day weekend for some Jersey Shore business owners.

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Mike Madaf has owned the White Dolphin for 30 years, and he said he’s never seen business so slow. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mike Madaf has owned the White Dolphin for 30 years, and he said he’s never seen business so slow. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Usually, Memorial Day weekend has Jackie Mikulski looking forward to a long and busy summer at the cafe she runs in Wildwood.

Not this year.

“It wasn’t your typical Memorial Day. I hope I never see a Memorial Day like this ever, ever again,” she said Monday.

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Mikulski, co-owner of Key West Cafe on Pacific Avenue, says business was down 90% over the weekend compared to last year.

Part of that was because of gray skies and temperatures in the 50s and 60s.

But mostly, she says, the drop was due to coronavirus restrictions: short-term rentals were banned over the weekend, and bars and restaurants are open for pickup and delivery only.

Games and surf shops were shuttered at the Wildwood boardwalk Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“People don’t want eggs in a box!” she said. “They want to sit down. They want to have their coffee. They want to read their paper. They want their orange juice. They want people to wait on them!”

The disappointing weekend did not come as a surprise. Typically, the Jersey Shore explodes with visitors over the summer, generating billions for local economies. Based on the pandemic, businesses went into Memorial Day knowing this season would be a slog.

‘Stay in and drink’

At Mudhen Brewing Company in Wildwood, the bar stools and picnic tables usually packed on a holiday stood empty Monday.

Instead, brewer Tony Cunha spent the day sealing 32-ounce cans of beer to go.

“Pop it off and it’s ready to drink,” he said showing off his sealer.

Cunha says he feels lucky, after pivoting to sell to-go food, beer and cocktails, business was only down 50% from last year.

“Rainy days are very beneficial for us because people will kind of stay in and drink,” he said.

Macks’ chefs wear masks as they prep pizza at the famous boardwalk pizza place in Wildwood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Businesses that rely more on foot traffic and an influx of vacationers took a harder hit.

“We have a double whammy this weekend with the cold and rainy weather — and of course all of the restrictions that we have here in New Jersey as a whole and locally on business,” said Corinne Trainor, president of the Jersey Shore Chamber of Commerce.

On Wildwood’s famous boardwalk Monday, the traditional sounds of summer were blended with  reminders to practice social distancing.

Cassio Harris (left) and his brother Don said they were wearing masks on Wildwood’s beach because they felt it would protect others. A plane flying overheard flies a “Resist Murphy” banner.(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Keep at least six feet from your immediate family members and our other guests,” said one recording blaring through a speaker.

The boardwalk wasn’t packed, but it was fairly busy.

Ahmed Bayoumi, who owns Gifts by the Shore, said Memorial Day weekend is normally one of his biggest sales periods of the year, but he had plenty of time to stop and chat Monday. He said it is tough to make sales when he can’t let anyone enter his store.

“People don’t understand it’s not our rules, actually, it’s the boardwalk rules,” said Bayoumi. “They think we aren’t letting them in because we think they have the corona or something.”

In Sea Isle City, boutique owner Claudine Turbedsky echoed that retail at the shore fared poorly this weekend.

“Everybody is just completely disheartened and sad,” she said.

Turbedsky decorated her storefront to look inviting in hopes of pushing people to make online sales for curbside pickup. But she counted only five sales all weekend. Potential customers would walk by and indicate they wanted to try clothing on, but would walk away when she said they couldn’t enter her shop.

She lamented what she described as booming, crowded business at the nearby water ice stand that had been deemed essential — all while she and her husband could only sit watching in their empty store puzzling over how to keep paying their bills.

Turbedsky is the caretaker for her 90-year-old father, and says she understands the need for caution, but she says the shore retail sector is “ready to go” with plexiglass, sanitizer and other measures she believes will allow businesses to reopen safely.

Crowds were light Saturday during Memorial Day weekend in Wildwood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘People just want to get away’

Not all sectors of the shore economy are hurting.

In Long Beach Township, short-term rentals are only allowed if guests commit to stay for a minimum of three weeks until June 1.

George Triebenbacher, a New York City banker who owns seven rental properties on Long Beach Island, said school cancellations combined with anxiety of disease spread in urban centers has created huge demand.

“People just want to get away,” he said. “And they aren’t looking for a week. They’re looking for a month.”

The cost barrier for that sort of commitment likely kept crowds sparser along the beach this weekend.

Jon Stevenson, the 26th Street dispatcher on the Wildwood boardwalk, handed out flyers encouraging social distancing and advertising the new tram car ride app. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Many who did make the trip, like Rich Eberhart, own second homes at the shore. He was among those from the Philadelphia area who opted to ignore Pennsylvania health officials’ request that people not travel for the holiday.

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“I feel I have the right to pick and choose where I go, as long as I practice social distancing and washing my hands as the health commissioner tells you to do,” he said, taking a break from cruising the boards on his mountain bike. “I think everybody is going to be fine”

Eberhart says the things he can’t do at the shore right now — like go to bars and restaurants — are offset by the relief he feels just getting out of Philly.

“Getting out of the city anytime is great, but especially under the conditions we are in now, being down here is awesome,” the Bensalem resident said. “I look forward to going back home tomorrow, and then coming back down Friday again.”

Business owners here are hoping that the hundreds of thousands of people who normally visit the shore every year feel the way Eberhart does. And that those people are allowed to spend their money more freely soon.

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