Hundreds of thousands of papal pilgrims may have found their way to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend, but the crowds being funneled through South Jersey were significantly less than expected.
“There are no cars on the highway,” said Thomas Devereaux on Sunday afternoon. Devereaux manages Weber’s Drive In on Route 38 in Pennsauken, which offers car-hop service. “I think people are staying inside.”
Not even Weber’s Elvis impersonator wearing a papal mitre on his head could lure more customers in.
“Oh, God, I’d say we were down more than 30 percent” from a typical weekend, Devereaux said. “We’re normally running around at this time of day.”
On Sept. 18, Governor Christie declared a state of emergency to prepare for the papal commuter impact. It allows the governor to call out the National Guard if needed.
While the preparation for an onslaught of pilgrims may have been necessary, Devereaux said it had a real impact on how people made their plans for this weekend. “They were scared by Chris Christie saying there would be road closures, to expect major delays, the bridge is closing, and all of the signs are saying to expect traffic. I think everyone just went like, ‘I’m going to relax. I’m going to watch the pope on TV. I’m going to watch the Eagles game.’ That’s what I think people planned for.”
Other business owners in Camden County reached by NewsWorks also reported disappointing sales over the papal weekend.
Raymond Akumuo watched PATCO trains speed by his three businesses located near the Ferry Avenue Station in Camden. “They were virtually empty,” Akumou said. “I watched every train as it drove past, and I thought they would be packed. Never! It was not the case.”
Akumuo owns Akunimo Liquor, Cafe II and a Chinese restaurant, all in a row, on the White Horse Pike. He had hoped pilgrims parking at Ferry Avenue Station would provide his businesses an extra bump, but the station lot wasn’t even close to being filled.
“I would say that the impact was at least 20 to 25 percent down,” he said, adding, “I just didn’t think it was necessary to close all the streets and highways over here …. We’re quite a ways away from Philadelphia. Someone was just over-thinking or over-planning.” Many roads in Camden were closed, including Admiral Wilson Boulevard from the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Airport Circle. Akumuo also called the closing of the bridge “ridiculous.”
In Cherry Hill, the McDonald’s on Route 38 also suffered lost business this weekend. Emilio Ilagan, the manager, said he thought the pope’s visit would bring more customers. Normally on a Sunday afternoon, his restaurant serves about 75 customers per hour. Today, it was half that. “It’s kind of disappointing, because business-wise, when you don’t hit targets, it can affect the whole month, sales, everything,” he said.
Ilagan brought extra employees in to be prepared for the crowds, but then he sent some home early.
Akumuo said state and local leaders should do their homework before they close roads so far from the actual event. “They’ve got to put out some feelers next time to find out how much are we going to be impacted. We have all this technology. Have people just email to say that they’re going to be there. [It’s better to] do it that way, as opposed to just guessing and screwing things up.”