By MADDY VITALE
The holiday shopping season in downtown Ocean City and on the Boardwalk proved successful for many merchants, officials said.
Despite the pandemic and a months-long shutdown of some nonessential businesses in the spring, shopkeepers said that people still shopped, still spent money for takeout food and outdoor dining and continued to shop locally, even with the added rules and restrictions due to COVID-19.
An early indicator that business would still continue to be strong came with November’s “Earlier Than The Bird” shopping promotion. The event brought tourists to the downtown to shop locally and take advantage of discounts.
Another clue that people would still go shopping and give a boost to the local economy was the fact that the real estate market was booming, especially in home sales.
And then on New Year’s Day, vacationers and residents filled the downtown to enjoy the First Day Shopping Extravaganza.
“We had a decent holiday season,” said Jody Levchuk, co-owner of the Jilly’s shops both on the Boardwalk and in the downtown. “Yesterday and today were packed. I think the best part of the holiday season is that people spent time in Ocean City, even without the city events.”
Levchuk noted, however, that businesses such as Jilly’s Arcade and others in the amusements or dining industry definitely struggled because of the pandemic.
“We certainly are struggling still at the arcade as far as visitors and I think that falls in line with things people don’t want to do because of COVID,” he said of his Boardwalk arcade business. “People are being safe and therefore places like the arcade and other businesses are suffering. But no one seems to worry about shopping in the retail stores.”
Levchuk, who is also a city councilman, said that the cancellation of city events such as the popular First Night celebration to ring in the new year had an impact on the number of visitors. But surprisingly, he said, the majority of business owners he has spoken to have done well, all things considered.
“I think if you were in retail and sold items people were looking for this year, I’m sure you had a good year. But if you had a movie theater, a restaurant that mostly did dining in, an amusement or arcade business, then you didn’t do as well,” Levchuk added.
Throughout the pandemic, city officials and shopkeepers have worked together to supply protective masks to the public and have hand sanitizer dispensers available at storefronts, in the downtown and on the Boardwalk.
Mayor Jay Gillian has repeatedly urged the public in his weekly messages posted on the city’s website to practice social distancing and wear a mask.
Michael Allegretto, aide to the mayor, said, “The city encourages everyone to follow the CDC guidelines to wear masks. The city continued to give out masks so that people could enjoy their holiday season in a safe manner.”
The cancellation of many of Ocean City’s special events was due to social distancing and statewide crowd-limit requirements set by Gov. Phil Murphy.
Allegretto said that the city is looking at ways to host city events, but to do so safely.
“We are looking forward to the new year,” he said. “The city hopes to get back to normal and hold events. Some things we aren’t sure we can do yet, but it will all depend on COVID.”
The first city event of 2021 will be a virtual ceremony celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18.
“The next events start in April and hopefully we will know what we can do by then. If we can’t do big things, hopefully we can do small things in town that people will enjoy,” Allegretto said.
Danielle Guerriero, president of the Downtown Merchants Association, said that the holiday season went well for most of the merchants she has spoken to.
“The First Day Shopping Extravaganza was so busy. There were a lot of people in town for the new year and the holidays,” she said. “It is nice to see people shopping local. They were in the stores buying gifts for family members.”
While Guerriero noted that it was a very different year, people were still out shopping.
“It feels good to see people shopping,” she said. “I feel like a lot of stores take all the precautions to make sure everyone is safe. They make sure their customers are safe.”
Between the sanitizer dispensers throughout the downtown supplied by the city, to the shopkeepers’ safety precautions, Guerriero said people came to shop throughout the season feeling comfortable and happy.
“I am hoping everyone continues to follow the safety precautions,” she said of the COVID guidelines. “People should continue to come down on the weekends. Many of the businesses will still be open. We still need to shop local.”