By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City is fully reopening the beaches Saturday as a dress rehearsal to prepare for the big surge in visitors expected during the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start to the summer tourism season.
Mayor Jay Gillian told members of City Council during their meeting Thursday night that the resort is looking to reopen the beaches in a safe manner, including keeping social distancing guidelines in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We’re not going to do anything unless it’s well thought-out and safe,” Gillian stressed.
He noted that he and members of his administration have consulted with medical professionals and other groups to determine the best way for safely allowing “full access” to the beaches beginning Saturday.
Gillian closed Ocean City’s beaches and Boardwalk on March 25 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The beaches reopened on May 9, but activities were limited to walking, running, surfing, exercising and fishing.
Sunbathing, sitting in chairs, lying on towels, swimming, gathering in groups or playing group sports have been prohibited. But starting Saturday, the city will allow sunbathing and the other beach activities as long as people observe social distancing.
“Everybody seems to be happy with this,” Gillian said. “They’re just frustrated in trying to get back to their normal life.”
Gillian explained that by allowing sunbathing and other beach activities this weekend, it will serve as a dry run for the large crowds that likely will arrive for Memorial Day weekend.
“We want to do that so we can prepare for Memorial Day weekend,” he said.
Thursday’s Council meeting was held by teleconference to comply with social distancing guidelines amid the pandemic.
During his remarks to Council, Gillian also said that the city has purchased a large number of face masks and will hand them out to local businesses and visitors to help protect them from COVID-19.
The Council members thanked Gillian for collaborating with them and the rest of the community to prepare for the town’s safe reopening. Despite the hardships and restrictions caused by the pandemic, they predicted the city will rebound to have a strong summer.
“I think we’re going to be safe this summer, and I think we’re going to have a good summer because you’ve done the right thing,” Councilman Keith Hartzell told Gillian.
Councilman Bob Barr implored the public to continue to follow social distancing guidelines while they are on the beaches and in other parts of town so that “we will have the summer we want.” He warned that there is a possibility that the coronavirus restrictions could be brought back if people aren’t careful.
“Use common sense. Follow the rules,” Barr said.
Ocean City has moved methodically to reopen its beaches, Boardwalk and local business community as it gets ready for Gov. Phil Murphy’s statewide coronavirus shutdown to end. Murphy announced Thursday that the Jersey Shore will be open for Memorial Day weekend.
The governor has given towns the authority to decide how to safely limit access to their beaches once they are fully open.
“Ocean City will continue to work with the governor’s office on plans to safely remove restrictions, reopen the city and get people back to work,” city spokesman Doug Bergen said. “The municipality has the authority to open the beaches and Boardwalk, and medical professionals have advised that outdoor spaces are relatively safe – provided that people can avoid dense crowds.”
Pointing out that the number of new coronavirus cases is on a downward trend in New Jersey, Gillian said all of the work that has been done to protect the public in the past few weeks has “paid off.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that he has been criticized in some social media circles while Ocean City has remained shut down. He emphasized that he can take the criticism.
“We’re taking a hell of a hit from some people on social media,” Gillian said, while labeling some of the comments as downright nasty.
City Business Administrator George Savastano, the top official in Gillian’s administration, praised the mayor for his leadership while guiding Ocean City through the coronavirus crisis.
“I know the mayor is getting it from every side,” Savastano said, referring to the criticism.
Savastano added, “Smart and reasonable people … recognize (Gillian’s) true leadership.”
In the meantime, the city already has or will reopen other attractions in town as it prepares for Memorial Day weekend. They include parking lots, recreational facilities, the skate park, dog park and municipal golf course.
The Boardwalk is open for walking, running, bicycling and for access to takeout food. Social distancing guidelines are also in effect for the Boardwalk.
Public restrooms on the Boardwalk are open and being sanitized throughout the day. Hand sanitization stations have been installed at regular intervals along the Boardwalk.
Lifeguards begin protecting Ocean City’s beaches on Memorial Day weekend.
As a perk for residents and visitors during the pandemic, the city is extending the deadline for buying seasonal beach tags at the discounted price of $20 to June 30. Starting July 1, the price for seasonal beach tags will increase to the regular rate of $25.
Updates are provided on the city’s coronavirus information page.