While planning remains tricky, expectations are high for a strong season along the shore
Business leaders and local officials up and down the state’s 141-mile Jersey Shore say they expect summer tourism to explode this year. They cite ramped up and steady COVID-19 vaccination efforts, the ability amid warmer weather to conduct more business outside where public health experts say the risk of viral transmission is much lower, and a general familiarity with the virus that was not present during the summer 2020 season while the state was still reeling from the first wave and a practical statewide shutdown.
“It’s just starting to pick up” on weekends, said Ben Rose, who heads marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority. The agency promotes tourism for the three Wildwood shore municipalities, and operates the 7,000-seat, 260,000-square-foot Wildwood Convention Center. “You can just see the activity on the boardwalk,” he continued.
Rose ticked off more than a dozen events planned for this summer and fall: music, food and other cultural festivals, along with major sports competitions. The Barefoot Country Music Festival on the beach is planned for Aug. 19 to 22, he said, and more than 40,000 tickets have already been sold. Residents and tourists will also have a smorgasbord of free events, boardwalk parades, Friday night fireworks, outdoor concerts and movies, and farmer’s markets every week this summer.
The Wildwood area in a non-COVID year benefits from scores of families flocking to the shore once school ends in mid-June. But Rose expects a much quicker influx of visitors as the weather gets warmer, given the remote work and school situation.
“Right now it’s almost impossible to get a rental. It’s busier now this time of year than it usually is,” said Nancy Taggart-Davis, mayor of the sleepy Long Beach Island borough of Beach Haven. “The weekend before Easter you couldn’t get a reservation at a restaurant.”
Tourists stayed at the shore much longer last year, well into early October – a phenomenon expected to be mirrored before Memorial Day this year – and repeat after Labor Day.
Jeffery Vasser, the executive director of the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism, indicated that the surge in summer rental usage this early in the year is a “good indicator” of things to come in the warmer weather. “Like last year, people are looking to get out and being outside is what people feel is safe,” he said in an interview. “I think people are certainly going to take advantage.”
In conversations with local leaders and business owners along the shore, the narrative that emerges is one of improved prospects. When the pandemic shutdowns took hold last year, the expectations for how the summer season would go were low. But as businesses began to reopen and the first wave began to subside, tourists rushed down to the shore to make up for lost time. “At the beginning of last year when it all started, we were in the same boat of not having any good … information on what’s happening. Everyone was in a panic mode and trying to hunker down,” said Toby Sweeney, who owns the Terrace Tavern and the Delaware Ave Oyster House in the Beach Haven Terrace section of Long Beach Township. “Business is going to boom this year. We kind of rely on that 10% of the year for 90% of the business.”
But that surge poses its own set of problems. Local businesses and municipal governments have spent years, sometimes decades, to fine-tune how they gear up for the summer season. Losses in revenue from reduced capacity, combined with waves of tourists, uncertain COVID-19 restriction prospects, and increased expenses from sanitization, have upended that model.
“Last year we had way more visitors than the town was probably prepared for,” said Monmouth Beach Mayor David Stickle. “We got hammered by all of the influx of everybody coming to the beach. So this year we’re anticipating the same large crowd and high attendance.”
Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Paul Kanitra said an influx of younger and even underage crowds to the shore town meant a much greater police presence: seasonal officers hired just for the summer. “We found massive amounts of them coming here, drinking in their cars, making their own parties and that really strained our police resources,” he said. “They’re definitely an increased cost.” And the cost of cleaning up more beach litter skyrocketed last year, he continued.
Officials in Asbury Park said the city lost revenue from limited beach badge sales, given that local governments still needed to enforce social distancing on the beaches. The city’s deputy mayor, Amy Quinn, estimated sales never went above 8,000 daily badges at an absolute maximum, compared to as high as 20,000 people during Fourth of July in a non-pandemic year.
Quieter days might produce closer to between 2,000 and 3,000 sales during the summer last year.
“We lost the most of any shore town in beach revenue, because we shut down the number of beach badges,” she said. “If it means to keep people safe, we’ll do it again.”
Adding to expenses, the influx of people in March and April is a major burden on towns and businesses not prepared for early numbers, according to Dana Lancellotti, the new president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
“My suspicion is that if you look at it across the board, it was probably down last year” for town finances, said Michael Cerra, who heads the New Jersey League of Municipalities. A loss in parking and beach badge revenue is bound to hit municipal budgets. “In terms of administration, it’s going to be the same,” he said. “I think the hope is that we move toward becoming more and more open and that might be offset or more than offset by more paying customers.”
Seasonal employers on the shore depend on a steady flow of J-1 visa summer exchange workers – students from other countries – each season in order to staff their attractions. Thousands of such workers are employed in the state via the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. As the pandemic deepened and international travel fell off, then-President Donald Trump put a pause on the program.
President Joe Biden reversed that action, but Lancellotti estimated a national backlog of roughly 300,000 applicants. “Those visas aren’t getting approved fast enough. A lot of the shore industry – the boardwalks, the amusements – they’re terribly worried about being able to open without enough staff… it’s for restaurants, it’s for hotels, and for venues,” she said in an interview. “If you don’t have the staff to cover that, you can’t open full force and if you’re not allowed to open your bar and you’re not allowed to have people less than 6 feet apart, you can’t fully reopen.”
Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey business & Industry Association, estimated that New Jersey relies on 5,000 such workers every year. “All of our schools are in sesson, so we don’t have a workforce for the pre-seasons or the postseason, pre-Memorial Day or post-Labor Day. We cannot recruit people to work just given school schedules,” she said. “It’s not like it was two decades ago, where you were working on the boardwalk.”
Denise Beckson, who heads human resources at Morey’s Pier in the Wildwoods, said the shortage posed a major problem last year for the four-pier boardwalk. “We think people will generally choose to stay closer to home” and visit local attractions like Morey’s, she said. “I think people saw that outdoor recreation was not as high risk as they may have feared.”
Beckson said Morey’s is rushing to find staff in the local area given the J-1 visa situation, but the limited population in the surrounding area limits that ability. Last year, one of the piers was closed, and a second one only opened at night, because of limited staffing.
Michele Gillian, who owns Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City – which opened in 1929 – said she is trying to get in touch with the local job age population and get more people working, through such events as virtual job fairs. And they’re seeing an interest from older, typically retired area residents.
Sweeney said her restaurants have been able to rely on a steady supply of younger workers from the mainland, and from families that have begun moving into their summer rentals much earlier in the year.
Michael James said his decade-long business model of renting out an LED boat to tow billboards up and down the beaches on Brigantine and Cape May was pulverized last year. “Basically the beaches were closed, they didn’t allow people to hang out on the beaches. Subsequently the advertisers … decided not to renew many of the contracts we had, and by the time the beaches were allowed to be open and the boardwalk people started opening their stores and whatnot, it was too late,” he said in an interview. “So we still sailed, we had a few contracts, but not enough to really make ends meet.”
This year, he’s running a Tiki Bar boating option, that offers afternoon and evening cruises departing from Atlantic City. Cruises are limited to six people at a time, and James feels confident business will be strong this summer.
Scott Mizrahi, owner of Lola’s Cafe in Asbury Park, said the outdoor seating arrangement last year when the city closed down several downtown roads worked well for him. Mizrahi describes his establishment, which he’s owned for a decade, as a “really European cafe,” serving coffee, desserts and alcohol.
“[A]bout three Saturdays ago was one of the best days I ever had. If that’s any indication for the summer, we’re in for a good summer,” he said.
Vasser projected that travel to the New Jersey area will be largely fueled by the “short-term drive market,” or those comfortable using a car with friends or family “they’ve been with all winter, verus an airplane.” Think New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and parts of New England. So outreach has been focused heavily on those areas.
Vasser is not sure if it can make up entirely for last year’s losses. He estimated a 25% hit year over year between 2019 and 2020, when the state’s record-high 116 million shore visitors fell to roughly 88 million visitors last year.
Those three factors: a majority-outdoor activity market, proximity to large swaths of the major driven-in markets, and a sprawling rental market, make the Jersey Shore an increasingly attractive option, according to Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, which does the state’s annual tourism outlook survey each May. “The shift away from urban destinations in the near term will benefit destinations like the Jersey shore as a large number of travelers seems to make good on lost travel among a smaller set of destinations,” he said in an email.
The lack of guidance for what COVID-19 restrictions will look like this summer has hindered planning, said Jeremy DeFilippis, owner of Jetty, a surf and skate apparel brand with its flagship store in Manahawkin at the mainland entrance to Long Beach Island.
Gov. Phil Murphy has not indicated what kinds of limits would be in place for the summer. But he set the goal of fully vaccinating 4.7 million New Jersey adults by the end of June, ahead of the July Fourth weekend. Despite setbacks with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he and other public health officials remain confident that this goal is still feasible.
“No news on beaches, amusement parks or arcades, but I would expect they will be on a list of guidance that we’ll be providing as we turn toward the summer season,” he said during an April 14 daily COVID-19 briefing. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 250 people, while large venues with at least 2,500 seats are capped at 30% capacity outdoors and 15% capacity indoors.
Lancellotti said that is a problem for shore towns where “you got festivals that’ll draw 50,000 people to an area all through the summer and the spring and the fall as well, and we’re missing that gigantic piece.”
Most other restrictions for shore businesses have not been changed since last summer. Indoor and outdoor capacity at amusement parks and water parks is limited to 50%. Casinos are also restricted to 50% capacity, as are indoor dining and retail stores. Restaurants and bars cannot offer barside seating, but the prevalence of outdoor dining has helped keep many establishments afloat.
“Outdoor dining, we’re extending this year on the Ocean City boardwalk and downtown,” Gillian said. For places that sell pizza, ice cream or other typical boardwalk food, the boardwalk has seven dining pavilions. State rules require social distancing to be enforced, and for tables to be capped at eight people.
Hotels and motels do not have any capacity restrictions, but like any other business are bound to mask requirements, social distancing and sanitization protocols.d