Memorial Day was a washout. Rain drenched the entire state and the Jersey Shore for most of the weekend, as the state embarked on its reopening during the first unofficial week of the summer season. “We’re hoping to put this behind us,” said Bob Cooper, head of Chef’s International, which owns a dozen restaurants along the Jersey Shore in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Other business owners told NJBIZ that pent-up demand drove visitors to the region in numbers not seen since before the pandemic.
Restrictions on businesses and public gatherings were lifted just before the weekend with the pandemic apparently waning as more residents get their COVID-19 vaccinations. Stadiums, bars and restaurants, gyms, amusement parks, retail outlets and many other businesses can operate at full capacity, and face coverings are no longer required for anyone fully inoculated.
“I think during the pandemic so many people adjust to outside weather activities … before you would go ‘no I’m not doing it’ now you venture out, you put the raincoat on and you still walk,” Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and one of the owners of Gillian’s Wonderland Amusement Pier, said in an interview.
Jeffrey Vasser, who heads the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism – which markets locations such as the Jersey Shore and Atlantic City casinos – agreed that optimism about the coming summer was widespread during the Memorial Day weekend along the 130-mile coastline. “Despite the bad weather, you can just see that there was just so much pent up demand for people to get out and get away and get back to some sense of normalcy,” he said.
Hotels, restaurants and indoor attractions all did well over the weekend, though Vasser admitted that outdoor attractions like the beach and amusement piers suffered during the rainier days.
Still, business owners have been wondering how they’ll navigate the final days of the pandemic and ensuing economic recovery. Jeremy DeFilippis, co-owner of JettyLife, a surf and skate apparel brand that operates a flagship store in Manahawkin on Long Beach Island and ships products to between 30 and 50 retailers across the state, said the transition to these latest reopenings has not been different given the already lax COVID-19 restrictions on retail compared to other industries. Jetty Life’s retail customers are “ordering more from us than ever before,” he said. “We’re looking to have probably the busiest summer ever on the Jersey Shore.”
But labor shortages and 15 months of supply chain disruption have caused headaches for employers. Many said they could not fully reopen. Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of the Schlossbach Group, which operates several restaurants on the Jersey Shore, said she was actually thankful for the rainy weather on the Memorial Day weekend. “If it was really nice … our staff would have been really overtaxed,” she said. “We’re not open full time anywhere because we don’t have enough people.”
That problem could continue into the summer, slowing the recovery. “It’ll be like last year when the cause for businesses not being open was because of the pandemic,” said Vicki Clark, head of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce and past president of the New Jersey Tourism Industry Association. “This year, someone who might come for a day trip or just a weekend might go to their favorite restaurant or amusement and find that it’s not open.”
Vasser said he expects this summer to be much better than last year but cautioned that it could be a while before the region post numbers better than 2019. One reason: The labor shortage has stifled growth coming out of the pandemic. The exact cause of the problems is the subject of some dispute. Business owners and their allies in government contend that the $300 per week federal unemployment relief is keeping workers to stay at home where they could earn more than in the workplace.
Other observers suggest that issues like lack of childcare, especially as students continue virtual learning, could be preventing workers from going back. And labor rights groups contend that workers have declined to return because of subpar pay, poor treatment and health and safety concerns.
Another issue has been the backlog in the J-1 student visa applications, which in a non-pandemic year would contribute thousands of foreign exchange students to the Jersey Shore workforce. 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 the backlog has prevented those visa workers from making up any significant chunk of the seasonal workforce this summer.
The shortages have business owners particularly wary, especially in the more sparsely populated Atlantic and Cape May counties in South Jersey. “The program is most popular in areas that have a small population,” Clark said. “Our year-round population is only 92,000, and that’s why it is so popular here.”
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. Last year, one of the piers was closed, and a second one opened only at night because of limited staffing. The pier had 500 J-1 visa students in 2019, then just 90 in 2020. She estimated that they have roughly 85 students on hand who have secured visas.
Gillian did not have estimates for how many visa workers the city and boardwalk had on hand this year. She said there are more than 200 businesses in the entire boardwalk and downtown area that are frequented by tourists.
“They changed their business model, ‘we’re not open at 12, we’re open at 4’,” she said. “You’re not able to give the experience to so many people that want to do it during the day. It just really changes the business model.”
Cooper said the response at his restaurants has been to offer more limited menus and to raise prices “where it was necessary” because of increased labor costs and the difficulty in getting necessary supplies.
Schlossbach said she keeps her restaurants closed on weekdays that they would normally be kept open, so as to not burn out what few staff are still around. That means thousands of dollars in losses for a single day when the weather is nice. “I think a lot of people don’t understand what we’re going through. They’re so excited that we’re getting open and we’re getting back to business,” she said. “I can’t throw huge hourly increases or crazy money at them, but I can make sure that I don’t push them to the brink.”