The Jersey Shore has helped people through the pandemic. But things at the beach are still not settled | Lifestyles
The idea of the Jersey Shore as a place of escape, healing, invigorating with an ocean breeze – a very old idea, really – has been put to the test in the past couple of years.
Under the stresses and restrictions of a pandemic, the Jersey Shore beckoned. People realized what the locals knew: it’s a calming place to relax, and not just in the summer. You could feel a little normal, at least once people realized it was okay to open the boardwalks (Atlantic City never closed in 2020) and sit on the beach together.
People even looked away when others brought their pandemic pups on walks. (Not allowed, I know, but so many dogs!)
At the Shore, it’s easy to settle into a routine, go for a walk, see people outside, feel connected, but still hunker down.
For me, the experience of living here year-round for the past quarter-century has been living with opposites: crazy busy and exposed in the summer, quiet and secluded in the winter. That made it both an easy place to ride out a pandemic, but also, especially in 2020, to feel a little overwhelmed, when second home owners arrived in droves at unusual times. But there we all were, riding in a place that looked pretty good.
In many ways, as the world battled a pandemic, the Shore shone. The place was packed, with attendance up 24% last year from 2020 to 48.2 million people, and remote workers manning restaurants and off-season stores.
People took risks, continued to gather, relied on salty air and ocean breezes to mitigate any outdoor spread of COVID-19. Merchants who suffered in 2020 from closures were inundated with record sales in 2021. Neighbors spotted vaccination appointments as they used to play restaurant openings. The end of the season felt like a race with the thrust of the delta.
And yet. At the end of last summer, it seemed like everyone was unhappy. The fuses were short. People were impatient. There was so much bickering online that Facebook groups were shut down. Many store and restaurant owners resented their newly angry clientele. Large crowds of teenagers gathered on the beaches at night, and police departments struggled to figure out how, or even if, to contain them.
With so many people down at any time of the year and real estate booming, some neighborhoods felt newly upscale, and Airbnbs brought newcomers to the old towns along the coast.
That sense of belonging that people feel on the Shore — my town, my beach, my block, my Shore home — has given way to a sense of vulnerability. Were the locals now on the defensive, instead of the summer visitors? If you order dumplings in February in a seaside town, are you really just a Shoobie?
People have increasingly marked the beach grass with flags, a good way to keep people away, but also, in some cases, to desecrate opposition to the president. A group of bathers showed up in Ventnor with their Proud Boys flag planted in the sand.
But mostly, the Shore was that toned, albeit a little shaken up. People arrived feeling like they had left something worse behind.
“I really think the Shore has certainly escaped the most restrictive kind of attitudes and mentality of COVID,” said Patrick Rosenello, mayor of North Wildwood, New Jersey, and investor in several Shore restaurants. “Even at first it was an escape. We were very lucky. The wake caused by the COVID ship – we still feel the wake. We still feel hit by the wake.
Rosenello, like many, approaches the 2022 season with uncertainty. In his city, a pre-season storm that behaved more like a winter storm knocked out a third of the city’s beach supply. Several beaches will not be ready in time for Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s definitely been another volatile summer,” Rosenello said.
This spring, even with some epic bouts of bad weather, and yet another surge of COVID in the air – everywhere you turned people were positive, remember when you hit your favorite Shore Town market without masks – people were still there, making the place feel like it usually does and should.
There were the old guys sitting on their usual benches, the Pennsylvania plates, the mustachioed runner I’ve passed on the boardwalk since the mid-1990s. I’m still amazed to see the same people over and over again, at the same locations. We all fall into the same rhythms, see that glimpse of the sun and find ourselves. Some of us feel the need to hit every bench on our daily walks, others go with the flow a little more.
Memorial Day weekend beckoned after a chilly May, but sure enough, with a bang, it was a week ahead of schedule. The season suddenly turned into summer and the beaches were packed.
Off the beach, there have been breakthroughs. After watching us board bikes for an impromptu trip to the Boardwalk Biergarten in Atlantic City with the new neighbors across the street, my longtime neighbor was impressed. “I didn’t know people on this side of the street socialized with people on this side of the street,” he deadpanned.
Everything is possible now.
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