As New Jersey opens its beaches for Memorial Day, the pandemic summer mantra is ‘safety first’

Benches along Ocean Grove Beach in New Jersey have been wrapped in yellow crime tape to encourage social distancing. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

ASBURY PARK, N.J. – Joe Bongiovanni has been patrolling Asbury Park’s wide beaches for more than a half century, beginning as a lifeguard when he was 18 and now, at 70, as Beach Safety Supervisor. He has seen vicious riptides and beach brawls, hurricanes and circling sharks, rough surf rescues and even a few marriage proposals.

But this? This is like nothing else.

As the Memorial Day weekend ushered in the summer season, the 75 lifeguards, beach ambassadors and cashiers working for Bongiovanni all wear face masks. Hand sanitizer stations are set up at every entrance on the mile-long beach. A freshly painted yellow line divides the boardwalk with white arrows directing patrons to stay in their lanes. Hundreds of benches have been rounded up, wrapped in yellow crime tape and corralled in a pen to discourage stopping and sitting. And every 50 feet, signs remind visitors about social distancing, a phrase that meant nothing to anyone three months ago and is now as common as the novel coronavirus it is meant to contain.

The opening of New Jersey’s beaches and boardwalks is among the state’s first hopeful steps toward some kind of normal after a spring that was anything but. People want to be outside. Business needs to come back. But the worry hanging in the air at the shore won’t be blown away by a brisk ocean breeze. Bongiovanni and his staff are keeping a hawk eye on the crowds – monitoring spacing, mask-wearing and the numbers.

“The overcrowding thing. We really don’t want to be in that situation,” he said Friday, standing on the boardwalk wearing his red Asbury Park windbreaker, shorts, sunglasses and still looking as fit as most 18-year-old lifeguards. “We’re not just going to allow a free-for-all. When we see it’s getting saturated, we’ll stop selling beach passes. Our focus is going to be on being safe.”

Up and down the Jersey Shore, that’s the mantra as the pandemic summer begins: Safety first, safety first.

New Jersey doesn’t need any more death. A brutal stretch since March has claimed the lives of 11,081 residents as of Saturday. As the U.S. death toll closes in on 100,000, New Jersey accounts for more than 11 percent of the nation’s fatalities. Only New York has paid a higher price.

But what does safety first look like when the enemy approaches unseen and unheard, like a dark spirit in the night claiming hundreds of lives a day? For months the answer has been to wash your hands and avoid each other. No touching, no hugging, no getting too close. That’s a tough ask at the beach, where the whole point is to be together in a sea of people, to be carefree and forget about all the things you spend the rest of your time worrying about.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, on Friday increased the size of allowed gatherings from 10 to 25 people. That includes on the beaches, and the six-foot social distancing and mask recommendations remain in place. It’s not how anyone wants to spend the summer, but Murphy knows that a resurgence of covid-19 cases could be devastating. In coordination with local governments, the state will closely monitor developments along the shore and be in position to act.

Murphy said he can’t guarantee that the virus won’t resurge, but the state is readying itself by stockpiling ventilators, personal protective equipment, hospital bed capacity and medicine just in case.

“I hope we don’t have to go through hell again, but boy we better be prepared if we do,” Murphy said in an interview Friday, adding that adhering to the rules will help avoid a recurrence, but only if everyone cooperates. “I think this is going to be very tricky. I don’t think there’s any way of saying it otherwise. As we all begin to dip our toes back in the water . . . we’ve got to be really careful and responsible.”

For beach towns, there is no alternative to the strict guidelines if they want to salvage even a sliver of a normal summer.

Vigilance is the only remedy, said Asbury Park Mayor John Moor, who slung hot dogs on the boardwalk as a teenager, saw dozens of bands at the magnificent Convention Hall and has marveled at the city’s rebirth following a long downturn in the last few decades of the 20th century. The city, which was incorporated in 1897 and has a year-round population of about 16,000 residents, estimates it had 450,000 people visit its beaches last year and approximately 2.5 million visitors in total.

This summer won’t be like last year’s. Asbury Park is limiting sales of season beach passes and will shut down daily beach pass sales if social distancing guidelines are threatened. Hotel bookings and short-term rentals won’t be allowed until June, and then only with limited capacity. Arcades and bowling alleys remain shut down as do the bustling bars and popular live music spots such as the Stone Pony and Wonder Bar. Even as Moor helps the city navigate the season ahead and put safety protocols in place, uncertainty is the only sure thing. He’d rather deal with an enemy he could see.

“Give me a blizzard. Give me a hurricane. Give me 10 of those. This thing is an unknown and that’s what’s scaring everyone,” Moor said Friday as he walked the boardwalk under a clear blue sky. “I wouldn’t wish this upon anybody.”

Along with dozens of other Jersey Shore towns – Long Branch, Spring Lake, Belmar, Ventnor, Ocean City, Sea Isle, Wildwood – summer business is the economic driver. And that summer beach tourism is an engine for New Jersey’s broader economy. Of the state’s $45 billion in tourism revenue last year, nearly half came from the state’s four dominant coastal counties – Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May – according to Joe Simonetta, spokesman for the New Jersey Tourism Industry Association. The shore’s tourism economy employs about 235,000 people.

Projections for this summer are already way down.

“We’re optimistic that we’re open, but we know with the restrictions and following the guidelines around hotel and restaurant capacity that we don’t expect to realize those numbers,” Simonetta said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get near 100 percent. Most of the tourism industry is resolved to the fact it’s going to be at least half that, if not worse.”

It has been two months since Sean Holmes and his wife Valerie Hegarty have had a guest at the boutique hotel they’ve owned since 2005 in Ocean Grove, a quiet seaside town of Victorian homes and hotels adjacent to Asbury Park. The 16-room Majestic Hotel is typically booked solid through the summer, but almost all of the calls the couple have received lately have been cancellations.

“People want the fresh air and to be on the beach. Any time the sun shows its face there’s a lot of traffic coming into town,” Holmes, a native of Galway, Ireland, said with a lyrical Irish accent that camouflaged the concern he feels about the coming season.

“Our livelihood depends on getting open,” Holmes said. “The biggest challenge for most in this business is that we have to make money this time of year to get us through the rest of the year. We’ll be lucky if we get 50 percent for the summer.”

Businesses everywhere at the shore are making similar calculations. At Eddie Confetti’s ice cream stand on the Asbury boardwalk, patrons can order from a vast array of homemade flavors – from banana chunk and cannoli to peanut butter caramel cookie dough and cinnamon bun. But this year they might have to wait a little more than usual.

Owner Eddie Catalano, who started the business 16 years ago, is limiting the number of workers inside the stand. Typically he would have five or six teenagers scooping and selling ice cream on each shift, but he’s keeping it to two or three to start the summer to meet distancing guidelines and ensure that his workers are safe.

“God forbid, I wouldn’t want to be the root cause of something happening,” Catalano said. “That’s my biggest concern, way above the financial.”

Typically, Catalano has 300 tubs of ice cream ready at the start of the season, but this year he has just 100. If he’s forced to close back down, he doesn’t want to get stuck with extra product.

“On the business end, I’m welcoming opening up to get the revenue. But I can also see people getting way too comfortable way too quick, and there’s a risk of that,” he said. “This is all a trial. But what if the trial fails?”

What if? That question hangs around every corner at the shore. The only hope, most people feel, is that everyone does their best to keep things as safe as possible. The messages are everywhere. On the highway heading to shore points, an LED display targets younger beachgoers: “Going down the shore, bro? Practice social distancing.” Most are paying heed for now, but some dismiss the warnings and say the state is overreaching.

Andrew Amonte, 22, was not wearing a mask Friday afternoon as he sat on a boardwalk railing watching visitors stroll by. The Asbury Park resident said he thinks orders to wear a mask violate his civil rights and believes the state should reopen entirely and without the limitations now in place.

“Covid is not as lethal as people are making it out to be,” Amonte said. “They need to reopen everything. Things need to reopen because more people are going to die from homelessness if the economy stays shut down.”

Amonte said he was planning to move to Tampa, Florida, to “get out of a Democratic state and to be part of a Republican freedom state.”

A block away, Natasha Campbell, 30, pushed her smiling 7-month-old son Nicolas in a stroller on the boardwalk. A doctor at nearby Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Campbell has been treating patients with covid-19 for the past two months in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Many of those patients have died.

“You can’t take it all to heart or you would lose your mind, but it’s terrible and some really hit close to home,” Campbell said. “When you have a 30-year-old die and the parents have to come to the hospital, that’s really terrible.”

Taking Nicolas for strolls on the boardwalk has been a welcome escape for Campbell and her husband, who also is a doctor at the hospital. But as Memorial Day and summer approach, Campbell said she is concerned about what’s next.

“They’ve really made an effort to separate people, and that’s great. But I am worried,” she said. “The cases are on the downtrend now, but I’m worried about this summer and opening up.”

No one person has done as much for Asbury Park’s image and identity as Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in nearby Freehold and whose freewheeling debut album in 1973, “Greetings from Asbury Park,” burned this little shore town into the imagination of generations of fans around the world. Many of the songs on that and subsequent albums captured the roughshod romance of the boardwalk and beach life with a bursting-at-the-seams exuberance that can feel starkly at odds with these constrained coronavirus times. It’s difficult to imagine any good boardwalk song coming forth from this socially distanced, masked-up summer.

In his song “Asbury Park, Fourth of July (Sandy),” Springsteen delivers a line about a local fortune teller, singing: “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do.”

The song made Madam Marie famous, and her blue-and-white fortune telling stand, Madam Marie’s Temple of Knowledge, still sits on the boardwalk. Marie Castello died in 2008, but her granddaughter, Dainzie Marie Castello, 52, sees customers all summer long, including many Springsteen fans who’ve traveled here from all over the world. Legend has it that her grandmother told a teen Springsteen that he would be a star long before his meteoric rise.

Castello has done readings via FaceTime and Zoom for the past two months. Now back on the boardwalk where she started telling fortunes when she was 9 years old, she’s wearing a mask and medical gloves and is having a plexiglass shield installed so she can tell fortunes and read palms safely.

These days, everyone is asking Castello about the future.

“You know what I tell them? I tell them this summer is not going to be great, but it’s not going to be as bad as everybody thinks,” Castello said. “And by next summer, we’re going to be back to a new normal. But I don’t think we’re ever going to be the same again for a long time.”

Her grandmother was right about Springsteen. Maybe she’ll be right too.

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