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Ocean City hopes extra week of summer, albeit rainy, brings Labor Day beachgoers

Families with children enjoy an extra week of summer after Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order delayed school until after Labor Day. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

Unlike past summers, sweet-toothed customers have continued to mob Dolle's Candyland on the Ocean City boardwalk in the past two weeks.

"It seems like summer's still here, which is a wonderful thing because it usually starts tapering off in the second to third week of August," said Anna Dolle Bushnell, co-owner of the century-old candy shop. "From the 15th to the 25th it would just dive. It hasn't now."

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Usually, the crowds going to the beach thin out in the waning weeks of August as Maryland families send children back to school, but the tourist exodus has been delayed this year, Bushnell said, following Gov. Larry Hogan's executive order that schools remain closed for the summer until after Labor Day.

But what the state government gave, nature may be taking away this week and into the important Labor Day weekend. Ocean City boosters worry that the blustery, wet weather that made the boardwalk a ghost town Tuesday may presage the weekend, when the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are due to call on the Mid-Atlantic.

Still, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan and the hoteliers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs in Maryland's most popular beach town say they've noticed more late August vacationers, which they attributed to Hogan's stretching the summer.

"We start to see a slight drop-off typically this past weekend," Meehan said. "This weekend was very busy. I think that was due to the fact that kids aren't going back [to school] quite so early."

Not only have the crowds been larger, the mayor said, but he's noticed more Maryland license plates among the cars on the highway, a sign that Marylanders haven't ceded the beach to their counterparts in New York and New Jersey.

The extended summer break has received a positive reaction from business owners and vacationers across the state, said Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for the governor.

"Obviously starting school after Labor Day is beneficial to Ocean City and the many Maryland families that enjoy time together at the beach, but it also benefits communities and families in every part of the state, which is why it has such strong statewide support," Chasse said in a statement.

To celebrate the longer summer, Ocean City tourism officials planned this week as a "Maryland Week," for which about 50 businesses have been offering discounts and deals, said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.

"We thought, 'Why not celebrate Maryland? And let's do it right at the end of summer,' " Jones said. "Now if I could only make the sun shine …"

Beachgoers likely will have to wait for that until later in the weekend, after a high-pressure system pushes the remaining moisture from Hurricane Harvey from the area, according to Eric Seymour, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Unlike the feet of rain Harvey delivered to Texas, its remnants may drop only a quarter of an inch in Ocean City Friday afternoon and evening, gradually tapering off during the day Saturday, he said.

"Your better beach days are definitely going to be Sunday and Monday," when temperatures will reach the high 70s, Seymour said.

Roughly 650,000 to 700,000 Marylanders usually travel for the end-of-summer holiday weekend and this year should be no different, despite the rain, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Christine Delise said.

The Fourth of July set a record this year for the highest travel volume, and Memorial Day had the most since 2005. The extended summer should only help boost those numbers, she said.

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"Given what AAA saw for July 4th and the Memorial Day holiday, we anticipate the trend to continue for the Labor Day weekend, particularly since most Maryland schools will start after the holiday," Delise said.

Labor Day travelers will face spiking gas prices. With many Texas refineries shut down by the storm and its flooding, the average price for a gallon of regular gas in Maryland is up more than 13 cents in the past week to nearly $2.43, two cents below the national average, according to AAA.

Given the tightened supply of Gulf Coast gasoline and the increased demand for Labor Day, prices could continue to rise as much as 15 cents in the coming week, Delise said. Still, she doesn't think it's enough to deter drivers from hitting the road for one last summer hurrah.

"Even with the slight bump up in gas prices, we do not anticipate travelers canceling their plans," she said.

Ocean City destinations remain optimistic the rain won't deter beachgoers.

As part of Maryland Week, Ripley's Believe It Or Not! on the boardwalk is offering a half-off deal until after Labor Day, said general manager Brandon Ely.

As rain pummeled the boardwalk earlier this week, Ripley's was one of just three attractions open, Ely said. The added summer week will offer an extra boost going into Labor Day, he said he hoped.

But nothing helps as much as sunshine.

"I know the rain's not supposed to stick around," Ely said. "Maybe people will stick around town and take advantage of the different [deals] people are offering them."

At the Grand Hotel & Spa, children milled around the lobby during the rain this week, said Kimberly Wootteon, the hotel's sales director.

Typically, the property loses about a fifth of its guests as schools start up, she said, "but we are running at the same pace as the rest of the month."

The 251-room hotel at the Boardwalk and 21st Street booked more rooms in advance than usual this week, Wootteon said, setting it up for a strong September.

"We've seen quite a few more families this week than we normally would see," she said. "The parking lots are still full. There's still a line at Starbucks."

Even with a delayed start to the school year, Chauncy's Surf-O-Rama 54th Street still loses many of its school-aged summertime employees and customers due to the start of fall sports, owner Blair Rhodes said.

"They're all pretty athletic," he said. "They have to go back early for soccer or football or whatever."

Even so, he said, he's grateful to the governor for the extra week of summer.

"Is it a positive thing? Absolutely," he said. "Is it a big, big positive thing? Eh, not so much. But I hope they keep it."

The rainy forecast for the start of the Labor Day weekend wraps up what already has been a cool, wet summer for Ocean City, said Gary Figgs, vice president and chief financial officer of the bayside nightspot Seacrets Jamaica USA.

Rain can keep away last-minute vacationers, he said, but it isn't always bad for Ocean City businesses. An afternoon shower can drive people who would otherwise linger on the beach into restaurants, shops, arcades and other indoor attractions.

Not so for Seacrets, which offers open-air concert stages, bars and dining.

"It was going very well through July 4th, but unfortunately every other weekend it was raining," Figgs said. "We're an outside business, so rain days obviously hurt us."

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It isn't his imagination. After a dry June, with two fewer inches of rain than usual, July and August brought 7.5 and 8.5 inches of rainfall to Ocean City, respectively — a combined 7 inches more than normal, Seymour said.

Figgs said he hopes people will take advantage of the sunny end to the weekend and the summer.

"We're extremely hopeful more folks will be in town," he said.

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