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'Alive again’: Ocean City boardwalk, beach reopen to relief and sparse attendance

Ocean City has reopened its beaches and boardwalk.

The Jolly Roger Ferris Wheel was still. No one posed at Old Time Photos. Police cars crept the boardwalk.

Saturday wasn’t like any other day at the beach.

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Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan reopened the resort town’s beaches and boardwalk Saturday morning after nearly two months closed for the deadly coronavirus outbreak. Unseasonably cold weather and public warnings — sidewalks painted red with “Proceed at your own risk” — greeted a scattering of locals.

With statewide stay-at-home orders still in place and hotels still closed, Meehan reopened the beach to locals and out-of-town property owners. He called it a “soft opening” for the tourist town that would otherwise expect tens of thousands of people for a holiday weekend like this.

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“In May, the crowds are beginning to build up dramatically. This is Mother’s Day weekend. This would be a pretty busy weekend,” said Meehan, standing alone on the boardwalk.

He welcomed the sparse attendance. Out-of-town vacationers are still advised to stay away. The locals went by jogging or bicycling or browsing the few restaurants open for carryout. Signs encouraged everyone to keep their distance. Yellow “Caution” tape closed off the benches. The kids still kicked their shoes off and ran in the sand. But they shared hand-sanitizer and doughnuts.

It was all the same, but all different.

No one was sipping a “world famous” Bloody Mary at the Purple Moose Saloon or chowing down at the Paul Revere Smorgasbord. The novelty, giant-sized wooden beach chair sat empty.

“It’s a ghost town,” Craig Diehlmann said. “There should be tens of thousands of people on the boardwalk right now."

Statewide restrictions allow restaurants a carryout business, but Diehlmann’s boardwalk shop, Photo Magic, remains closed.

“It’s brutal,” he said. “Making the high rents we pay up here is nearly impossible."

Ocean City had expected hundreds of thousands of people last weekend for the annual Springfest, one of the biggest arts and crafts shows in the country. The 30-year festival was canceled for the first time. The town’s biggest upcoming events are mostly canceled or postponed.

Measures of tourism such as room taxes and visitor-center attendance show declines of more than 70 percent over last year. To make matters worse, a polar vortex over Canada continues is blowing cold air into the mid-Atlantic states. Beach temperatures were forecast to be 20 degrees colder than average, with highs Saturday in the low 50s and gusty winds.

“We’re just getting kicked," said Anna Dolle Bushnell, whose great-grandfather opened Dolle’s Candyland on the boardwalk 110 years ago.

Typically, the shop’s producing 3,000 to 5,000 pounds a day of fudge, taffy, caramel, chocolates and other candies. Dolle Bushnell had continued with mail orders.

“We’re lucky if we’re pumping out a couple hundred [pounds],” she said.

She expressed relief to see the boardwalk reopen: “This is like the first shot in the arm."

Meehan said he will reopen the town entirely and welcome vacationers only after Gov. Larry Hogan lifts the statewide stay-at-home order. The governor restricted travel for all Marylanders in March to stem the coronavirus outbreak. By Saturday, the virus had infected more than 31,500 people in Maryland and killed more than 1,500, according to state health officials.

Despite the grim backdrop, Meehan reaches for a silver lining to the 2020 beach season.

“I often get people asking me, or sending me emails, saying Ocean City’s changed. It’s not like it used to be because of all the large events,” Meehan said. “This will really be a bit of a throwback summer, where you come to the beach with your family, spend a lot of family time together ... In some ways, that might not be a bad thing.”

Meanwhile, the locals were pleased Saturday just to return to the sand and waves.

“We live in Bethany. They’re not open yet, and we were dying to get out in the fresh air,” said retiree Kelly Bradshaw.

Bradshaw strolled the boardwalk with her husband and dog. She said she was joining a protest movement on May 16 to reopen Rehoboth Beach. Protesters plan to storm the beach in defiance of its closure, she said.

“I want it all open. I’m not afraid of the coronavirus,” she said. “Everybody needs vitamin D.”

Others, too, downplayed concerns about the virus. Jackie Richards said the virus seems a bigger threat in urban areas of the Western Shore. Indeed, state health officials recorded only last week the first nine cases of coronavirus in Ocean City. Four more have emerged there since, state data show. In contrast, Baltimore City has recorded more than 3,000 cases.

“Down here, it seems like people aren’t as bothered by it,” Richards said.

Boardwalk evangelist Randy Hofman was eager to load up his masonry tools and jugs of Elmer’s glue and begin again the sand sculptures he’s crafted since the 1980′s. He was stunned by the boardwalk.

“I looked up the north end. I looked up the south end. I saw about three people,” he said. “It’s unfathomable.”

Hofman begins each season with a big sculpture of Jesus’ face, the eyes a foot wide. More intricate designs don’t hold up — even when sprayed with glue — in springtime winds.

He chose Saturday to break from routine. He sculpted Jesus in detail: robed, outstretched arms, rising from rocks.

The message was more fitting this spring, Hofman said. He etched in the sand, “Alive Again."

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