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‘Nothing like anything we’ve had to face’: Maryland prepares for a strange summer shaped by coronavirus

People visited Ocean City, Maryland after Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the stay-at-home order.

As the unofficial kickoff to summer, Memorial Day weekend triggers a collective surge of anticipation, not just for the immediate fun to be had but for the fresh adventures and comforting routines to come.

Not in 2020. From empty seats at Camden Yards to unattended tables at beloved crab houses to headlines blaring the latest big-event cancellations, signs abound of all that Marylanders will miss as they prepare for a season shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Summer 2020 will stumble on in some form, with beaches open, seafood to be eaten and boats cruising over the Chesapeake Bay. But the pandemic has unsettled almost every ritual we hold dear, and that uneasy state will persist over the hot and humid months ahead.

“A lot of it is unknown, but certainly, a lot of things are going to be different,” Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said as he looked ahead to Memorial Day weekend. “You see people trying to social distance. You see quite a few people wearing masks, even though it’s not required in public under state law. You see that people are cognizant of things being different. And I think that’s going to carry on throughout the summer.”

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There are no blockbuster movie releases to draw us to crowded cinemas on Friday night, no community pools to host pent-up children and their haggard parents. Travel plans are on hold. Some camps have canceled their summer programs while others try to determine when to open and how to do it safely. On Wednesday, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young wiped out two major pillars of Baltimore’s summer calendar, Fourth of July fireworks and Artscape, as he canceled all large public events through the end of August.

It’s difficult to find an event in recent American history that has touched so many people in so many ways, large and small. Some historians have drawn parallels to World War II.

“When we think about what we’re going through day to day, there’s a sense of uncertainty,” said Keith Huxen, senior director of research and history at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “What’s going to happen next? Nobody knows. ... You could generally follow the course of the war just like you can sort of generally follow the efforts being made to combat COVID-19. But nobody knows when this is going to be over. The other similarity, of course, is that this virus is killing people.”

Against such a backdrop, the quest for summer normalcy is futile.

Few businesses have been hit harder than restaurants, and that reality will soon be heightened for those that rely on summer crowds. L.P. Steamers in Locust Point had just expanded to accommodate the masses of people looking to crack crabs when the pandemic hit. But that space now sits empty, and manager Kim Gardner said she’s surviving only because people want crabs for their at-home feasts. They’ve lined up on weekends to pay $95 per dozen, up from about $75 pre-pandemic (due to erratic re-stocking from Gulf Coast suppliers).

“Right now, we’re making enough to at least pay the bills and pay the couple employees we still have on,” Gardner said. “If we were doing any less, we’d be forced to shut down.”

L.P. Steamers is a family business, founded by her husband’s grandfather. And for Gardner, it’s hard to fathom a summer without large crowds of people picking through equally large plates of crabs.

“It’s going to be sad not seeing that,” she said.

The same could be said for a larger institution a few miles away.

Even if Major League Baseball’s players and owners work out their differences on plans for an abbreviated season, it’s unclear whether Camden Yards would host games this summer or whether fans would re-enter the ballpark anytime this year. A cynic might joke that hardly anyone went last summer either, as home attendance dwindled to 16,146 per game. But nightly Orioles baseball remains a fixture for many.

Tim Cooke and his brother, Paul, live a few blocks from Camden Yards and went to 35 home games last year. So the absence of baseball has left an inescapable void.

“My brother gets home. We stop by Chipotle on Pratt Street and bring it into the stadium. And then win or lose, we had a nice night,” the 38-year-old Cooke said, describing his summer routine. “This makes you really realize how much you lean on sports, even just as background noise, in daily life. … From March 16 to today have been the strangest 2 ½ months of my life. ”

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When he and his brother step outside for air and exercise, the empty ballpark looms above them as a reminder of what’s missing. Cooke feels misgivings about baseball returning in the face of health risks but said there’s no question he’d be sucked in if games return in some form.

“I think it would make the days seem more normal,” he said. “There’s just nothing. After 5 o’clock, everything just blends together.”

For other residents, the city’s more modest public parks and schools are intrinsic to summer life. Will they be permitted to cook out at Druid Hill Park or splash in the pool at Clifton Park?

Those questions are under consideration, and city residents will receive an update next week, said Whitney Brown, a spokeswoman for Baltimore City Recreation and Parks.

“This includes pools, park events and permits, summer camp, recreation programs and sporting activities and events,” Brown said. “We understand the vital role that our agency plays in the Baltimore summer experience and want to find a way to maintain quality but by doing so safely.”

Neighbors who live around city parks say foot and bicycle traffic have been heavy in recent weeks, with trails growing congested at non-peak times. Some have expressed concerns about balancing that vitality with necessary social distancing.

“Our kids, especially, need the pool,” said Graham Coreil-Allen of the New Auchentoroly Terrace Association, which represents neighborhoods along the west side of Druid Hill Park. “But at the same time, we’ve been very concerned about people clustering in unsafe ways.”

About 30 miles to the southeast, downtown Annapolis is another touchstone of Maryland summers with its busy marinas and waterfront dining spots. For most of the last two months, Gary Jobson has seen a “ghost town” when he’s stepped out to pick up mail at the West Street Post Office.

“It’s almost spooky,” the 43-year Annapolis resident said.

As chairman of the board for the non-profit Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, Jobson wants tourists on the streets of his home city. But he foresees a delicate balancing act. Last weekend, he cruised by City Dock on his 32-foot sailboat and thought, “Holy cow!” when he saw crowds of people drinking and making merry.

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Such a sight would never have fueled misgivings in past years. “But we’ve got to be careful,” Jobson said.

He’s a member of the National Sailing Hall of Fame who was headed for Tokyo to provide Olympic commentary this summer before the pandemic delayed the 2020 Games. He’s optimistic that of all the summer staples affected by the pandemic, boating might be one of the most durable.

“I think it’s going to become very valuable, because it’s a place where you can social distance and still get fresh air,” he said. “I anticipate a lot of people boating. I just hope they don’t try to raft up to each other and get big parties going.”

When Marylanders say they’re “going down the ocean,” they feel little need to specify Ocean City as the destination. It’s assumed.

The epicenter of the state’s beach life re-opened its shores and boardwalk earlier this month, drawing modest crowds as overhead signs flashed warnings suggesting (but not mandating) the use of face masks. Meehan, Ocean City’s mayor since 2006, felt joy at the familiar sites. But as he stared at orange cones designed to keep patrons six feet apart outside Thrasher’s French Fries, he also felt the weight of how strange this summer will be.

“It’s a reminder that things are different,” he said.

So are the two face masks he keeps on his person at all times.

Meehan said he’s optimistic that people will do a conscientious job spreading out over Ocean City’s wide beaches but acknowledged it will be more difficult to keep crowds from clustering along the downtown boardwalk. He’s not sure if the usual crowd of 150,000 will arrive for Memorial Day, but he’s certain many will come.

“It’s a tradition,” he said. “And people follow traditions.”

The road ahead is less certain. Will Fourth of July fireworks go off as usual? Will beachside amusement parks re-open? Will restaurants survive without sit-down crowds? Meehan has lived in Ocean City since 1971 and said he can’t remember any event, from hurricane to deep recession, that posed such an existential threat to the resort community.

“This is kind of a little bit of everything rolled up into one bundle,” he said. “It’s nothing like anything we’ve had to face.”

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