Bits of sun poked through cloudy skies as a heavy afternoon wind gusted, but Bel Air’s Tom Dickson soaked up every minute of it on Sunday. The 61-year-old beachgoer and longtime frequenter of Ocean City, Maryland, boasted a near-perfect tan the weekend before Memorial Day.
He sat alone from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., blasting music from his speakers, his lunch tied to his bike in a plastic bag. Dickson, who describes himself as an extrovert, said he felt concerned that other tourists over the weekend did not appear to exercise the same degree of caution at the beach and boardwalk as he did. Both spaces have opened to visitors after weeks of closure due to the coronavirus, which has infected at least 38,000 people statewide and killed over 1,870 as of Sunday.
“I enjoy being out in public again — but I am careful,” said Dickson, who works for Baltimore Gas and Electric Company but has been on furlough since April.
While visitors said they enjoyed returning to the popular tourist destination, some, like Dickson, reported feelings of uneasiness about the town’s approach to public safety.
Others said they wanted the city and state to hasten the easing of restrictions so they could return to their summer routines.
The tension follows remarks from Gov. Larry Hogan, who signaled last week his administration’s quest to find middle ground between a scared public and eager supporters of a reopened economy.
“Some people think we’re moving too fast and some people think we’re moving too slow, so it’s probably the right move,” Hogan said.
Still, Dickson said he wished more visitors would take seriously the calls to practice social distancing and cover their faces.
“I don’t want this virus,” Dickson said. “It surprises me how many people aren’t wearing masks.”
Ocean City officially lifted the restrictions on its beach and boardwalk last week, days before the Republican governor replaced the statewide stay-at-home order with a “Safer at Home” advisory. Under the change, the state encourages people to remain at home when they can, but will not legally enforce potential violations. It also allows retailers, salons and places of worship to reopen to the general public at up to 50% capacity.
The Eastern Shore beach town allowed hotels and short-term lodging providers to reopen beginning Thursday, which permitted guests — including many from out of town who faced stricter guidelines at home — to stretch their legs after nearly two months spent inside.
“I wish it was more back to normal, but it is what it is,” said Travis Klement, a visitor who lives about 40 minutes north of Philadelphia. “But it’s nice to be out and actually about.”
An average weekend at the beach can draw up to 200,000 people, said Ocean City spokeswoman Jessica Waters, though she said she cannot predict how many families would turn out this summer with the pandemic looming overhead.
She said towns such as Ocean City, which operate on seasonal economies, help drive the state’s financial well-being each year and simply cannot afford to stay shut down during their busiest season.
“We are a large economic engine,” she said. “If our businesses don’t have an opportunity to have a summer, it will be a significant impact to the city and the state.”
She said this season will depend on every individual’s comfort level, though the town went to “great lengths” to ensure guests’ safety — installing plexiglass at carryout restaurants, repositioning and blocking off benches to promote physical distancing and installing signs that promote mask wearing along the boardwalk.
Many on the boardwalk did not wear masks Sunday, and some who did had them draped around their necks, leaving their mouths exposed.
“This is new territory for everyone,” Waters said, adding that the coronavirus pandemic had created a steep learning curve for officials and citizens. “Our primary goal is for people to come here and have a safe and wonderful time, and then also to go home safe.”
Business operators and owners said they raced to get their shops ready for patrons once Hogan and Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan gave them the green light to reopen. For small business owners, especially, thin profit margins hinge on heavy foot traffic.
“We were closed for eight weeks, and we were very much looking forward to being back,” said Justyna Kuzmicz, general manager of The Kite Loft store, who said the shop depends on a strong summer season to keep the lights on. “There was no question [about reopening]. We were just waiting.”
Kuzmicz said most shoppers came to the store in small groups and wearing masks, though she had to ask some people to put theirs on. She said most people responsibly self-policed themselves.
Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a former Baltimore health commissioner and former state health secretary, said potential visitors should understand that the risk of contracting COVID-19 while walking on the boardwalk or relaxing on the beach remains unclear.
“People who go to the beach don’t leave the virus behind. They’ll take it with them,” he said. “There’s absolutely a chance of transmission.”
However, Sharfstein, now a vice dean at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the risk is much lower outdoors than indoors. For now, he said the beach town should refrain from opening its arcades, indoor miniature golf courses and sit-down restaurants.
“It’s important for there to be policies that reflect the serious nature of this disease,” he said. “But I think, within reason, people can decide what their own risk tolerance is.”
Public health experts and medical professionals such as Sharfstein voiced concerns about Hogan’s move to start reopening the state, calling it abrupt and premature given the continuous infection rate and Maryland’s limited testing capacity.
But for some who live and work in Ocean City, the reopening of the local businesses, beach and boardwalk could not come soon enough.
“It hurt me, for the last couple months,” said Jim Parrillo, owner of Big Jim’s Bikes on the Ocean City boardwalk, who said his rental business boomed this weekend. “Yesterday, we were sold out — first time this year.”
Parrillo said his staff worked to sanitize the bikes and scooters after each ride with extra caution since reopening and wore masks all weekend. He called it the new normal.
As lines snaked around the boardwalk for fan favorites such as Thrasher’s French Fries and Fisher’s Popcorn, some welcomed the crowds as a sign of an economy in rebirth.
“I’m OK with it,” said Betsy Thomas, who lives in nearby Salisbury, where a poultry plant outbreak had infected some 240 residents there. Nearly 20 people in Wicomico County have died of COVID-19 since the state began tracking fatalities related to the virus in March, and more than 800 cases have been confirmed there.
Nevertheless, “I think it needs to get back up and moving,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to support local, small businesses. We hate to see them go under.”
Officials said the region’s full economic impact on the state cannot be measured. But Hogan and Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot have frequently expressed support for starting the academic year for state public schools after Labor Day to allow families more time to vacation in summer, citing a net figure of about $115 million at stake, according to a news release Franchot’s office published in September.
But a phased-in reopening means Ocean City cannot reach its full potential right away, said Susan Jones, executive director of Ocean City’s Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. Rather, guests and merchants must prepare for a more minimal summer.
Jones said restaurants reported feeling overwhelmed over the weekend, running low on carryout containers and tasked with accommodating large crowds.
She had hoped more of the city’s attractions could open so families would have more to do aside from congregating on the boardwalk and beach. And only a fraction of the hotels and short-term rentals opened for visitors, with more to follow after Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s not as robust,” she said. “Typically, everybody’s open by the first weekend in May.”
For some, that’s preferred.
“We’re making progress, why give that up?” said Dickson, who said while he’d like to get back to work, he does not want to put himself at greater risk of contracting the virus. “It’s not over.”
There are currently 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Ocean City, according to state ZIP code data.