Ocean City will reopen its beaches and boardwalk to the general public Saturday — a move town officials say will provide more recreation space but leaves some concerned that out-of-town visitors could defy Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order and spread the coronavirus.
The announcement of the reopening decision comes as state health officials confirmed the first nine cases of coronavirus in Ocean City in the past 24 hours, according to the state’s newest ZIP code data released Tuesday. Fewer than one in every 1,000 residents in the 21842 ZIP code encompassing Ocean City are confirmed infected.
Mayor Rick Meehan insists the resort town’s actions will not violate Hogan’s executive order allowing for essential travel only, saying during a news conference Tuesday that the town is “not asking anyone to supersede the travel restrictions that are in place.”
Worcester County Health Department spokesman Travis Brown declined to say if the agency supported re-opening the beaches and boardwalk.
“We want to reiterate that everyone in Maryland needs to be following all Executive Orders from Governor Larry Hogan, including social distancing, wearing masks in retail establishments and on public transportation, avoiding crowds and avoiding non-essential travel,” Brown said in an email.
Brown deferred comment to Ocean City officials about the new COVID-19 cases in the town. Tuesday evening, an Ocean City spokeswoman referred questions back to the health department.
Earlier, Meehan said that the town’s police force will not be directed to look for out-of-town residents and that “everyone has to make their own personal decision.”
“There will be no police officers patrolling for license plates,” Meehan said. “That’s not going to be the case here in Ocean City.”
The City Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday allowing for the beaches to reopen. While the town has kept businesses and public spaces closed during the pandemic, some council members have voiced concerns about the damage the shutdown had done to area businesses in recent weeks.
Meehan said that Monday’s resolution was passed, in part, to give people “more opportunities to go outside, enjoy the fresh air, while still adhering” to social distancing guidelines.
In a joint statement with Ocean City communications manager Jessica Waters, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci agreed that reopening the town’s beaches is a way to allow residents to be outside more.
“This is a way to give nearby residents more opportunities to get outside and enjoy fresh air, while still adhering to social distancing guidelines and gathering limits," the statement said. "The governor’s stay-at-home order remains in effect.”
But Ricci confirmed it would go against the governor’s orders if people were driving from outside the area to walk the beaches or boardwalk.
City Council Secretary Mary Knight told The Baltimore Sun Monday evening that Ocean City “wanted to take this baby step to give people hope and allow them to see that there is light at the end of tunnel.”
But the secretary added that Ocean City would welcome out-of-towners who wanted to spend the day walking the beach as long as they adhered to the social distance guidelines. Masks will not be mandatory.
Hotels and most boardwalk shops will remain closed, Knight said, with the exception of a few carryout places, so it would be hard for anyone to stay more than a day. Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said only seven out of 115 hotels are currently accepting lodgers, and only those considered essential personnel during the pandemic.
“We’re not closing it to day-trippers,” Knight said. “If they want to come down and spend the day at the beach and walk the boardwalk, there’s no problem with that. It’s Mother’s Day this weekend, it might be nice to take your mom somewhere.”
But when asked whether allowing non-Ocean City residents to walk the beaches would violate Hogan’s executive order, which allows for essential travel only, Knight declined to comment.
“I trust the mayor,” she said.
Ocean City’s decision comes as other states have reopened beaches and parks during the pandemic, which has drawn criticism that officials are rushing to lift social distancing restrictions while confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths are still climbing.
In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis began allowing beaches to reopen late last month, the city of Miami Beach shut down a popular park Monday after the city’s police department said nearly 7,800 people violated social distancing measures by either not wearing masks or not maintaining six feet of distance between people.
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Donna Greenwood, a 76-year-old Ocean City resident, said she thinks the announcement is “going to create a huge influx of people” visiting the shore. She added that she’s already seen an increase of visitors as the weather has warmed up.
“If it were only [for] people from the Ocean City area ... it would be a good decision,” she said. “I just don’t think they’re going to social distance.”
She said she’s also concerned about residents from nearby Wicomico County and Sussex County, Delaware, potentially bringing the virus to Worcester County, which has 81 confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to 500 cases in Wicomico County and 2,520 cases in Sussex County, as of Tuesday.
Hogan said last week that 262 poultry workers in the state had been infected with COVID-19 and that outbreaks had been identified in two processing plants in Sussex County.
“If you’re having people come from areas that have so many cases of the COVID-19 virus ... I think it might be a little sketchy,” Greenwood said.
Knight, the City Council secretary, said she is not worried about out-of-town residents crowding Ocean City this weekend because temperatures are supposed to be cooler.
“It’s supposed to be 55 and cloudy this weekend,” she said. “God help 'em if that’s what people want to do.”