Coronavirus cases are ticking up in Ocean City and nearby, as vacationers eager to escape work-from-home monotony are filling crab houses, restaurants and boardwalk bars — and leaving a trail of closures in their wake.
New cases in Worcester County, where the resort town is located, have risen faster this week than almost any other jurisdiction in the state, although infection rates there remain far below the most heavily infected counties. (Only Talbot County, also on the Eastern Shore, has increased at a higher rate.) More than a dozen Ocean City restaurants have closed after employees have tested positive.
Local health leaders say the increase is not surprising given that the mostly rural county transforms into one of the most heavily populated in the summer months. Even if people try to obey orders to keep their distance and wear masks, they’re likely to mix in bars, hotel elevators and other close quarters, experts said.
But officials say they are enforcing the rules, responding to complaints and keeping their eyes on the data — which shows a jump per capita in cases of 23% in just one week and 32% for the month. In Ocean City’s ZIP code alone, 38 people had tested positive as of the end of June, but that number jumped to 113 as of Tuesday.
“People want the ability to take a traditional vacation and relax,” said Travis Brown, spokesman for the Worcester County Health Department. “But we need people to understand they need to practice the same good habits they do at home with social distancing, wearing masks, washing their hands.”
On the beach and boardwalk, masks are few and far between, some visitors said, and customers eating and drinking in restaurants usually forego them too.
“It’s the wild west,” said Timothy Friedman, a server at Blu Crabhouse and Raw Bar in Ocean City. “Go to Ocean City. You’ll see how many people just don’t care.”
The challenge is a national one. Nearby Rehoboth and Dewey beaches in Delaware reported a cluster of 100 cases last month, which officials blamed on partying visitors. States including California and Florida have closed beaches temporarily as revelers have driven up cases.
In Maryland, cases have been ticking up recently after weeks of declines and adults aged 20 to 39 are disproportionately represented. That has prompted some public health experts and a half dozen health officers from the state’s largest counties to ask the state to consider renewing restrictions on bars and restaurants where the young adults have been crowding.
Testing has ramped up across the state, including in Worcester, and Brown said those living in town temporarily for a beach-front job are tapping the service. The county has now logged more positive cases in the past week than most others in the state.
Ocean City’s restaurant closures have been almost entirely voluntary after employees tested positive. It has hit establishments from small sports bars to sprawling bayside eateries with plenty of outdoor seating. Only one was closed temporarily by county health officials, who say they’ve logged about 160 complaints, mostly for crowding or lack of masking among staff or customers.
“Considering how many restaurants we have open right now, that’s a very low number,” said Nancy Schwendeman, publications manager at the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
Seasonal restaurants eager to salvage something from the summer have crafted protocols for mask wearing, sanitation and social distancing, but patrons say the rules aren’t always followed.
Blu shut down on July 11 after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and Friedman, a Salisbury University student, fled to his college house out of fear of infecting his grandmother, who was staying with him in Bethany Beach, Delaware. Luckily, he tested negative, he said.
The restaurant’s closure came after plenty of busy days, Friedman said, during which customers flocked in for all-you-can-eat crabs. The owner of Blu Crabhouse and Raw Bar could not be reached for comment.
Ocean City’s spike in cases comes about two weeks after Independence Day celebrations drew plenty of people to the beach.
“When you’ve got people coming down, they’re already wanting to get away, they’re wanting to go on vacation, they’re tired of COVID,” said Jeffrey Willey, a professor at Salisbury University’s nursing school who teaches courses on epidemiology. “It’s kind of a perfect storm.”
But the state’s data may not fully reflect the scale of any outbreaks in Ocean City. Maryland reports its cases based on where the infected person resides. Vacationers who contract the virus at the beach are likely to realize it only after returning home.
At one recent testing clinic operated by the Maryland Department of Health in Ocean City, patients were asked to provide any applicable temporary address — not just their permanent one — but this arrangement was unique to that particular testing site, said spokesperson Charlie Gischlar.
Michael Franklin, president & CEO of Atlantic General Hospital in neighboring Berlin, where cases also have increased significantly in the past month, said officials are keeping a close count of resources to ensure they are available if needed.
“Everyone is concerned about overwhelming the health care system and not having bed availability and not being able to take care of COVID patients and other patients,” Franklin said. “Everyone across the state is keeping in very close contact about this. But right now, we’re well below use from the peak earlier this year.”
The crowds in town also may be smaller than usual.
Shannon Tippett, owner of the Mug and Mallet, a crab house on Ocean City’s boardwalk, said plenty of her regular customers from year’s past have cancelled their trips to the beach.
The restaurant is filling up, she said, but it’s only at 50% capacity, and she’s opted to close it on random days in order to give her employees a break during the pandemic. On Monday, with the temperature soaring to the mid-90s, Tippett closed the restaurant. She feared that her employees’ masks, sopping with sweat by the end of the day, would do little to keep people safe.
This summer’s losses have been significant, she said.
“I worry that all these people that are calling for us to get shut back down, they don’t really understand the implication of that,” she said. “We don’t have the fall and the winter to make things back up. This is the time. This is all we have left.”
Meanwhile, Ocean City visitors must navigate what’s taking place inside the beachside businesses aiming to make ends meet.
As soon as she walked into the Buxy’s Salty Dog Saloon in Ocean City, Courtney Dzbynski said she started feeling anxious.
Her waitress wore a mask, but the restaurant’s bartender did not. And then, a group of young people came in, congregated by the bar. They were served drinks, Dzbynski said, and weren’t asked to disperse.
State rules for reopening bars explicitly prohibit groups standing around and congregating by bars. They require people to be seated in groups of no more than six at tables that are appropriately separated and to wear masks when not eating or drinking.
“It looked like a regular night in there,” Dzbynski said. “I was literally shocked. I could not believe that they didn’t do anything.”
On July 11, the bar announced that one of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19, and that it would be closing until July 23. Its owners could not be reached for comment.
Dzbynski, who lives in Columbia, said she wasn’t surprised to see the news on Salty Dog’s Facebook page, where she shared a photo she’d taken the night she visited. It showed about 10 people standing and conversing near the bar, some with drinks in hand.
Dzbynski and her family were staying in nearby Ocean Pines, and largely steered clear of Ocean City. Dzbynski and her husband stopped by the Ocean City boardwalk, scoping out whether it’d be safe to bring along their 12 and 13-year-old sons, but opted not to return after seeing plenty of people walking around without face coverings.
“Nobody outside was wearing masks,” she said. “It was like, maybe one in 50 people — maybe — wearing masks, it was totally crowded, everybody was near each other.”
Ohio native Amy Johns had a similar experience, but in her hotel. Employees wore masks, as far as she could tell, but customers were a different story altogether.
Plenty of people walked through the lobby mask-less, and elevators were particularly scary. Johns started asking people without masks not to step onto the elevator beside her.
“They just sort of looked at me like I was crazy,” she said.