xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Did coronavirus wreak havoc on Ocean City this summer? Here’s a look back at the stats and the business scene.

As summer dawned in Ocean City, Maryland, some public health officials feared that outbreaks among beach-goers could reverse a declining COVID-19 trends statewide.

Visitors started returning on Mother’s Day weekend and, by Memorial Day, crowds filled the Ocean City boardwalk and shoreline. In June, nearby Delaware beach towns ordered bars to shutter after an uptick in COVID-19 cases tied to lifeguards, bar employees and senior week-ers. By July, some Ocean City restaurants were closing temporarily after employees tested positive for the virus.

Advertisement

With summer now over, Ocean City survived the most perilous part of its 2020, the months when tourists transform the barrier island into one of the state’s most populous cities. And for some beach businesses, particularly those well-equipped to offer outdoor dining and activities, the season proved less damaging than expected.

But there’s no doubt that the coronavirus had a huge effect on the beach town this summer.

Advertisement

The data

Between late May and early July, an average of about 14.5 new cases were reported each week in the three ZIP codes covering Ocean City, West Ocean City and Berlin. Then the Fourth of July drew large crowds to the beach and cases spiked.

“Right after July 4th is when the rates started to go up, but of course that’s also when things really started to open back up,” said Jeff Willey, a Salisbury University nursing professor who teaches epidemiology.

Nearly 100 new cases were reported in those ZIP codes in July’s third full week. About 60 of those cases came from Ocean City’s ZIP code — 21842.

Around that time — shortly after a COVID-19 testing site opened at the Ocean City Convention Center — the testing positivity rate in Worcester County, where Ocean City is located, climbed above the statewide rate. On about 80% of the days between July 19 and the first week of October, Worcester’s positivity rate has been higher than the state’s.

And on most of those days, Worcester’s rate was above 5%, the reopening benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan attributed the climb in cases and positivity to the large boost in Ocean City’s summer population.

“We’re the second largest city in the state during that time period, and we increased testing dramatically during those time periods, just to make sure that everybody could get tests,” Meehan said.

Experts say it’s difficult to determine whether state coronavirus data accurately reflects the scope of any outbreaks in Ocean City. People who visited the beach town, then contracted COVID-19 and returned home to a different county or a different state wouldn’t be included in Ocean City’s numbers.

Worcester County’s contact tracing efforts focused largely on county residents, meaning that it was difficult to determine whether more visitors were bringing in the virus or taking it home with them, said Travis Brown, spokesperson for the Worcester County Health Department.“If someone comes in from Tennessee, stays one night in Ocean City for [the H2oi car show], contracts it and then leaves, they’re almost certainly going to be counted with their local numbers,” Brown said.

The county hasn’t seen an uptick in cases associated with the H2oi car show, an unsanctioned city event that took place in late September, where photos showed large, sometimes maskless crowds, Brown said. But the county’s numbers likely wouldn’t show an outbreak, since many of the participants came from outside Worcester.

Notably, Brown said, at no point this summer did local hospitals, like Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin and Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, reach or get over capacity as a result of COVID-19 infections.

Over the summer, the county health department shut two Ocean City businesses, one of them twice, due to coronavirus-related violations, Brown wrote in an email.

Advertisement

But the restaurants that closed voluntarily made headlines. On at least 10 occasions, Ocean City eateries announced they needed to close temporarily, since an employee had contracted COVID-19.

All the while, images of crowds strolling the city’s boardwalk, many without masks, appeared on social media, drawing concern from visitors and locals alike. As the positivity rate grew in late July, a mask mandate on the boardwalk took effect July 31 at 5 p.m.

Dr. Greg Schrank, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said this may have contributed to the drop in the town’s caseload later in August.

“Even if dining remained available, even if hotels remained open, the simple fact of asking people to comply with masking guidance and mandating use on the boardwalk, it very well may have led to a decline in the number of cases being diagnosed in Ocean City,” Schrank said.

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

How businesses fared

Despite early predictions of economic calamity in Ocean City this summer, plenty of local businesses were able to recoup early losses incurred during the state’s lockdown, said Nancy Schwendeman, interim executive director of the Greater Ocean City, Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

“Ultimately, I think we fared pretty well considering the circumstances,” Schwendeman said. “I must commend our business community. They hit this situation head-on and did all the right protocol, and really took lemons and made lemonade.”

While capacity restrictions took a toll on restaurants and other businesses, many adapted, and offered additional outdoor options to guests, Meehan said.

Some business did well.

A local charter boat, the OC Bayhopper, did twice the business this summer than it did last summer — its first full season in business, said Stephen Butz, the company’s founder.

“We ended up getting a lot of people who had canceled trips to the British Virgin Islands, who had canceled trips to the Bahamas, who basically were coming out and saying, ‘Well, this was our token trip,’” Butz said.

The company divided its boats into separate sections, and groups had to buy the entire area to ensure they wouldn’t mix with individuals from different households.

Advertisement

“A lot of people were just happy to be outside and do something on the water,” said Shelby Gillis, a boat captain and manager of operations. “Since all the sections were pretty far away from each other, everyone felt comfortable.”

Advertisement

The Beach Butler, a service that helps customers place their beach chairs, umbrellas and other items on the beach, also fared well, but opted to lower its prices in light of the pandemic, said owner Justin Ports.

“We would spread our customers' beach chairs out as far as we could to take up as much beach real estate, without being too greedy, but also giving our customers flexibility to be able to move their chairs if their neighbor beach person was getting a little too close,” Ports said.

This summer, Ocean City visitors came in waves, Butz said.

“A couple restaurants would close, it would make the news, and then the next weekend we would see a dramatic fall off in foot traffic,” he said.

After New York added Maryland to its quarantine travel advisory in July, for instance, cancellations started to pour in.

“The next thing you know, we’re getting cancellations from people who have booked trips and booked boats, and they say, ‘Well, we can’t come down now, because if we come down, we have to quarantine for two weeks.’” Butz said.

At Longboard Cafe, a small Ocean City eatery tucked into a shopping plaza off 67th Street, September was “eye-opening busy," owner Rick Vach said. As warm weather continued, customers flocked to the restaurant’s curtained outdoor patio, which now has heaters, he said.

Debbie Maxfield, owner of Brass Balls Saloon on the Ocean City boardwalk, found her business was more limited by the number of staff it could hire than capacity restrictions. Restrictions on J-1 visas prevented thousands of foreign workers from traveling to Ocean City this year, she said, and much of her typical American work force stayed home.

Shenanigan’s Irish Pub, a boardwalk eatery that shuttered for eight days in July after an employee tested positive, did about 65% of its normal summer business, said owner Greg Shockley.

“It was a challenging summer,” he said. “But the thing about it is, we made it through.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement