Last week, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan made a wise judgment and extended the beach closure that was set to expire on April 30 to May 15. At the time, he explained he wanted to follow Gov. Larry Hogan’s “Roadmap to Recovery” plan for a return to full economic activity and recognized that the town should wait for a lifting of the stay-at-home order before it welcomes tourists. On Monday and with the support of the City Council, he reversed course moving to reopen beaches this Saturday and even going so far as to outright invite out-of-towners to visit for the day or perhaps the next, which is Mother’s Day, providing they keep proper social distances. Hotels are restricted to “essential” personnel only so, at least in theory, visitors won’t be staying. Not since last year’s OC Air Show, has the populace witnessed such public and, frankly, death-defying acrobatics.
This is a mistake. Not because Ocean City should not be looking to reopen gradually but because it’s simply premature. Just look at Maryland’s coronavirus numbers. While COVID-19-related deaths have gone down slightly, other measures such as hospitalizations have only recently plateaued. The state is surely inching toward the first phase of the governor’s three-phase plan, but it is not yet there. Worcester County may have only 80 diagnosed cases to date, but reopening beaches means the town will be potentially drawing from hundreds of miles away including all of Maryland, which has recorded nearly 1,300 deaths including 74 in the last 24 hours alone, as of this writing. Just last month, town officials were worried that out-of-state condo owners should not risk visiting their properties because the lower Eastern Shore’s limited health facilities could easily be swamped. Is that not still true?
We do not blame Ocean City’s elected officials for recognizing that their business community is already suffering, their losses mounting as the days grow warmer. The pandemic has been particularly brutal for tourism everywhere and Ocean City is just weeks away from its unofficial summer opening. No doubt there are many people associated with property management, hotels, restaurants, stores and other attractions facing nothing short of financial ruin. And merely walking outdoors isn’t in itself harmful, right? Local residents are not blind. They can see that other states have reopened their beaches. Why not Ocean City? Why not now? Even California is moving toward reopening its beaches with guidelines expected shortly.
Alas, Maryland is not California, which has done a far better job of reducing the spread of the coronavirus. California may have lost nearly twice as many residents to the virus as Maryland, but it has more than six times the population. The spread there has not just flattened, it’s declined. Maryland may be in a similar posture soon but not yet. And all those people headed to Ocean City? They will have to fill up their gas tanks, stop for restroom breaks, pick up meals. And on the beach, will they keep 6 feet apart, or will they do want beach goers have always done and run in the sand, socialize, toss around a ball and otherwise put themselves and their neighbors at risk? Oh, most will be perfectly fine. But some will spread the disease without even realizing it.
Maryland’s state park on nearby Assateague Island isn’t open. Neither are the beaches operated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at Hart-Miller Island, Calvert Cliffs, Elk Neck and on and on. The DNR has canceled campsite and cabin reservations through May 29. Here’s a key line from the agency’s official explanation: “We have consulted with the state’s legal experts on how to interpret the governor’s executive order and the intent is simple: Stay home unless you absolutely must leave.” Indeed, Governor Hogan ought to be condemning Ocean City’s decision. Instead, he’s attempting to stay out of the fray, acknowledging that his executive order recommends against welcoming visitors to the beach and boardwalk, but his spokesman describing the town’s actions on Tuesday as a “local decision," as if it held no consequence for the rest of us.
What happens if this local decision results in a significant spike in infection rates and bad outcomes statewide? It can’t be good for tourism. Granted, loosened restrictions may cause an upward trend whether they happen now or later. But to push the issue when Maryland hasn’t met benchmarks, to open prematurely and then have an adverse result? That may cause people to be more suspicious, to ultimately be more reluctant to trust that Ocean City knows when it’s safe to go back in the water. Unlike the fictional mayor of Amity in “Jaws,” who dismissed concerns about a shark, Mr. Meehan needs to take more care for his resort community’s long-term interests.