As tourism-dependent Ocean City cautiously reopens during a global pandemic, Mayor Rick Meehan wants vacationers this year to relax — but not too much.
He wants Ocean City’s summertime visitors to push aside some of the worries about becoming infected with COVID-19 that beset them back home — as long as those worries can be retrieved just long enough to modify dangerous behavior.
”The biggest challenge for us is that sometimes when people leave where they reside, they forget everything they’ve been doing for the past two months at home. We have to re-educate them,” Meehan said, and then acknowledged the implicit contradiction in the message local officials must send.
“Ocean City is a safe place,” he said. “It is a fun place. But it is not immune to the same problems affecting everywhere else.”
He fervently hopes that people buy into that message and decide to visit Ocean City this summer anyway. The stakes are immense.
Approximately 4 million visitors gather on Ocean City’s beach and boardwalk between Memorial Day and Labor Day, or roughly half of the city’s yearly guests. Meehan said that tourism-related occupations and activities account for 53% of total revenues for Ocean City’s $80 million annual budget.
“Our revenues are down significantly this year,” he said, declining to provide a more specific estimate. “But for example, we get revenues from parking meter charges and tickets, This year, fees typically implemented on April 1 didn’t go into effect until May 1.”
Springfest, the popular music festival, which normally takes place in May, was canceled, according to Jessica Waters, Ocean City’s interim tourism director. The Ocean City Air Show, a signature event normally held in mid-June, was postponed. And virtually every convention scheduled to take place in Ocean City this summer has pulled out.
“The summer season is critical for the business community and for this town,” Waters said. “We’re hoping to salvage the summer season, and we’re optimistic that we will.”
The city took a critical step toward normalcy in late May when pools reopened and restaurant food service expanded from strictly carryout to seated table service outdoors — at a social distance. Next came Gov. Larry Hogan’s order allowing indoor dining service at reduced capacity.
Meehan and Waters said they’ve observed most tourists behaving responsibly — despite widely publicized accounts of a crowded boardwalk and of unmasked visitors rushing up to strangers.
Some images, Meehan claimed, made the beaches and boardwalk appear more crowded than they actually were.
”Some of the photos were taken with wide-angle telescopic lenses that greatly exaggerated the presence of people on the beaches and boardwalks,” he said. ”Some businesses on the boardwalk appear to be right next to one another in those photos when in reality they’re two or three blocks apart.”
Still, he acknowledged, “the reality is that the boardwalk has been crowded. It does get more congested when you get downtown. But what I have witnessed is people walking around each other and trying to be conscious of safety.“
Dr. Wilbur Chen, a section chief for the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he winces inwardly when he views accounts of packed beaches and boardwalks.
He hopes he’s wrong, but thinks there will likely be a second wave of COVID-19 infections — an outbreak that could be worsened by risky beachfront behavior.
But he said there’s no guarantee that pushing back Ocean City’s reopening back by two weeks or a month would have made any difference. The safest alternative — shutting down the state for up to 18 months or longer until a vaccine can be developed — could mean widespread economic ruin.
”It’s a delicate balancing act,” Chen said.
“I’m a medical person giving public health advice, but public health is only part of the equation for how society works. I understand that people must make a living, and in Ocean City, livelihoods depend on the summer. I just hope that people will be responsible.”
As a result, city officials’ messaging efforts focus primarily on encouraging compliance with public health measures, and not on attempting to attract more tourists.
“Our mantra is that we want people to arrive safely and behave safely,” Meehan said. “We certainly believe everyone should make their own decisions right now regarding vacationing. If 2020 is not the year for you to travel, we understand that.”
Signs have been erected on the beach that encourage visitors to maintain social distancing. Traffic cones are placed six feet apart on the boardwalk outside Thrasher’s French Fries, which draws famously long lines. Fish Tails, a popular seafood restaurant, is asking diners to wear giant inflatable rubber inner tubes to ensure that customers are separated physically from one another.
“If you’re encountering crowds, you may want to avoid the boardwalk until it’s less busy,” Travis Brown, public affairs officer for the Worcester County Health Department, wrote in an email.
“We know it was a long, lonely spring spent in isolation. But the path towards recovery and reopening has to be a careful one; otherwise we risk intensifying the outbreak.”
That path is requiring virtually every local public agency to improvise and to adapt.
Tourism officials were forced to scrap the publicity campaign planned for the summer when COVID-19 invaded Maryland in March. Instead, in April they rolled out a “Happy Place” campaign that urged visitors to stay home and be safe, because their happy place, Ocean City, would still be there once Maryland reopened.
After Gov. Larry Hogan lifted his stay-at-home order on May 15, tourism officials changed their messaging again and launched their “Welcome Back” campaign.
“After so much time apart, it’s time to make memories again,” Waters said, paraphrasing the new campaign.
“Ocean City provides a lot of opportunities for people to enjoy themselves while still maintaining social distancing. We have 10 miles of beaches, and people can really space out.”
She has put together a list of 20 activities that individuals or families can enjoy in relative isolation: golfing, kayaking, flying a kite and digging for clams.
“You have to know what your own comfort level is when you travel and do what’s right for yourself and your family,” Waters said. “That might change the way you visit Ocean City this year. People might vacation a little differently.”
Ocean City Police Department officials are crossing their fingers that visitors will comply voluntarily with the new restrictions on crowd size.
Capt. Elton Harmon wishes the department had more officers this summer to enforce directives aimed at minimizing the risk of being infected with COVID-19.
Each summer, the 106-officer year-round force is augmented by seasonal recruits. While the department has secured 119 temporary officers to patrol the beaches through Labor Day, the pandemic played havoc with the department’s hiring process. How could candidates who lived in Delaware or Philadelphia come to Ocean City for the required physical exam without violating restrictions on travel? How could they take the mandatory polygraph test?
“We experienced issues with completing the hiring process with some candidates because of the stay-at-home orders,” Harmon wrote in an email. “Only candidates who completed all phases of the hiring process are offered a position.”
The police department is attempting to ease the burden on Its officers by increasingly relying on telephone reporting for minor issues, according to Ashley Miller, deputy communications manager for the Ocean City Police Department.
“All matters that require a police presence and enforcement will be handled traditionally,” she said.
What’s keeping local officials awake at nights is the thought that a second wave of the virus could shut Ocean City down before the end of the summer, for the second time in 2020.
“Please, everybody, take some responsibility,” Meehan said, as if speaking to the town’s current and future visitors.
“Do the right thing. Wear masks if you’re inside a public building. Maintain social distance. Show that you care. If everyone does that, we’ll continue to move forward.”