As beach communities around the world struggle to decide when it’s safe to allow people to venture back to the water, the mayor of Ocean City has decided to reopen his town’s famous beach this weekend.
Mayor Richard W. Meehan signed a declaration Monday that will open the beach and boardwalk starting Saturday.
Though the town draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the Mid-Atlantic region each summer, people who live outside Ocean City are being encouraged to abide by the state’s travel restrictions.
“The declaration to open Ocean City’s beach and boardwalk, and inlet parking lot, on Saturday, May 9, is simply to give a way for individuals to have more opportunities to go outside and enjoy the fresh air, while still adhering to all social distancing guidelines and gathering limits,” Meehan told reporters on a video chat Tuesday.
“None of that has changed.”
States and localities from Florida to California, and around the world, have wrestled with the decision to reopen beaches. The question takes on growing urgency as temperatures warm and people grow restless from weeks of being cooped up at home.
During Monday’s meeting with the Town of Ocean City’s council and again on Tuesday, Meehan stressed that the change in policy “does not supersede” the travel restrictions that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) imposed in March, at the beginning of the epidemic.
“You should only travel to Ocean City if doing so would not be in violation of the governor’s specific stay-at-home order,” the mayor told reporters.
Nevertheless, Meehan’s comments at Monday’s council meeting made it clear that Ocean City leaders favor a much speedier approach to lifting restrictions on social interaction and commerce than Hogan.
The mayor said he and the governor spoke for about 30 minutes on Friday. During the call, Hogan expressed a desire to coordinate the opening of Maryland’s beaches with neighboring Delaware and Virginia, Meehan said.
Delaware’s mayors “are not going to be opening up their beaches until after Memorial Day or June 1,” said Meehan. “I said to the governor, ‘That doesn’t really work for us.’”
While he agreed with the general idea that reopening the economy should come in stages, Ocean City needs to begin the process this week, the mayor said.
“I think there are certain components of our plan and his plan we can coordinate, but I think we need a phased-in opening in Ocean City, and I think we need to do it sooner rather than later, and I explained that,” Meehan said.
The mayor said he’s confident that the vast majority of residents and visitors will take recommended precautions.
“If you go to the grocery store, people are wearing masks. You see people social distancing. … So I really think we’ve come a long way.”
The Eastern Shore has a large and growing COVID-19 infection rate, one of the nation’s largest. It is clustered mostly around the region’s poultry processing plants, local officials have said.
But Meehan said the decisions about whether to travel — and what precautions to take — are “personal.”
“We have to look at what’s best for us and what’s best for our families,” he said.
Meehan said those who live elsewhere will not be turned away. “There will be no police officers patrolling for license plates,” Meehan said. “That’s not going to be the case here in Ocean City.”
Business owners in beach communities have a limited window to make the money they will need to survive the long off-season. But popular beaches like Ocean City bring huge crowds into close proximity to one another. Health experts have said that what makes COVID-19 so deadly is its relative ease of transmission from person to person.
Meehan stressed that non-essential businesses along the boardwalk will be closed, as will hotels and short-term rentals. The town of Ocean City has extended its restrictions on lodging until May 22, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.
“The only thing that will really be open on the boardwalk will be some of the carryout restaurants,” he said. “This is strictly to open up the right-of-way along the boardwalk and along the beach.”
Meehan’s decision to reopen the beach appears to have caught many in Ocean City by surprise. OceanCity.com, the town’s tourism site, said on Tuesday it had reached out to local leaders for “additional clarity.”
Reaction on social media was decidedly mixed. Many town residents expressed concern about large crowds; others supported the decision to get back to normal.
“Protecting public health and the economy have to be considered jointly. They have to be symbiotic,” said former Ocean City mayor and ex-state Sen. James C. Mathias (D).
He said that reopening “must take into consideration” the views of the health department, local hospitals and first-responders — particularly since the Lower Shore has become a novel coronavirus “hot spot.”
“We are going to reopen. We will figure this out. What we have to do is figure out how to do it as safely as possible,” Mathias added.
Travis Brown, the public affairs officer for the Worcester County Health Department, refused to say whether the mayor consulted with the county’s health officer before announcing his decision.
Meehan said the governor is likely to discuss when Maryland can begin to dial back restrictions some time this week. Hogan has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon at the State House.
“The governor asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll have any problems?’ and I said yes. Because with anything you do, there will be some challenges. I believe most people will adhere to social distancing.”
While there may be “2%” who don’t cooperate, Meehan said, “We’re all going to have to work around them a little bit if we have to, because this is what’s best for the majority.”
By Bruce DePuyt