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Seaside Heights Faces Major Obstacles if Beaches Are to Reopen, Asks State for $2.1M

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Beachgoers relax at the Webster Avenue Beach in Seaside Heights, May 26, 2016. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Beachgoers relax at the Webster Avenue Beach in Seaside Heights, May 26, 2016. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

In a Shore town that has yet to fully rebuild its tourism and financial base from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a pandemic that has closed its beaches and strangled its business community was perhaps the worst scenario that could have played out.

Now, as some states begin the process of reopening their economies as the number of new coronavirus cases plateau, Seaside Heights must juggle its own tug-of-war between the state government in Trenton, local businesses and the borough’s own obligations to provide services to residents. With the prospect of a summer without beach or parking revenue, officials requested $2.1 million in relief from the state – though reopening beaches in the middle of the summer season could translate into a logistical nightmare.

“We’re kind of flying in the clouds right now because we don’t know what the governor wants to do,” said Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz. “He was very negative on May and indicated that he foresees slowly easing us out of this in June or July.”

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Normally, Vaz said, the staff at town hall would be busy hiring lifeguards, badge checkers and extra police officers for the busy summer season, which draws 30,000 to 40,000 tourists each summer weekend. This year, the building is closed to the public aside from a tent on the front lawn, and without revenue from the sale of beach badges, there is no budgetary room to hire lifeguards and other personnel.

“Hiring less people also means a potential problem,” Vaz explained at a meeting of the borough council via the Zoom conferencing app on Wednesday. “We would be planning, right now, beach attendance, lifeguards, all of that sort of thing. But we had to anticipate much lower revenues in the budget this year which also resulted in a much lower expenditure line.”

Vaz said the borough, which is still millions of dollars in the red when it comes to property tax ratables from Sandy, requested $2.1 million from the state in the form of transitional aid to help fund essential services for the rest of the year. The borough has been receiving a dwindling amount of aid for several years and expected to receive about $845,000 this year, but with the tourism market disassembled, financial pressure could undo years of progress made following the rebuild from the storm.

Opening the beaches mid-summer also comes with its challenges.

“A lot of our focus is on buying things we need – face masks, Lysol – for our year-round employees, but also thinking ahead about having things on hand for our seasonal staff,” Vaz said. “We even have to get into the weeds on this and contemplate what happens when a lifeguard jumps off the stand and has to rescue somebody – that close, personal contact that’s involved.”

All of those plans don’t even begin to consider the loss of summer events, including high-profile beach concerts and weekly celebrations and fireworks displays.

“I buy thousands of dollars worth of beach [badges] every year for my hotel,” said Ron Bernknopf, owner of the Colony Motel on Hiering Avenue. “I don’t know when or if the beach will be open.”

There are also fears that tourists will flock to states where beaches and attractions open before those in New Jersey – and keep up the tradition in the future. The same could occur if the beach staff is limited and prevents a full reopening of the borough’s oceanfront.

“People might literally get in the car and go down south or cross-country where beaches are open,” said Vaz. “We’re already in the middle of April. Six weeks until Memorial Day weekend will go quickly.”

The mayor, Anthony Vaz, said he is equally worried about what the future holds.

“We have a lot of things to think about within the next few weeks,” he said, noting, however, that some infrastructure projects in the borough are moving forward.

Central Avenue, the main artery into town, is being repaved by Ocean County this week, he said.

“Life is continuing at a different pace and in a different norm, but we are seeing some progress with infrastructure. I don’t know where we stand,” the mayor said. “The state itself is in trouble, but I can assure the public in Seaside Heights that we will look at every penny we can – revenues, expenditures – and keep things as reasonable as we can.”

For some, the bi-weekly borough council meetings are a place to gather to move the town forward as Seaside Heights sheds it image as the hard-partying bar town featured on MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and transitions into a family-friendly summer resort and year-round community.

Councilwoman Penny Graichen longs for the days of just a couple of months ago.

“I’m just thinking of everyone, I miss them, and I’m praying for a quick recovery from this,” she said.