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Seaside Heights Boardwalk ‘Will Look Very Different’ This Summer, As State Restrictions Expected

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The Seaside Heights boardwalk on a busy night during the summer of 2019. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
The Seaside Heights boardwalk on a busy night during the summer of 2019. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Seaside Heights officials say they are expecting a slew of rules to accompany the unofficial start of summer in a few weeks, as state policymakers wrestle with the idea of how to open up major resort boardwalks across the state.

“It’s been made very clear to us that beaches and boardwalks will look very different this summer,” said Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz. “They are not going to be the crowded boardwalks and beaches we are accustomed to.”

Officials hope to learn which regulations they will be facing on a call with the governor’s staff that is expected to take place Thursday night. It is also expected that a policy will be released publicly by Monday detailing how tourist areas may be able to operate this summer.

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“I believe they are going to be looking for a 50 percent reduction in beach and boardwalk density,” Vaz said, based on rumbling he’s heard from Trenton. “They are very worried about boardwalks across the state. They seem to understand that we can control density on the beach very easily because there are gates and we sell badges, but there is an overwhelming concern about how boardwalks operate.”

If the rumors of density restrictions come to fruition, the borough is seeking state guidance on how to manage them – whether through limitations on parking, closing some portions of the beach or other measures to prevent overcrowding to the point where mandated social distancing is impossible.

While some towns up and down the Jersey Shore are home to small, quiet beaches, major resort areas such as Seaside Heights, Ocean City and Wildwood present unique issues when it comes to social distancing. There is also the question as to whether summer rentals in motels will be allowed, as well as whether or not attractions such as retail shops, arcades, games of chance and restaurants may be able to operate this summer.

“We have to worry about hiring people and we don’t know what’s going on,” said Ron Bernknopf, owner of the Colony Motel in Seaside Heights, at a virtual meeting of the borough council held Wednesday. “You have to do something, people.”

The town, likewise, is facing a $4 million budget hole and may not be able to hire its usual level of staff even if the state allows some sort of reopening.

“At this point, there is not a lot of hope that the federal government will ride in on a horse and give us money for our revenue gaps,” said Vaz. “That’s going to have a meaningful impact on how we operate. Our operations are going to be scaled to what we can afford. Maybe that will be easier if the governor’s office says we have to reduce density.”

An empty Seaside Heights boardwalk, March 2020. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
An empty Seaside Heights boardwalk, March 2020. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Officials are juggling the concerns over public health as well as constant questions from business owners as to whether or not they will be able to support their families based on crucial summertime income.

“We’re talking about rentals, we’re talking about the opening of retail businesses, games of chance, everything,” said Mayor Anthony Vaz. “All of it is very important, we’re discussing it, and I’m hoping Thursday night we’ll have some answers.”

Some residents are also concerned that with New York suffering the worst effects of the pandemic and a shutdown that eclipses New Jersey in some respects, crowds could overwhelm the small beach town. During a normal summer, up to 40,000 visitors come to the borough each weekend. The borough usually adds extra police officers to manage the population swell, but this year the training academy for part-time officers was shut down due to the virus.

“If we keep one section of the beach closed, I think that’s when it’s going to get too crowded in another area,” said Marc Pollaro. “With New York being closed down, once we open, there’s a chance it will get wild up there.”

The Seaside Heights boardwalk on a busy night during the summer of 2019. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
The Seaside Heights boardwalk on a busy night during the summer of 2019. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Christopher Vaz, the borough administrator, said he expects the state to propose a phased reopening conditioned on the capacity for visitors to socially distance. The beach, perhaps, could open first, followed by the boardwalk. But until word comes from Gov. Phil Murphy, questions will remain as to how resort communities facing such major challenges can handle visitors. Vaz said, like police and public works crews, the number of lifeguards may be reduced this summer.

“I think we’re going to have an open season, but I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Anthony Vaz, the mayor, said. “It’s hard to predict.”

Some business owners said they will try to help their fellow merchants and devise plans that could allow certain tourist-oriented businesses to meet social distancing demands.

“I understand that everyone is under a lot of stress – it’s a stressful time, but we have to become creative,” said Genevieve DiFilippo, the co-owner of an Italian restaurant on the Boulevard. “How do we get businesses from the boardwalk to an area where they can be successful too?”

For now, the waiting game continues.

“I believe on Thursday night, I will learn what the governor has in store for us,” Christopher Vaz said. “I really believe that by Friday or Monday, we will have something – an executive order or administrative order – that tells us how we do this.”