Amid Shore Reopenings, a Tug of War for Beach Badges

Some towns have sold out their initial supply of season passes; availability of daily badges could be slim.

beach badges
The Point Pleasant Beach Boardwalk in April. Photo by James J. Connolly

Leann Bescript didn’t want to miss out. She set a reminder on her cell phone and was ready at 9 am Friday when Asbury Park put a limited number of season beach tags on sale.

“I was freaking out,” says Bescript, a Shark River Hills resident who buys the badges every year as a birthday gift for her boyfriend. “There’s never been a time when I’ve ever worried about them selling out before.”

Bescript was one of the lucky ones. The initial 6,000 badges that Asbury Park made available via the Viply app sold out in less than one day. Similarly, neighboring Ocean Grove and Bradley Beach have already blown through their initial offerings of season beach tags, leaving even some residents wondering if they will have access to the beaches this summer.

As Shore towns respond to Governor Phil Murphy’s edict to limit beach access this summer, seasonal badges have gone from plastic pins to golden tickets.

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Badge quotas are just one of the changes awaiting beachgoers at the Jersey Shore this summer. Blankets on the sand spread six feet apart, boardwalk strolls in swimsuits and face masks, al fresco dining in parking lots—this will be the Shore experience, 2020-style.

In past years, as the summer season kicked off at the Shore, Gary Engelstad, the mayor of Bradley Beach, would be focused on attracting as many people to his town as possible.

“This year,” says Engelstad, “it’s so weird to be thinking, How do I limit the number of people on the beach? It blows my mind that that’s a thought I must have.”

Since May 14, when Murphy gave the green light for beaches and boardwalks to open for Memorial Day weekend, officials at virtually every Shore town have been scrambling to make sure they are in compliance with the latest guidelines. Generally, that means limiting the number of beachgoers, facilitating social distancing and ensuring frequent sanitization—especially in public restrooms.

* * *

The beach scene will be far from normal this holiday weekend. Amusement parks, arcades, nightclubs, playgrounds, pavilions and other popular Shore-town attractions are required to remain closed at this stage in Murphy’s order. As in the rest of the state, restaurants will be open for pickup and delivery only.

Municipalities down the Shore are left to decide for themselves exactly how to mandate new protocols and monitor social distancing on the sand. Some are opting for a limited beach badge supply to whittle down visitors. Many of these towns (and others) are limiting parking in hopes of keeping crowds thin. But all are eager to see the season get started, even on a partial basis.

“It is anticipated that the only way we will be selling seasonal and daily badges during the season this year is through the app,” says Engelstad of Bradley Beach. Under this model, seasonal badge-holders will take priority over daily beachgoers and will be guaranteed beach access. Weekenders and day-trippers will have to use the Viply app to buy a daily badge from a limited pool the night before they plan to visit. A number of Monmouth County beach towns have unified behind this concept, resulting in sold-out season badges throughout the county.

Bradley Beach sold out its initial allotment of more than 7,000 seasonal badges. With sales like that, Engelstad acknowledges, the access for daily pass buyers may be slim. “We are going to have a relatively small number of daily badges available,” says Engelstad. “A lot of people are used to just showing up and buying a badge because, in the past, we would never say, ‘Oh, we’re full.’ This is an extremely drastic change.”

The rationing of beach tags has sparked debate among locals. Some, like Bescript, worry that the new model is unfair to residents of Shore towns. “The locals have to scramble to beat each other out to get these now-limited seasonal badges,” she says.

Others are comforted by the system. “This is a very clever way to regulate social distancing on the beach,” says Norm Chester, who spends summers at his Bradley Beach condo. “Supplementing these badges with day passes will allow optimal flexibility in response to a demand that will fluctuate with the weather, the day of the week, and various random factors.”

On Long Beach Island, Beach Haven Mayor Nancy Davis has not implemented restrictions on daily or seasonal beach badge sales yet. Instead, she hopes to spread out the crowds along Beach Haven’s two miles of beaches. “Right now, what we have is designated, guarded beaches. People tend to congregate there,” she says. “If we can spread the lifeguards out over the two miles so people don’t congregate in one specific area, I think that will help.” Hiring additional lifeguards and using some to patrol the beaches would aid this effort, but Davis thinks most beachgoers will distance appropriately without having to be reminded.

But Davis’s strategy is subject to change. “We will be keeping a close eye on what happens. We want everyone to be safe and comfortable on our beach,” she says.

Ben Rose, marketing and public relations director for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism and Improvement Development Authority, doesn’t predict many issues with visitors keeping their distance on Wildwood’s beaches, most of which are famously vast. “One main factor that we have is our spacious beaches where families can spread out.”

Point Pleasant Beach will be limiting the number of beach badges as “the governor has dictated,” says Mayor Paul Kanitra. “We’ll sell [seasonal] badges, but we don’t guarantee admittance. If we reach capacity, we’ll have to turn people away. We will sell daily badges, yes, but we’re only selling to capacity each day.”

The borough is reopening its beaches in stages starting with the Maryland Avenue Beach, which opened last weekend, along with sections of beach controlled by homeowner’s associations. “We were able to keep it manageable,” says Kanitra.

Going into the holiday weekend, access will be limited to those same beaches. Further, there will be no street parking east of the railroad tracks. Public parking lots remain closed.

The boardwalk is slated to open in early June. At that point, “all the beaches will be open,” says Kanitra. “Along with that, we’ll roll back the parking restrictions.”

The mayor says his town’s “major hurdle” is hiring sufficient seasonal police officers. This year, pandemic-induced cancellations of state-run training sessions has left seasonal officers in short supply. In a year that requires additional policing to enforce social distancing, the shortage could be tough to overcome. “I was on the phone with the governor, and we have no concrete action on that at this point,” says Kanitra of the seasonal-police shortage. “We’re trying to get creative with solutions.”

Kanitra questions whether all Shore towns should coordinate their reopening plans. He suggests a phased reopening based on rates of infection. “It seems foolhardy,” says Kanitra, “to treat a municipality that has zero cases the same as a municipality that has dozens of new cases a day.”

Indeed, citing their area’s low infection rates, Cape May County officials on May 5 submitted to the governor a 35-page plan for the “safe, smart, progressive” reopening of the county’s beaches, hotels, restaurants, shops and other tourism attractions.

* * *

Even as municipalities lay the groundwork for reopening the beaches, Shore businesses are evaluating what the summer will bring. When will they be able to open, and how will they incorporate social-distancing rules?

In Beach Haven, Mayor Davis has been focused on the fate of the borough’s 60 businesses, all packed into one square mile—and reliant on summer tourism. Under consideration in Beach Haven and other municipalities: easements allowing restaurant seating and retail sales racks to spill over onto sidewalks and into parking lots.

More than ever, Davis says, innovation will be the key to success. She envisions store windows filled with displays, but in place of an open door for shoppers, a link to order items online. Similarly, Shore restaurants—which likely will have to space out their tables and therefore serve fewer customers—can be expected to shift a considerable part of their business to pickup and delivery.

“There will still be plenty of people who won’t feel comfortable enough to eat in public, as well as people who are high-risk who shouldn’t be dining in restaurants when they immediately reopen,” says Mark Hinchliffe, chief brand officer of the Asbury Park–based Smith Restaurant Group. “That’s where takeout comes into play.” Among other restaurants, Smith operates Porta in Asbury Park, which opened for pickup only in late April, after shutting its doors mid-March.

“This is an evolutionary tipping point for the restaurant industry,” says Hinchliffe. “New models are being made up on the fly. It’s a time for rapid experimentation with little to no safety net.”

* * *

Many Shore businesses also face issues with seasonal staffing. Will they need to hire their usual number of seasonal workers? Where will those workers come from?

Many seasonal businesses fill thousands of open positions through the exchange visitor, or J-1, program, of the federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Shore relies on these foreign students to supplement the small numbers in local hiring pools. Without these employees from overseas, businesses may come up understaffed.

“It [could] potentially be a rough season,” says Lou Cirigliano, director of operations for Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach in Seaside Heights, as he ponders the impact of the coronavirus state of emergency on recruitment. “We closed right as we began hiring,” he says. “The virus has affected the international student program, and many more people may be afraid to work in close proximity with others.”

Given the pandemic, the federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, while not suspending the J-1 program, recommended that start dates for foreign workers be postponed “for 60 days after March 12, 2020,” according to a State Department official. That meant Shore businesses were unable to employ J-1 workers until about May 12—less than two weeks before the traditional Memorial Day weekend start of the summer season.

Even without a strict suspension, current U.S. travel restrictions on foreign nationals remain a potential barrier for the J-1 workers. President Trump’s declaration in April of a temporary ban on immigration further clouds the situation.

Then again, some believe the pandemic will reduce the need for J-1 students this year. “I don’t know if those jobs, respectfully, will even be available this season,” says Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “I have to imagine that there’s going to be several businesses there that may not be in full operation or may not even be able to open.”

In addition to addressing staff uncertainties, municipalities and private businesses are working on new sanitization and social-distancing systems.

In the Wildwoods, Rose says, the tourism industry is implementing advanced sanitizing protocols for hotel rooms and public areas. Local restaurants will have additional approved outdoor seating. The area’s main attraction, Morey’s Piers, is installing queues and spacing protocols. The piers won’t be open for the holiday weekend, but the Morey organization has posted a June 1 opening date for the four hotels in operates in Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.

At Beach Haven’s Fantasy Island Amusement Park, similar spacing and sanitization rules are in place—although no opening date has been set. Park owner Brian Wainwright says they are considering removing every other arcade game and filling only half the seats of carnival rides each go-round. And, for the first time in the park’s 35 years, guests may need to be counted at controlled entry points.

* * *

Even with all of these precautions in place, some communities are concerned that people will be reluctant to travel this summer—or, at least, that the season will get off to a slow start.

“We did a projection,” says Rose, “and we’ve been looking at the studies, and it looks as though, even when the travel ban lifts, people will still be cautious in the beginning.” Those projections show the Wildwoods would only have between 30 and 42 percent of their usual business this year. And that reduced market is something every town will be competing to capture.

But for some potential beachgoers, months of lockdown may be more of an incentive for summertime getaways. At La Mer Beachfront Resort in Cape May, while preseason reservation rates were lower than projected before the pandemic, cancellation rates were low as well. When he looks at his numbers, owner George Andy feels confident that this summer season will still be a success.

“We were at first very concerned with cancellations and the fallout from the virus, but so far, the majority of our guests say they can’t wait for us to reopen,” says Andy, whose family has owned La Mer for more than 50 years. “While the state of air travel is unclear, I am confident staycations will prevail and be even more popular than ever once we come through the other side of this.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Payne in Point Pleasant Beach.

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