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On October 12th, 2019, in Mays Landing, Oakcrest High School Boys soccer hosts Egg Harbor Township High School for the semifinals of the CAL Tournament. EHTHS defender #21 Luan Duong tries to clear the ball as Oakcrest #11 Mason Stokes bears down on him.

As the summer of COVID-19 wraps up, South Jersey officials reflect on 'surreal' beach season

A day at the beach has a rhythm to it, with bathers arriving in the morning, prepared with chairs, towels and other necessities, staying until mid-afternoon before trekking off the sand.

But that rhythm was off this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wildwood Beach Patrol Chief Steven Stocks said Wednesday morning.

“You can really see the ebb and flow of the crowd. It changed. Maybe people had more time on their hands,” Stocks said, adding that he’s seen more people on the beach for dinner, staying to watch the sunset with their families. “In the late afternoon and early evening, it’s a beautiful time on the beach.”

As the new coronavirus raged through the state leading up to the Memorial Day holiday, South Jersey officials grappled with how to balance public health during the money-making tourist season.

Several municipalities closed their boardwalks and restricted access to beaches, aiming to mitigate the spread of the disease, and residents and visitors worried about the possibility of a summer without the beach or the probability of getting a tan line from their face coverings should they reopen.

But, on May 22, Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order allowing for beaches, boardwalks and lakes to remain open with social distancing rules, and so started the 2020 beach season — a summer, Beach Patrol officials say, that was like no other.

Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Steve Downey said this summer was “surreal.”

“It’s September already, and it’s like the summer never really happened,” he said. “Every day there was some other scare. The constant threat and fear of it was a problem. We had a lot of bathing at beaches that there hasn’t been in my lifetime because people were stretching out at the beaches as far as they could for the most part.”

Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen said the beach was one of the few relatively normal things about the summer.

“Even on the more crowded beaches, people were able to maintain safe distances, and we’ve had no reports of suspected transmission among beachgoers,” he said.

For sure, lifeguarding looked much different this year, with cones surrounding stands and boats and, in many instances, only one guard per post. While guards were still tasked with making ocean rescues, reuniting lost children with their families and responding to medical incidents, they also had to worry about sanitizing equipment and reminding beachgoers to stay distanced from others as many of the perks of the job, like annual races, were canceled.

“We basically stripped away everything that’s really fun about lifeguarding, like the camaraderie, like the racing. It was Groundhog Day, just another day to guard,” Stocks said. “We really did strip away the fun parts about being part of the Beach Patrol. Ultimately, the guards treated it like professionals.”

Downey described it as “just a total bummer,” as competitive racing is a major part of the job, but noted that the resort was able to hold some in-city races.

The beaches looked different, too.

In Atlantic City, officials added poles near the dunes so beachgoers have a visual for 6 feet of distance, and patrols dealt with an influx of bathers who just didn’t seem like the type to stretch out on the sand all day, officials said. They came without chairs, umbrellas, coolers or even bathing suits — choosing instead to relax on the sand or test the water wearing regular clothing.

With many businesses and restaurants closed due to state restrictions, officials say the beach became a safe place for people to be.

“Since the beginning of time, why do people go to the beach?” Stock asked. “It’s to rejuvenate, to be in salt water. All of those things have some healing properties, and I definitely think people were trying to soak those in this summer.”

In Atlantic City, the lack of beach concerts, weekly fireworks and other events — all canceled to quell the spread of the disease — made it easier to focus on training, Downey said, adding that he was “pleasantly surprised’ that enforcing social distancing wasn’t an issue.

“People that never come to the beach were on the beach because there’s nothing else to do,” he said. “I anticipated having major problems with the people. Our crowds are a little more rough-and-tumble than other cities. But, shockingly, we didn’t have one issue with that.”

Overall, lifeguards up and down the coast have done “outstanding” getting the job done this year, Stocks said.

“We’re all hopeful that things are better by next summer and things are closer to our normal routine,” he said.

Community connections are part of fight against addiction at drive-in movie event

LOWER TOWNSHIP — Locals gathered for a drizzly evening of socially distanced fun at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal on Aug. 31, but the drama was never far below the surface.

Before a feature film was presented on an outdoor raised screen, there was a video presentation on the use of Narcan, a nasal spray used to reverse an opioid overdose.

The drive-in movie was presented for National Overdose Awareness Day and participants had passed Hope One, Cape May County’s rolling outreach to community members struggling with addiction.

There were about 30 cars lined up in front of the screen. Some families, couples and individuals gathered around their vehicles, some with children sitting under umbrellas on the hood of the car, chatting and getting ready to enjoy the film. One woman was there with her tiny Yorkshire Terrier in the back seat.

This was the third movie night presented by Cape Addiction Recovery Services, according to Patrick Miller, a staff member with the service. It was the first to be held during the COVID-19 pandemic, with new guidelines aimed at keeping people separate and safe.

Police officers directed cars to alternating rows where they would usually line up to board the ferry. The sound could be heard from the outside, and participants could tune their car radios to hear as well.

The presentation started with recorded messages from Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson and Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, along with the video instructions for administering Narcan. As the sky darkened, the feature film “Ben is Back” began. Starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, the family drama follows a son with severe issues with substance abuse who arrives home on Christmas Eve.

In the film, recovery from addiction is neither easy nor straightforward. That is a familiar truth to many at the event, both for participants and for organizers.

One of the volunteers, Lisa Price, handed out gift bags with popcorn, snacks and bottled water to the participants. Each bag also contained pamphlets with information about the services available for those struggling with addiction.

Price volunteers at Cape Addiction Recovery Services, or CARES, which opened a regional recovery center this summer at 1304 Route 47, unit WL, in Rio Grande.

“I’m there almost every day,” she said.

Price was one of several people in recovery who now works to help others through the service, launched by Cape Regional Medical Center in 2017. The responsibility helps keep her focused, she said, as do her two daughters. She also cited her connection to the community at the center.

“We’re just like family. We can talk about anything. If you’re having a bad day or a tough time for whatever reason, people will be there for you,” she said.

Price has recently heard back about a new job working at a deli at a grocery chain. She said she has new friends and new tools to help her remain sober and is happy for the chance to help others as well.

CARES and the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office joined together to present the event. Michael Porch, the marketing manager with the Delaware River and Bay Authority that operates the ferry, said there had been several concerts at the ferry terminal over the summer, and when CARES reached out about using the site for a movie, it seemed like a good fit.

Lt. Joseph Landis, a community outreach officer with the prosecutor’s office, spoke individually with many of the participants, kneeling by their cars and keeping his gray mask in place.

A vital step in addressing the opioid crisis is reaching troubled communities and individuals in crisis, he said. That requires building trust.

“It boils down to respect. I treat everybody with respect at all times,” Landis said.

To prove his point, he called over Jaime McKeown, who also works with CARES and describes herself as being in recovery.

The two met about 20 years ago, when Landis arrested her on a drug offence when she visited Cape May County. At that time, McKeown said, she was in denial about addiction.

She said Landis has the ability to connect with people, whether they are respected judges or homeless people. Those connections are vital to reach people who need help, she said. Addiction recovery efforts look to peer counselors to help people find their way through the system. They understand the difficulties better than anyone.

Rather than a uniform, Landis wore a blue shirt embroidered with the logo “Hope One.” The prosecutor’s office started that program in 2017, in partnership with multiple agencies and groups.

The large white van goes where people need it most, Landis said.

Landis said he made sure the Department of Veteran Affairs was also involved in Hope One. He said he knows many veterans are reluctant to ask for help when they need it.

A 24-hour hotline — 609-522-4375 — is printed on the side of the vehicle. Three staff members stayed with the van while the movie played, ready to help.

“If someone knocks on the door, we’ll do our best to get them into a bed tonight,” Landis said.

The idea is to help people with addiction before they come in contact with law enforcement, or worse, overdose. Cape May County officials have long described opioid abuse as a crisis, with multiple deaths attributed to overdoses each year. A slight decrease in the number of deaths connected to opioids was reported in 2019, but officials and advocates have seen worrying trends during the pandemic.

According to Miller with CARES, the county has also seen an increase in abuse of methamphetamine and the cross abuse of dangerous drugs.

The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office community outreach unit worked with the Cape May County Department of Human Services, Cape Assist Center for Addiction Recovery Education and Success, Cape Counseling Behavioral Healthcare Services, Cape Addiction Recovery Services (CARES) and Access to Reproductive Care and HIV Services (ARCH) on plans for Hope One. It is typically staffed with a detective, a licensed clinician and a peer recovery specialist.

CARES services are free to the clients, funded through grants. Cape Regional Medical Center launched the program in August 2017 with a grant from the state Department of Human Services/Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Sutherland said it is difficult for people to interact due to COVID-19, and difficult for many with substance abuse disorder and their families.

“So take advantage of this evening for socializing and meeting people who are working for the common cause of addressing this opioid crisis that is affecting our community and the nation as a whole,” he said.

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EHC business district hit hard by COVID-19, merchants concerned about what’s to come

EGG HARBOR CITY — When two bank branches and a hardware store closed in the business district in the city this spring, Howard Sefton began to worry.

Sefton, the owner of Captain Howards Bait and Tackle on Philadelphia Avenue, was afraid the closings would cause a domino effect.

“There’s been some grumblings from other businesses,” he said. “There’s always a little bit of concern, but you just got to persevere, do the best you can.”

The closings, at least for the two bank branches, were related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attempts to reach someone at the hardware store for comment were unsuccessful.

OceanFirst bank, the bank Sefton used, closed its branch on May 15.

“Over the past several years, OceanFirst has invested in enhanced digital platforms for our customers — especially during the recent pandemic,” said Jill Apito Hewitt, director of investor relations and corporate communications for the bank, in an email.

“We made this decision to close the branch after significant analysis of the customers’ banking habits. Most of the activity at the Egg Harbor City branch was very transactional. Although we closed the branch on May 15, we added an interactive teller machine at the site so customers can continue to access their accounts and complete transactions there even after the traditional branch closed.”

Wells Fargo closed its city branch “as part of our enterprise-wide decision to temporarily reduce the number of bank branches that we operated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Crystal Dundas, vice president of corporate communications for the bank’s northeast region. “Since then, we have decided not to reopen this branch and encourage our customers to use our Pomona branch, which is nearby.”

If Sefton needs rolls of quarters, which he used to get at OceanFirst Bank, he now has to go to the car wash to exchange bills for coins, or sometimes go to the nearby diner.

“I’ve got to run all over the place,” he said. “Instead of me going around the corner to get my change, I’ve got to drive 10 miles to Galloway Township. That’s too far.”

His wife, Robin Sefton, who is a councilwoman in the city, said council is putting forth efforts to revitalize and redevelop the business district.

“We have been trying to see if the bank has any interest in coming (back),” she said. “I think that everything just wants to go virtual. I don’t think they want to have tellers anymore.”

Robin said she and Howard were going to close the bait shop last year, but decided to reopen knowing people would get outside during the pandemic.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got all of this stuff, we might as well open again,’” she said. “In the beginning, when the virus hit, that’s all you could do is go fishing.”

For Crossroads Bar & Grill owner Chris Georgio, the pandemic has been a “double whammy,” explaining that summer time in the city is typically the slowest season.

“If you have the opportunity to go outside and eat, your first thought isn’t to go to Egg Harbor City and basically eat in the parking lot,” he said. “You’re almost opening up to lose money, but you don’t want to lose any momentum that you have, if you had any.”

Since reopening for outdoor dining, the bar is only open four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday. Now that indoor dining is allowed at 25% capacity, he may reopen indoors this week with limited hours.

Another eatery hit hard in the city is Leatherhead Pub.

“Due to circumstances beyond our control we are temporarily closing Leatherhead,” a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page said Aug. 3, the most recent post.

The restaurant did not return requests for comment.

The pub temporarily closing is a double-edged sword for Georgio.

“It’s nice being the only destination, but it’s not nice being the only destination too, because you need that flow of more than one thing to do in the city,” he said. “Now we’re the only place left.”

Council members, such as Angelo Lello, have been in contact with businesses and are trying to help in any way they can.

“I don’t know if the effects are going to be long term,” Lello said. “I think it’s just going to take a little bit of recovery.”

To help the businesses, Lello said the city is waiving late fees on business’ water and tax bills.

“Your hands are kind of tied because what really can you do?” Georgio said. “Unless we can find a way to bring more people to Egg Harbor City.”

But going into fall, with sports resuming, he holds out hope for his bar.

“If you and your friends want to go out, you might stay local instead of going to Atlantic City or a beach bar,” he said.