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.