On any given summer day, among the umbrellas, towels and folding chairs, coolers dot the sand on South Jersey beaches.
What many don’t know, or don’t care about, is that the contents of those coolers can land them in a lot of trouble.
The culture of drinking on the beach is alive and well in Atlantic and Cape May counties, but according to local ordinances, it’s illegal to possess alcohol on the beach, and a citation can carry hefty fines and even jail time. While banner planes fly across the sky advertising for domestic and imported beers, police officers patrol the beach to keep the peace.
“I don’t think that anybody is being deliberate in breaking the law,” Longport police Chief Frank Culmone said. “Unless there’s some sort of behavior that prompts us to take action, most of the time the officers use discretion.”
Many visitors to the beach don’t see drinking as a problem, as long as it’s contained.
Bridget Malin, 50, of Longport, sat in her beach chair on the water’s edge and explained she has never seen anyone get out of hand drinking on the beach, but she hasn’t see anyone hiding their alcohol either.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” she said. “I’ve never experienced a problem.”
She said mostly people use Koozies, but it’s not to hide their drink.
Longport has both Class I and Class II officers patrolling the beach throughout the summer. Culmone said the officers are not really looking for any one violation, but to create an “overall presence” on the beach.
“You can’t go and regulate all the fun,” he said. “You can try to control it. You’ve got to have limits in place.”
In Longport, there were zero public consumption summonses issued in all of 2017, Culmone said. There weren’t any in Margate either, according to the city clerk.
In Ventnor, where five summonses were issued for public consumption last year, several people were openly drinking on the beach on a sunny Saturday.
Brad Clearfield, 62, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said he didn’t know it was illegal to drink on the Dudley Avenue beach in Ventnor. He pointed down the sand, saying almost every cooler on the beach probably had alcohol in it.
Asked about the contents of his cooler, he smiled and replied, “Just water.”
Clearfield said he didn’t have a problem with drinking on the beach, “as long as you’re not a knucklehead and it’s all in moderation.”
“You’ve got to have common sense. Just come down, have a good time and behave yourself,” he said. “If you don’t want to be around drinking, go to Ocean City.”
Communities in Cape May County issue summonses for drinking much more frequently than Atlantic County communities.
In Avalon, Mayor Martin Pagliughi said undercover officers on the beach wrote 27 tickets just on the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend.
“We have signs at all the beach entrances, so people know you aren’t supposed to drink on the beach,” Pagliughi said. “Our hands are kind of tied because we can’t search coolers, so people can just put stuff away if they see police coming.”
Policing beach drinking in Cape May County came to a head Memorial Day weekend in Wildwood, when police stopped Philadelphia native Emily Weinman for allegedly drinking underage on the beach.
Weinman, 20, passed a Breathalyzer test but was still going to be issued a ticket for having alcohol openly displayed on the beach, regardless of her age.
The incident turned into a violent arrest that made international headlines.
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano said in a recent interview with The Press of Atlantic City that he did not exactly know how many tickets were written for drinking on the beach, but estimated the number was in the hundreds.
But not all beachgoers are in the dark about the illegality of drinking alcohol on the beach.
Joe Tadley, 64, of Egg Harbor Township, said he knew it was illegal to drink on the beach as he dropped an empty beer can into a bag next to his beach chair.
Tadley said he doesn’t have a problem with anyone else drinking on the beach “as long as you’re of age and behave yourself.”
Asked if he was worried about being cited, he said no.
Mike and Janice Shemeld, both 67 years old and from Broomall, Pennsylvania, said they know it’s illegal to drink on the beach, but they have never had a problem enjoying a drink or two.
“This is our relaxation time when we’re not working,” Janice Shemeld said.