ATLANTIC CITY — People have flocked to New Jersey’s beaches and the city’s casinos this summer for a change of scenery and a bit of excitement.
But COVID-19’s recommended social distancing measures combined with the increasing popularity of the North end of the Atlantic City Boardwalk has created a new issue: swimmers and surfers sharing the same waves.
As visitors look for personal space on the sand that is at least 6 feet away from each other, swimmers and sunbathers have co-opted designated surfing beaches, particularly the smaller areas near the two newest casinos, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort.
Per city ordinance, the beaches at New Hampshire Avenue, Delaware Avenue, between Annapolis and Raleigh avenues, between Newton and Jackson avenues, and between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Steel Pier are designated as surfing beaches from Memorial Day to the last Sunday in September.
Far from it being a territorial struggle, Atlantic City surfers say it is a safety concern.
“Somebody is going to get hurt,” said Maggie Burroughs, a 60-plus-year-old surfer from Atlantic City. “Unfortunately, bathers and surfers do not work together.”
Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Steve Downey said beach-goers’ behaviors because of the pandemic changed the dynamic this summer. He said lifeguards have been assigned to beaches that were not often used as people search for extra space in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our beaches are busier than they’ve ever been, as far as people being stretched out,” Downey said, commending visitors for adhering to the social distancing guidelines. “I’ve been doing this 30 years, (and) we have people on beaches that have never been inhabited.”
The other factor at play is the resurgence of an area of the Boardwalk that had been all but abandoned as a tourist draw once three of the four casinos — Revel (2014), Showboat (2014) and Trump Taj Mahal (2016) — in that stretch closed. But the now-branded area known as North Beach — which includes Resorts Casino Hotel, Hard Rock, Ocean, the Steel Pier and a handful of other businesses — is an attraction and causes larger crowds at the smaller beaches from Tennessee Avenue up to New Jersey Avenue.
When the Delaware Avenue beach directly in front of Showboat Hotel began to draw bigger crowds last summer, the ACBP moved the surfers north to New Jersey Avenue.
This summer, the New Jersey Avenue beach was being used by both surfers and swimmers, Downey said, until it got too busy. Last week, the beach was closed for surfers.
“That might change next summer, but, for right now, for us, the safest thing is to not allow surfing on that particular beach,” Downey said.
ACBP lifeguard shifts begin at 10 a.m., and the majority of swimmers avoid the water until then. But surfers are often out in the waves hours before that, so the New Jersey Avenue beach still has wave riders most mornings.
Karl Kelchner, of Mays Landing, and Matthew Jost, who grew up in Brigantine but now lives out of state, were out Wednesday morning with only a stand-up paddleboarder as company. The two avid surfers said the mixed-use of the beaches was “not ideal” but would not be a problem if people understood the risks.
“The concern is more for the swimmers than us,” Kelchner said. “It kinda puts us out of control trying to worry about them. And it takes some of the pleasure out of it because you’re worried about them.”
Jost said interactions in the water between swimmers and surfers is rare because they use different space. But, he said, everyone needs to be mindful of their surroundings if both groups are in the water together.
“It’s not only a surfer’s responsibility,” he said. “Swimmers need to be aware, too.”
City ordinance requires signage designating surfing beaches. There are no signs at either Delaware or New Jersey avenue beaches.