By TIM KELLY
Looking for a little certainty in uncertain times? Look no further than the Ocean City and Sea Isle Beach Patrols.
The first line of defense in beach safety and symbol of all things summer, the lifeguards in both resort towns are proceeding according to the “old normal” from before the COVID-19 pandemic. That mean both patrols will be primed and ready for action if beaches open for Memorial Day.
“It makes a lot more sense to have all the normal preparations done,” said longtime Sea Isle Beach Patrol Chief Renny Steele. “We can always adjust to postponed or canceled openings and events. It’s a lot harder to try to catch up.”
Both Steele and OCBP Chief Mark Jamieson said their guard rosters will be in place, and all systems are go as of now. This includes the annual tryouts for the 2020 class of first-time members, or “rookies.”
“We’re preparing to open on schedule, and this includes the annual rookie tryouts set for June 13-14,” said Jamieson. “If it is deemed unsafe by the Department of Health or if other restrictions are in place, we’ll adjust our schedule accordingly.”
Sea Isle’s rookie tryouts will also take place on June 13-14, Steele said.
Such consistency flies in the face of mixed signals regarding beach openings around the region and elsewhere. Atlantic City, for example, never closed its beaches or Boardwalk. In Cape May County, some beaches will be open this weekend, with social distancing and other restrictions in Wildwood, Stone Harbor and Avalon.
Wildwood and North Wildwood beaches are opening for activities such as running, walking and fishing, according to published reports. Other beach towns such as Avalon and Stone Harbor will be open only open for fitness and athletics, but with social distancing. No lounging on beach chairs or blankets was permitted as of Wednesday.
Conversely, Ocean City and Sea Isle beaches were still officially closed on Wednesday, as were the Ocean City Boardwalk and the Promenade in Sea Isle.
Both towns and other South Jersey resorts were closely watching Maryland’s Ocean City, which declared its beaches open starting this weekend, as well as its Boardwalk and businesses, with no social distancing restrictions. If that move results in a spike of new COVID-19 cases, it could force authorities here to rethink or possibly shelve reopening plans.
“We’ve considered every ‘what if’ we can think of, which can be put into place if necessary,” said Steele. “But regardless of those, it still comes back to being ready for (an earlier than anticipated) opening. We don’t want to make any decisions to postpone or cancel anything until we have to.”
The lifeguard bosses said further adjustments would be made if beaches are open under a “new normal” of social distancing. That would mean only one guard to a stand, where two are the norm now, and possibly new duties to enforce distancing and other mitigation, Steele said.
It is a particularly challenging balancing act statewide and for local governments in Cape May County, which has experienced among the lowest number of coronavirus cases and deaths, and has a largely tourism-based economy. At the same time, the county also has a large number of older residents, the most vulnerable age demographic.
The governments of both municipalities have acknowledged they are thankful for some of the planned easing of coronavirus-related restrictions. However, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday he was ordering New Jersey’s public health emergency declaration extended 30 days, or until well into June.
Although the governor’s extension of the state of emergency has no direct impact on current shutdown or social distancing orders, local officials have acknowledged the traditional opening of the season on Memorial Day weekend of May 22-25 will be anything but traditional.
At present, it is presumed some early summer events such as Skimmer Weekend in Sea Isle and the Business Persons Plunge and “unlocking” of the ocean in Ocean City won’t be taking place this year.
Despite this, both local beach patrols will be ready. Jamieson and Steele said routine preparations, such as getting vehicle fleets tuned up, making repairs to lifeguard stands, ordering needed uniforms and other equipment, have taken place or are in the works on a normal schedule. That goes for testing for this year’s rookie class, and for lifeguard applications, Jamieson said.
“At this point in the year, it is the normal number of responses,” he said. “We usually see the application number grow after Memorial Day.”
In Sea Isle, the number of applications to join the Beach Patrol and to participate in the Island Run “are down” thus far, Steele said.
“People apparently want to see if the shutdown is going to affect their plans before they commit,” he noted.
All preparations were still in place. “The (Island Run) T-shirts have been designed, but we’re holding off on having them printed,” Steele said, explaining to do so would risk being stuck with up to 1,400 shirts emblazoned with a 2020 date and reference to the event’s 50th anniversary year.
“The same goes for sunscreen, which we supply for our guards,” Steele said. “We ordered sunscreen that doesn’t expire even if it’s not used until next summer.”