By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The monstrous Great Atlantic Storm that pummeled the Jersey Shore in 1962 ripped up Sea Isle City’s wooden boardwalk and left other parts of the beach town underwater or destroyed.
But Sea Isle hoped to persuade tourists a year later that it was in recovery mode, so the townsfolk created an old-fashioned celebration called the Skimmer Festival, a name inspired by the Victorian-era straw hats worn by boaters during more genteel times.
These days, Sea Isle’s signature summer festival annually draws tens of thousands of visitors, but another monstrous event – the coronavirus pandemic – has forced the city to scale down Skimmer weekend. The revamped festival will not include the main part of the celebration that had been scheduled for Saturday, June 20.
“It’s a huge festival that attracts big crowds,” city spokeswoman Katherine Custer said. “Traditionally, the city has always said tens of thousands.”
Such overwhelming crowds packed closely together would make social distancing impossible, so the festival had to be downsized, she noted.
Custer wasn’t aware of any other time that the Skimmer Festival had to be canceled since its inception in 1963, although at least once or twice bad weather diminished the crowds.
For this year, Sea Isle has scrapped the festival’s Seaside Vendors Market, a sprawling open-air mall that stretches along the oceanfront Promenade, the concrete and asphalt structure that replaced the old boardwalk after the ’62 storm.
Hundreds of vendors normally set up tents along the Promenade to sell jewelry, clothes, crafts and many other items.
Next to the Promenade, the city transforms Excursion Park into a seaside amusement park of rides and games. The family-friendly festival also includes an outdoor food court at the end of John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
However, the Promenade market, the amusement park and the food court have been canceled due to social distancing requirements during the pandemic.
But Sea Isle has been able to salvage the Skimmer Festival’s Antique Auto Show on Sunday, June 21, which is Father’s Day. The vintage cars and trucks are lined up along the Promenade, but there is enough room to spread them out in a way that will allow spectators to practice social distancing, Custer said.
A new attraction that will be added to the festival is a “Skimmer Sidewalk Sale” on June 20 featuring local businesses around town. Businesses will be allowed to set up tables and racks in front of their buildings – without blocking the sidewalks – to sell their merchandise or pitch their services to festival-goers.
Custer noted that Mayor Leonard Desiderio wanted the sidewalk sale to help “shine the spotlight” on local businesses as they look to recover from coronavirus restrictions that have closed down parts of the New Jersey economy for more than two months. The sidewalk sale will encourage people to shop locally, Custer added.
Historically, Skimmer Festival kicks off what Sea Isle officials and the local business community hope will be a busy and profitable summer vacation season.
Desiderio issued a statement stressing that the revamped festival will offer plenty of attractions this year for a “not typical but certainly enjoyable” Skimmer weekend.