By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
It was far from being a blockbuster Memorial Day weekend in Sea Isle City, but it was certainly a memorable one. Perhaps the most memorable one of all because of the extraordinary circumstances.
Vacationers walked the streets wearing protective masks, beachgoers spread out on the sand to observe social distancing and restaurants were limited to offering takeout meals or curbside pickup.
Overall, the crowds were smaller and more subdued this holiday weekend than the normal Memorial Day celebrations marking the traditional start of the bustling summer tourism season at the shore.
“It was a nice crowd. But it was not like a typical Memorial Day weekend. It was much quieter than usual,” Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
But Desiderio also saw encouraging signs that suggest the shore is on the cusp of returning to some semblance of normalcy following two months of restrictions, shutdowns and uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In particular, he thought that the restaurants and retailers in town did an “excellent job” in providing curbside shopping.
“It was different from as we know it, but I think it went well,” Desiderio said.
More than anything, Desiderio said he was pleased that Sea Isle’s residents and visitors seemed to take the social distancing guidelines seriously while on the beaches and in other parts of town.
“From what I saw, people were following the rules,” he said. “I think, overall, everyone behaved.”
Desiderio added that Sea Isle sent a report to Gov. Phil Murphy’s office noting that the city was able to safely handle the holiday crowds. Sea Isle implemented a series of social distancing measures, including placing banners and signs throughout town reminding everyone to stay at least six feet apart from strangers.
“I think people will police themselves. If they see a crowded beach, they’ll move to another spot,” Desiderio said.
The mixed bag of weather over the weekend also seemed to hold down the holiday crowds, the mayor said. Saturday was a stellar day weather-wise, but Friday and Sunday were rainy or cloudy and unusually cool. Closing out the weekend, Memorial Day unfolded under cloudy skies and temperatures in the 60s.
Traci Greco, of Hatboro, Pa., joined with friends and family members Monday on a sparsely crowded beach in Sea Isle’s Townsends Inlet to close out the holiday weekend.
“I don’t know if people are afraid to come down to the shore or if they don’t know what to expect,” Greco said, referring to the pandemic.
Greco expressed her frustration that not all businesses have been allowed to reopen at the shore, which she believes has created confusion among the tourists.
“I wish all of the businesses could be on the same level playing field,” she said.
Sea Isle and other shore towns hope to persuade the governor that enough progress has been made in the battle against COVID-19 that the economy is ready to emerge from the shutdown.
Getting the shore fully reopened is critical for the array of small businesses that depend on the summer season for their livelihoods, retailers emphasized.
“Fortunately, I do have a lot of customers, but to not be open for the first weekend of the summer is difficult,” said Liz Essick, owner of the Sunsations clothing boutique in Sea Isle.
Essick’s shop and other retail outlets that are considered nonessential in the governor’s shutdown orders are limited to doing curbside pickup and online orders. Customers are not allowed inside at this time.
Short-term rentals, a crucial source of the shore’s customer base, won’t open until next week in Sea Isle, Desiderio noted. Motels in town, including one that Desiderio owns, are closed for the time being, he pointed out.
Arcades and amusements remain closed at the shore. Patrons buying meals at restaurants are still not allowed to dine inside. Restaurants are limited to takeout meals, curbside pickup or deliveries.
Greco said she bought a takeout lunch at a Stone Harbor restaurant on Sunday, but could not eat it there. A police officer told the restaurant customers that they would have to move to another location, she said.
“We had to eat our lunch in the car,” Greco said.
At Sea Isle’s fishing pier at 79th Street and Roberts Avenue, John Costanzo and his 12-year-old son, Zach, spent Memorial Day trying to catch their dinner.
“They have been biting a little bit today, but not as much as we hoped,” Costanzo said with a shrug.
The block-long fishing pier on Roberts Avenue provided plenty of room for Costanzo and his son to spread out from other anglers.
“Normally, I don’t get too close to other people. I try to stay away,” said Costanzo, a resident of South Seaville.
He noted that most people appeared to be observing social distancing in the places he visited during the holiday weekend, including the Wildwood Boardwalk.
“I think for the most part people are staying safe. That’s a good thing,” Costanzo said.
One of the best ways to social distance at the shore is to jump on a boat and head out on the water. Ryan Day, of Ardmore, Pa., and John Eder, of Havertown, Pa., were watching over a group of six girls, including their daughters, during a holiday fishing trip on Sea Isle’s back bays.
“We’re doing what we need to do to social distance,” Ryan Day said.
The girls included Maddyn Day, 11, and her 9-year-old sister, Teagan, Grace Eder, 11, and her 9-year-old sister, Lilly, Adrianna Roach, 11, and Tobin Zazzarino, 11.
They huddled in the front of Ryan Day’s 17-foot boat as they prepared to depart from the Pier 88 Marina.
Teagan Day, a pint-sized blonde, spoke excitedly about fishing for flounder. She also said the girls had had a lot of fun staying up late during one night over the holiday weekend.
“We stayed up really, really late,” she said, giggling.
Ryan Day smiled while listening to Teagan. Despite the pandemic, he and John Eder were determined that their daughters and the other girls would have an enjoyable Memorial Day.
“We’re doing it to create more memories and to let them have some fun,” Day said.