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.
WILDWOOD CREST — Julianna Roche vividly remembers her first lifeguard rescue.
It was last year, and three people were drowning in the ocean. Roche blew her whistle and communicated on radio that she was going in the water.
A short time later, with the assist of other guards, the three people were saved.
Being a lifeguard on the beach can be a dangerous job because of rip currents, rough waves, and panicked swimmers who may drown you to keep themselves up.
For Roche and her fellow lifeguards in the Crest, dealing with those challenges isn’t nerve-wracking — it’s exhilarating, and it’s something they are well prepared for through their training.
“We go through such rigorous training … they teach you every possible scenario that could happen,” said Roche, a 2018 graduate of Wildwood Catholic High School. “So much of this job is confidence. You don’t have time to be nervous.”
Because the Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol requires even veteran lifeguards to requalify every year, Roche began training in January for her job this summer.
On Tuesday, Roche, a second-year patrol member, set up the lifeguard stand and helped mentor two rookies. The rookies will become full guards later this summer.
The surf was rough, but there was no sign of a thunderstorm. Roche said the beach is guarded unless there is lightning.
When lightning strikes, the guards call the people out of the water and warn everyone the ocean will not be guarded until the storm passes.
“We tell them that we won’t be here and it is unsafe, but we can’t force anyone to stay out of the water,” she said. “We hang out at the headquarters (until the thunderstorm passes).”
The process of setting up and guarding the beach in Wildwood Crest has been the same for decades. In many cases, the job of protecting swimmers has been passed down through generations of family members who have served on the beach patrol.
Jonathan Feraco, a Wildwood Crest native in his third year guarding the beach, is the fifth person in his family to be on the beach patrol.
He said he looked at other summer jobs before becoming a lifeguard, but couldn’t stray from the family tradition.
“I was skeptical about becoming a lifeguard. ... I wanted to go into the busing business because there’s more money,” Feraco said. “But there were four other Feracos before me that were on the patrol, and I had to carry on the legacy.”
Feraco added he is glad he joined and loves the job, which is why he comes back every summer.
Maddy Love, a Wilmington, Delaware, native and three-year patrol veteran, joined because of her older sister and cousins.
“They lived down here and they all enjoyed it,” Love said. “And now I really enjoy it.”
The patrol has been led by the same man for the last 44 years: Bud Johnson.
Every morning before going on duty, lifeguards participate in training that could include running, swimming, rowing, paddling or reviews of first aid and CPR, Johnson said.
At 9:45 a.m., Johnson starts the roll call of all the guards. In total, there are 86 employees at the patrol, 18 of whom are women. Johnson said he is proud of that because the number of women on the staff continues to grow.
Before leaving for the beach, the lifeguards do a breakdown like football players breaking from the huddle. On Tuesday, it was two claps and a “Ric Flair.”
Clap-clap“Wooo!” the lifeguards yelled before exiting the headquarters on Rambler Avenue.
Down on the beach, the priority becomes watching the ocean, especially if the water is filled with rip currents.
“To the trained eye, the rip current stands out like a sore thumb,” said Ronnie Ayers, a 15-year veteran — though this is his first year back since 2008.
“Saving people from rip currents are the most common saves, especially if they’re on boogie boards and don’t realize they are getting pulled out.”
On average, the lifeguards don’t let people go out beyond their chest. On days when the surf is rough, like Tuesday, that could be reduced to just the swimmer’s waist.
If there is an emergency, the lifeguards use whistles and radios to communicate. The radio is connected to all the other lifeguards and the patrol headquarters. The headquarters is connected to the police station, just in case of a major emergency.
At the end of the day, at 5 p.m., the lifeguards whistle for everyone to get out of the ocean. Then they drag the lifeguard stands — some made of wood, others aluminum — up the beach and away from the surf.
The next morning and every morning after until the season ends in September, the process is repeated.
“I grew up around lifeguards and I always thought they were the coolest people ... they’re like superheroes,” Roche said. “I’m so glad to be a part of this every summer.”
Henry Burdsall said he drank and used drugs to “get out of himself” and to mask the underlying problems he was dealing with.
Eating lunch Wednesday before graduating from Atlantic-Cape May County’s Recovery Court program, Burdsall, 39, of Rio Grande, was at ease as he talked about how addiction treatment and 12-step programs not only helped him in recovery from a substance use disorder, but also got him to a healthy place psychologically and emotionally.
However, not everyone gets a multi-faceted approach to treatment. Because of that, researchers in a new study found that opioid overdose survivors are 24 times more likely to die than the general population, of not only drug use, but from physical and medical health issues as well.
The national study, published in JAMA Psychiatric last week, showed that overdose survivors were more likely to die within a year of a substance use-related disease, circulatory diseases, cancer or suicide.
Health experts said the results underscore a need for more intense medical and mental health care efforts for this population of people.
Overdose survivors were 132 times more likely to die of drug-use associated diseases, nearly 50 times more likely to die from HIV, and about 26 times more likely to die by suicide, according to study results.
“On July 4, 2014, my friend told me to stick a needle in my arm, because I thought that by ending my life, I could escape reality,” said Shannon VanDorn, a recent Cape May County Recovery Court graduate. “I was in a failing marriage, I had three kids who I didn’t know how to care for, and I thought this was the only way.”
VanDorn, with two years in recovery from addiction, said her treatment program gave her the tools to manage the stress and anxiety that comes with raising a family, taking care of finances and getting daily tasks done.
“As the number of nonfatal overdoses is getting larger, what we see in the data is that there is no well organized way that these individuals are being reached out to after overdose,” said Stephen Crystal, co-author of the study and professor of health services research at Rutgers University’s Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research.
“We see in the data that we don’t respond adequately and that there’s hardly any increase in engagement in treatment after these (overdose) events,” he said.
While the use of opioid antidotes such as naloxone has prevented many deaths, the number of overdoses continues to rise in New Jersey, which will see close to 3,000 deaths this year if the pace continues.
Overdose and naloxone cases are often used to determine the scope of the epidemic, but Crystal said the study, which looked at Medicaid health data for more than 76,000 U.S. residents, shows the epidemic largely extends more deeply into medical and behavioral health issues.
Christine Miller, coordinator for the Intensive Family Support Service and Acute Care at the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, said people must be treated as a whole. Providing just substance use treatment, mental health or medical health care isn’t enough, she said.
“We always talk about the chicken or the egg scenario. Did the addiction or mental health issue come first?” she said.
“We don’t always know, which is why we always want all mental, physical and substance use disorder conditions to be treated together.”
Crystal said the study shows the real number of people dying from the opioid epidemic is unknown, but certainly greater than the number of recorded deaths from overdoses alone, which is why more coordination among addiction treatment, mental health and physical health care is necessary to save people.
“We need much more of an aggressive approach in every setting — hospitals, emergency rooms, any provider that deals with that population,” he said. “If we offer people more comprehensive mental and medical health care in a way that is accessible to them, then they might come for drug abuse treatment as well.”