New Jersey is the No. 2 state for COVID-19 cases and deaths, nearly double No. 3 Massachusetts. That’s because much of North Jersey is a suburb of New York City and therefore part of the hottest of coronavirus hot spots. New York has more than double the cases and deaths of New Jersey.
South Jersey doesn’t have the population density, packed buildings and subways, and constant river of global visitors that made New York/North Jersey the U.S. coronavirus epicenter. This region’s lighter population should make possible and its dependence on tourism surely makes necessary a phased-in reopening specific to the Jersey Shore well ahead of what is appropriate for North Jersey.
A coalition of Cape May County freeholders, all the county’s mayors and dozens of business leaders made a good start Tuesday on such a plan, releasing and submitting to Gov. Phil Murphy a proposal to gradually reopen shore communities over the next several weeks. Access to boardwalks and beaches would come first, followed by restaurants with reduced seating capacity (some now outdoors) and nonessential stores with ongoing restrictions.
The mayors of Avalon, Stone Harbor and North Wildwood reopened their beaches as of Friday for walking, running, fishing and surfing — but no sitting and with social distancing practices enforced. The Wildwood Boardwalk also reopened. These measures look reasonable, given that Atlantic City’s Boardwalk and beaches have remained open throughout the pandemic apparently without significant harm.
Cape’s recovery task force said seasonal rentals can begin taking reservations today for accommodations starting June 1 — with hotels and motels limited to 60% of their capacity.
Rental agents say there has been strong interest in summer rentals, with many people seeing a relatively short drive to the Jersey Shore as safer than public transport on planes, trains and cruise ships.
The shore is also fortunate that its two main attractions — ocean beaches and boardwalks — are outdoors where the risk of coronavirus contagion is much reduced. “Parks, beaches — as long as they’re not cheek to jowl, cycling, walking, this is good,” a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tom Frieden, told The Hill magazine recently. “Enjoy nature. It’s good for us, and it has very low risk of spreading the virus.”
But during a normal tourism season, people cheek to jowl is pretty much a regular occurrence on summer weekends and holidays — not only in restaurants and accommodations, but boardwalks and beaches. The daunting challenge for the task force and the state is to plan and implement a phased reopening that can adjust to the number and behavior of visitors.
Murphy’s first response to the Cape proposal sounded rather dismissive and autocratic, saying “I don’t begrudge Cape May County for trying to lay out a plan.” He should be grateful for the Cape leaders’ help with restoring an economy that supports tens of thousands of South Jersey residents and a big chunk of state government itself.
This is the month the summer season begins, so it’s urgent that Murphy and Jersey Shore leaders settle on and implement a reopening plan soon. Work toward it should be part of the governor’s daily press events.