Tourism is the dominant industry of the Jersey Shore, and most of the housing on its barrier islands is for tourists. That means only a fraction are primary homes, with the rest second homes and guest accommodations. This isn’t a problem in normal times.
Now it is. Cape May County residents are upset that an increasing number of owners are coming to their second homes at the shore during the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency efforts to slow coronavirus spread.
Residents say visitors are coming from areas of higher infection rates, increasing the burden on local services such as grocery stores, and potentially helping overwhelm health care providers who already will be challenged to take care of the area’s small year-round population.
All that is quite true. New York State, for example, has about a third of the nation’s cases of COVID-19. Cape May County’s first case, in fact, was a visiting New York City man.
The mayors in the Wildwoods have urged second-home owners to stay in their primary homes and not travel to their vacation homes. County officials urged all would-be out-of-state visitors to stay home and not come to the county, saying that although they love visitors from Pennsylvania, North Jersey and New York, they shouldn’t visit the shore now.
Some second-home owners, however, see their shore residence as their home too — one in an area with fewer coronavirus infections and less crowding than the urban areas in which they live and work.
When this editorial was written, official federal and state guidelines were not clear. But things change daily in this pandemic and on Saturday, Gov. Phil Murphy urged those out of state with another place in New Jersey to remain out of state at their primary home.
Federally, however, there are no domestic travel restrictions so far, although federal officials reportedly are considering reducing or suspending domestic air travel.
Murphy’s guidance was preceded last week by the governor of Hawaii asking tourists to stay away from the state for 30 days and ended nonessential travel between its islands. The North Carolina county that includes the Outer Banks barrier islands started restricting visitor access with checkpoints at county entrances. Only permanent residents were allowed in and those who own property -- but a few days later all but local yearround residents were blocked.
The official COVID-19 guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently urge would-be travelers to consider whether the virus is spreading where they are going more than it is where they live, possibly making infection more likely.
The CDC also warns against crowds and close contact with others during travel and at one’s destination.
So nothing in current federal restrictions strongly discourages choosing to stay home — the often recommended behavior — at a second home instead of a primary residence.
Less travel helps reduce the spread of the virus, which is the primary goal at this stage of the pandemic. For that reason alone, perhaps federal officials and other governors should join Murphy in giving explicit, unmistakable guidance to people thinking of relocating to a second home.
Another reason is that in the absence of clear recommendations or rules on second homes, tourism-area residents and visitors are getting into fights about whether people should use their properties during the pandemic. That might cause lasting harm.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said everyone must follow the rules, including out-of-state visitors — then added, “It saddens me to see the divisiveness spawned by recent statements irresponsibly singling out this population.”
It’s still the early in the spread and treatment of COVID-19. This friction between South Jersey locals and ordinarily welcome visitors could get a lot more heated before it’s over.
Anxiety and insecurity are running high in the pandemic, making it difficult for people everywhere to stay calm and respectful of each other.
Let’s make a conscious effort to be more patient and tolerant of others than normal. That can only help us stay strong and prevail over the health and economic threats facing us.