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County Works to Finalize Plans for Reopening

The Wildwood Boardwalk remains officially closed

By Bill Barlow

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
COURT HOUSE – A Cape May County task force established to respond to the pandemic-fueled economic hardship expects to complete a series of recommendations for reopening Cape May County this week.
It will not be quick, and it will not be easy, cautioned Freeholder Will Morey, one of the county’s elected officials appointed to the group, along with Freeholder Leonard Desiderio. Launched as the Cape May County Business Recovery Task Force April 15, with a focus on helping businesses access state and federal programs, it is now known as the Cape May County-Wide Recovery Initiative.
Morey said the original 22-member board has morphed into working with county officials, the 16 mayors, health sector professionals, and multiple other interest groups on a consensus plan.
“Now, you may say that sounds like an impossible dream, but at this point we are close,” Morey said, in a recent interview. The focus is on preserving public safety while working out the protocols needed to allow businesses to open for the summer, he said.
That will likely mean strict social distancing measures, requiring reduced capacity at amusement parks, restaurants, and theaters. It will also mean installing protective plastic barriers between staff and customers, additional cleaning and disinfecting and other changes to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus.
The recommendations will encompass hotels and campgrounds, realtors and the construction industry, fishing boats and tours, and more. The task force recently added representatives of the banking industry and personal services, including hairdressers, barbers and nail salons.
For a region, that has long equated success with big crowds on beaches and boardwalks, it will be a big adjustment.
“I’m not ready to call it the new normal. I’m going to call it the normal for now,” Morey said.
While the original mission was economic recovery, Morey said it did not take long to realize that recovery would be impossible without reopening the county economy. The situation remains in flux, and the number of positive tests and related deaths continues to climb in the county and throughout the state.
Factors continue by the hour, Morey said, adding that any estimate of when the rules may be eased remains premature. 
“So much is changing,” he said. Count on many social distancing rules to remain in place at least through June, he said, with constant reevaluation needed as the situation evolves.
Most businesses have already taken a hit, with special events like Ocean City’s Spring Block Party, Wildwood’s Spring Bridal Expo, and others canceled due to the crisis. According to Morey, few businesses will be crying about the loss of the spring revenue. Even Memorial Day Weekend, seen as the kickoff to the season, is not as critical as July and August for most county businesses, along with the final weeks of June.
Still, some businesses will be in survival mode, facing new challenges in staffing and multiple other issues. Survival can be a great motivator for innovation.
“There’s no mistaking the fact that this has an adverse economic impact. Businesses can pretty quickly look and see that this is not going to be a record year,” Morey said. Crowds are likely to be thinner, which will mean fewer customers. At the same time, the cost of compliance with new protocols adds an unplanned expense.
“It doesn’t cost less money to do these things. All these protocols come with a cost,” he said.
Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled a six-point roadmap for reopening April 27, which did not set any timetable. The county will need the governor’s office on board for easing restrictions.
“My sense is there’s an interest on the part of the governor in what we have to offer,” Morey said.
A prepared statement on the county initiative said task force members already have placed hundreds of hours into collecting data, preparing protocols and creating a plan for the systematic reopening of the county.
“In doing so, they have cast a wide net and have prepared an expanding list of business types that will need support and guidance as the county moves toward a reopening process,” the statement reads. “Task Force members are assembling recommendations on protocols for social distancing, capacity management, personal protective equipment, sanitation, disinfection and employee monitoring for every sector.”
“With a focus on safety for our citizens and visitors, the Recovery Initiative is quickly positioning Cape May County to be ready to reopen,” said Desiderio, who is also Sea Isle City’s mayor.
In two weeks, members of the recovery initiative have organized the business community, delivered a draft presentation to county mayors, consulted with the Department of Health and Cape Regional Medical Center, discussed the effort with state legislators, the region’s congressman and the governor’s office, and collected information on COVID-19.
Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo expressed confidence that communities will unite behind the county plan, while North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said beach communities have a special obligation.
“Our beaches and boardwalks are a major economic engine, and thousands of people depend on them for their financial survival. At the same time, we understand our opening has to provide safeguards to the very people that come here,” he said. “We are committed participants in the Recovery Initiative’s goal of a smart and safe reopening as soon as possible.”
The next steps include finalizing a consensus with the mayors and working with the health sector on safety protocols for maximum safety to complete a comprehensive reopening strategy that will meet the requirements of state directives.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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