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Monday, May 27, 2024

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In Ocean City, Health Over Everything Else

Ocean City Council meetings have moved from City Hall

By Bill Barlow

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
OCEAN CITY – When it comes to reopening the city’s economy, Ocean City says “safety first.”
As towns along the Jersey Shore and around the country begin developing ways to reopen their economies, even as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the region, Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian says public safety will be foremost in all decisions, not economic necessity.
“How we’re doing this from the governor’s office on down; it’s public health, and then everything else,” Gillian said, at the April 23 City Council meeting.
At the same meeting, City Council approved easing interest rates on late taxes in response to the pandemic, which has produced a spike in job losses and a plummeting economy.  City attorney Dorothy McCrosson said the resolution drew a lot of comments, with some arguing it went too far while others said it did not go far enough.
The city charges 8% interest on the first $1,500 owed, and 18% on any amount above that. The resolution sets a flat 8%, as of Aug. 1. Some municipalities have set the rate at zero, effectively waiving the interest for some time.
Communities have taken unprecedented steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, including closing most businesses and public parks. Ocean City was the first in Cape May County to close its beach and boardwalk, and during the April 23 meeting, Gillian did not indicate that he was in a hurry to reopen them.
“I know families want to get out, they want to get on the beach, they want to walk, they want to run. We just have to be very, very responsible,” Gillian told City Council members.
In most years, Ocean City’s tourism season would already be underway. Business owners are looking toward the busiest months of June, July and August. Officials in other towns have already said Cape May County cannot afford to lose summer, with Middle Township Mayor Tim Donohue saying that would mean a loss of more than $6 billion.
At the meeting, Gillian said he fully understands the need to reopen businesses. He owns a boardwalk amusement park that was started by his grandfather, but he emphasized that the city would work closely with the governor’s office, the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management, and Shore Medical Center.
Gillian said he has been in contact with Murphy and with the mayors of the county’s communities, planning for a reopening. Guidelines are still evolving, he said, with more details expected to be available in the coming weeks.
“When we do reopen, we’re going to be ready, and Ocean City is going to be safe and healthy,” he said.
“We need to do this slowly, carefully, keeping health foremost and in conjunction with other shore towns,” said Councilman Robert Barr. He said if Ocean City were to take steps other towns have not, it could mean more visitors concentrating on one beach.
Gillian said he was working with other towns, but pointed out that beaches were already open elsewhere. Gillian ordered city beaches and the boardwalk closed in March, saying too many people gathered on them, and that warm weather would only increase the problem.
Councilman Keith Hartzell suggested the city consider expanding outside dining, allowing restaurants to provide needed social distancing.
“Once this loosens up, people are going to want to get out,” he said. Gillian said officials will have to look at new options to allow businesses to operate while keeping people as safe as possible. He said Cape May entrepreneur Curtis Bashaw was a part of the discussions in Cape May County, offering ideas for social distance in a tourism economy.
The county launched a business recovery task force, headed by Freeholders Will Morey and Leonard Desiderio, which is tasked with helping businesses reopen, as state restrictions ease. Murphy proposed a phased reopening of the state’s economy, but he recently told “Meet the Press” that the first phase remains weeks away.
“It is too soon to know exactly when we can begin to open things back up. These decisions will start to be made in the coming weeks as we get more information,” Gillian wrote, in an April 24 message to residents.
In his comments to City Council, Gillian repeated calls for unity in the community and beyond. The city has banned short-term rentals for the time being, but there have been tensions between year-round residents and second homeowners, some of whom have visited the city in recent weeks.
On social media platforms, some have suggested closing the bridges that lead to Ocean City or other steps. Gillian has said he does not have the constitutional authority to do so, and at the City Council meeting, he said he was disgusted by what he described as the attacks by some residents.
“We want to vilify people, because when we’re scared, we look toward the negative, and that’s absolutely not what Ocean City does. We’re positive,” he said, “so don’t let the few bullies take us down. I’ll tell you, every day I’m hearing more and more good things and those bullies are falling more and more silent.”
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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