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Sunday, May 19, 2024


With Fewer Covid Rules, CMCo Anticipates Booming Summer

Leading up to Memorial Day weekend

By Bill Barlow

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
COURT HOUSE – After almost 15 months of emergency rules, Cape May County is ready for summer. Local business owners, elected officials and others believe the public is eager, as well. Advanced bookings and other indicators point to a banner year for 2021.
That made Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent lifting of many Covid restrictions just in time for Memorial Day weekend all the more welcome. Murphy May 24 announced that both social distancing and the mandate that masks be worn in public spaces would end, with exceptions, May 28, along with other limits.
A week later, June 4, indoor gatherings and capacity limits will also go away.
“It’s very nice,” said Pete Riess, manager of Mack’s Pizza, a Wildwood Boardwalk staple. “This way, we can offer more to our customers.”
Local business owners have been watching carefully, according to Tracey DuFault, executive director, Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce, not only to see what Trenton would do, but also the status of capacity limits and mask mandates in other states, as it can be difficult to convince a reluctant customer to wear a mask indoors if the rules are different back home.
“We’re super excited about this,” she said. “Having the masks off, as long as everyone is safe, we’re definitely all for it. I think we were all concerned.”
Not Entirely Back to Normal
Businesses throughout Cape May County had to adapt to the pandemic’s normal last year. For instance, restaurants like Mack’s depended on takeout orders.
“We did our best. We made a few adaptations,” Riess said. 
Others expanded outside dining, as municipal governments scrambled to make allowances in zoning ordinances and alcohol-serving rules to accommodate them. Retailers looked to online shopping and curbside pickup.
Several changes could become a permanent part of summer at the shore.
“There are some things we should hang onto,” said DuFault. “I love eating outside now. That is something I probably didn’t do much of before Covid.”
Riess is optimistic heading into summer, but he also said people should not expect everything to return to normal. Some visitors will likely keep their masks on, or want to keep a little more distance, and that’s OK.
“The population, as a whole, is still going to be a little cautious,” he said.
At the start of last summer, when it became clear Covid would not disappear, Cape May County projected 15% of local businesses could close. According to Diane Wieland, the county’s tourism director, the number was not quite that high, but the county’s economy took a hit.
“Who would have thought we’d be celebrating that we lost only 20% of our revenue?” she said, adding hundreds of businesses closed their doors last year, with the restaurant industry taking the biggest hit.
While some businesses shut down during the pandemic, in some cases, they may have closed or retired anyway, but for some who may have been considering shutting their doors, the pandemic’s stresses may have helped move the decision forward, Wieland said, faced with limited inventory, rapidly changing restrictions, and a contracting economy.
“The businesses in Cape May County are very strong,” she said. “We have seen it through hurricanes, rainy seasons, and things like that.”
She said Cape May County’s economy may be in a better position to recover than other areas of New Jersey, as restriction-weary families get ready to hit the beaches.
Ready to Dance?
County officials welcomed the easing of restrictions. According to a statement issued by Murphy’s office, businesses and organizations will still be allowed to require masks for employees and customers or guests, but the state mandate was lifted.
As of June 4, the state will lift the indoor gathering limit, which stands at 50 people, and remove the limits on other indoor gatherings, such as concerts, political meetings, weddings, or funerals, which were set at 250 people.
Also over are prohibitions against dance floors in bars and restaurants.
The governor’s statement does not mention whether customers have been vaccinated. A statement from Cape May County describes it as “fully vaccinated people” will not need to wear a mask indoors.  
In practical terms, it will not be possible for business owners to know the vaccination status of customers.
“I don’t think we have any other recourse than to believe in the honesty of our visitors,” said DuFault. 
She said she hopes visitors will follow the advice of medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A statement from Cape May County officials released after Murphy’s announcement said the county worked hard to keep the virus under control and make sure businesses can fully reopen. 
It said the county has one of the strongest vaccination programs in the state, and cited the county’s Recovery Task Force, which sought to open businesses safely and responsibly.
County Commissioner Vice-Director Leonard Desiderio described the effort as some of the most important work he’s done in county government.
“We continue to work as a county to safely reopen. We welcome the news relaxing indoor mask mandates ahead of our unofficial start to summer this weekend. We expect a great summer at the Jersey Cape,” he stated.
Not all businesses declined in 2020. Home sales – and prices – climbed steeply and other businesses did well, but every business faced new expenses and had to find new ways of reaching and interacting with customers.
“Last summer was rocking, considering,” said Betsy Sole, at Cape May Winery, which her dad, Toby Craig, purchased, in 2003. “We were packed every day.”
She said people are ready to return to normal and see each other’s faces. There are still a few very cautious customers, she said.
“We respect that by all means,” she said. 
Her staff strictly followed protocols, and customers cooperated. She believes people will continue to gravitate toward outdoor activities this year.  
“Everyone’s excited,” Sole said.
Employment Worries
You can’t talk about summer business without talking about the employment crunch. 
Multiple sources for this story, including Sole and Riess, cited that as the primary concern for summer businesses.
“I don’t know of one business that is not struggling to find staff to work this summer,” said DuFault.
Wieland said that, too, is connected to the pandemic, and will be another blow to struggling businesses. State estimates indicated the economy may not fully recover until 2023. With shore towns in a better position, she hopes the county economy could return by the end of summer 2022.
Vaccinations Up, Infections Down
Cape May County did better than most in the pandemic, reporting a fraction of the numbers of infections and deaths that took place in Bergen or Essex counties to the north.
Since the beginning of May, the county Health Department tracked a steady decline in the infection rates, although, as of May 26, they had not yet reached zero. The county has a goal of 70% of adults fully vaccinated by the end of June.
What was a scramble for vaccine appointments in late winter is now an easy appointment, with the vaccine available for those over 12 for free at multiple locations.  
“Our whole goal was to try to get back to normal for this summer. It looks like we’re going to get there,” Wieland said.
To contact Bill Barlow, email

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