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With summer right around the corner, New Jersey announced this week that beaches would be open by Memorial Day weekend, with some restrictions. The openings are weeks behind other coastal states like Georgia and Florida. But as one of the states hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, local officials say they are proceeding cautiously. Hari Sreenivasan has the story.
With summer right around the corner, New Jersey announced this week that beaches would be open by Memorial Day weekend, with some restrictions. The openings are weeks behind other coastal states like Georgia and Florida. But as one of the states hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, local officials say they are are proceeding cautiously.
At exactly 10am yesterday, barriers that had been blocking the boardwalk and beach in Seaside Heights, New Jersey were pushed aside. An announcement made it official.
Seaside Heights Official:
These beaches are now open, once again these beaches are now officially open.
It's a sign that things are returning to normal in this quintessential Jersey shore town — sort of.
Mayor Tony Vaz:
We're looking to see how we deal with the social distancing. That's going to be our test today.
Tony Vaz is the mayor of Seaside Heights. After nearly two months of being closed because of covid-19, visitors can now walk and ride bikes on the boardwalk, provided they heed the rule of six feet between groups of people.
On the beach, there's no swimming or sunbathing, but the public can walk, fish, and even surf. Mayor Vaz says it's just the first phase of Seaside Heights's reopening.
I'm optimistic that this is a good first step. Obviously, I would love to see everything open. I would love to see us swimming and so forth. But we have to recognize that we have to take this in steps.
Seaside Heights is one of more than three dozen communities along the Jersey Shore grappling with how best to reopen. In neighboring Seaside Park beaches are already open to sunbathers, provided beachgoers keep their distance.
But by Memorial Day weekend, all beaches in New Jersey will be open. On Thursday, governor Phil Murphy officially gave the go ahead and issued statewide guidance.
Gov. Phil Murphy:
We want everyone to have fun, but we need everyone to be safe. To accomplish both, we will be requiring restrictions on how many beachgoers may be allowed on any beach or lakefront. And the social distancing we've been practicing in our hometowns will be extended to our beaches.
Here in Seaside Heights, many are bracing for a summer season unlike any other.
I don't know how much business will do, but just being open is incredible. It's a great feeling.
John Gato is the manager of Van Holten's Chocolate and Sweet Shop on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. He opened up today for take-out only.
I mean, we are open year round, but our big months are June, July and August. And those are the, those are the big months.
Only restaurants and food vendors have the go ahead to open. Many attractions on the boardwalk remain closed, including amusement park Casino Pier. And there's no timeline on when businesses like this may be allowed to open.
Marketing manager Maria Mastoris Saltzman says they have started preparing for how social distancing could be implemented in the park.
Maria Mastoris Saltzman
We have decals already ready for the floor to make sure people stand on each decal in the lines and on the rides and the slides. And trying to limit as many people in the park at the one time.
Saltzman says the covid-19 shutdown is just the latest challenge for a park ravaged by a massive fire in 2013, and hit hard by superstorm Sandy in 2012. But she says it's crucial for this park and it's 500 seasonal workers to try and open before this summer season is lost.
Maria Mastoris Saltzman:
Unfortunately, we're not essential. However, tourism brings money to New Jersey. So we are essential in bringing the economy back to New Jersey. So hopefully the governor sees that and we're able to open sooner than later.
In a report released earlier this month, the New Jersey state tourism board estimates that tourism spending will drop this year by about a third because of covid-19. But that's only if things get back to normal in June.
But for some people out on this first day the reopening might be coming too soon.
Celenia Hernandez got take-out from a favorite boardwalk food stand when she saw it was unexpectedly open yesterday. But she worries that the social distancing being practiced today, may not be possible if crowds come for Memorial Day.
It's going to be packed. And I know for a fact everybody's been waiting for this day. And now that this day came sooner than what we expected. It's just, it's just going to be a madhouse at this point.
Seaside Heights has in the past had a reputation for some outlandish behavior – it was, after all, the setting for MTV's infamous Jersey shore reality show.
One minute you got three girls in the jacuzzi, next minute somebody is in jail and you have to bail them out. That's what happens down at the shore.
But Mayor Tony Vaz says he's confident that this community can meet the challenge of social distancing.
If we just obey the rules, you know, you're gonna stop at a stoplight. That's a rule. So, you know, if it's social distancing now, social distancing, if you know it's another mandate, follow it. I'm an optimist. It has to get better. I don't have the magical number when, but it will get better.
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Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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