Denise Beckson started lifeguarding at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood while in high school. It was her first job, back in 1985.
Beckson watched swimmers at the park through college and even worked summers there after she began her career as a teacher. After graduate school, another amusement park made her an offer, but she first had to call Morey’s Piers to see if they had anything for her. They called back the next day with a job, and Beckson has worked there ever since, rising to director of waterparks operations and human resources.
But during the truncated summer of 2020, Beckson found herself again working outside at the park, serving food and back in the lifeguard stand, as the coronavirus slashed both the number of visitors and the available employees. Beckson said even the park’s CFO had to sell tickets.
“I’ve never seen anything like 2020,” she said. “It’s not even something you could plan for. You kind of go through scenarios operationally” but we didn’t plan for a pandemic.
Morey’s Piers, with its beachfront water parks, roller-coastered boardwalks, restaurants and hotels, is like a New Jersey summer packed into one place. And, like many tourist attractions in the state, it got walloped by COVID-19. Morey’s kept one of its two waterparks closed last year, as well as one of its three piers. Beckson said that 2020 revenue was down 60% from 2019, though she wouldn’t disclose specific dollar amounts.
But with summer 2021 on the horizon and more optimistic coronavirus news coming daily, Beckson, along with others in the state’s hospitality industry and even public health experts, are predicting a summer season that looks more like normal than the strange and restricted summer of 2020.
“I am one of those people that thinks we are actually turning the corner,” said Perry Halkitis, the dean of Rutgers University School of Public Health, about the falling number of cases and the rising number of vaccinations. “It could get us to a place that we could have herd immunity by the end of the summer.
“Yes (summer) will look a little more like it has in the past, but it won’t be totally back to normal.”
That optimism largely comes from the data Halkitis is seeing in New Jersey and across the country. On Sunday, the state reported 2,077 new COVID-19 cases, down sharply from a peak of 6,922 new cases on Jan. 13.
On top of that, vaccines are getting stuck in more arms and distribution is on the cusp on expanding. As of Sunday, 1.6 million people in New Jersey had gotten at least their first dose and more than 833,000 people had been fully vaccinated.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Merck was teaming up with Johnson & Johnson, another in-state company, to help produce and distribute the latter’s one-shot vaccine, which was approved last month. Biden also said that he expects the U.S. to have enough vaccine doses for all adults in the country by the end of May, a huge boost to the coronavirus fight.
That would align with warming weather in New Jersey, when in normal times people would start pulling out their beach badges and flooding the boardwalks down the Shore. Those in the tourism industry expect to see more of that this summer.
Part of that prediction is based on how popular New Jersey beaches were in 2020. Jeff Vasser, executive director of the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism said beaches in the state did well last summer, despite the pandemic restrictions.
Other outdoor attractions also saw a flow of visitors. Joann Delvescio, executive director of New Jersey’s campground association, said that even though campgrounds opened late and had some coronavirus restrictions, their visitor numbers were pretty close to a regular year.
“The campgrounds in New Jersey had a very, very good season,” Delvescio said. “People wanted to be outdoors and people felt comfortable being outside. From speaking to all the campground owners, (2021) reservations are way up over where they’ve been last year.”
But, as much as we’d like it to be, not everything is outdoors in the summer, and just about all indoor activities suffered. Adventure Aquarium in Camden struggled, Vasser said. So did casinos. Reports made to the state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement show that casino revenue in 2020 was $1.4 billion, barely half of the $2.7 billion generated the year before.
Marilou Halvorsen, president and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said outdoor dining has not done nearly enough to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on restaurants in the state. In fact, based on numbers from the National Restaurant Association, Halvorsen said that more that 30% of New Jersey restaurants have closed, either temporarily or permanently.
But fewer coronavirus cases and more vaccinations are giving hope to even the industry most hard hit by the pandemic ahead of this summer. Halvorsen said she expects Murphy to expand restaurant capacity in the coming weeks, as the governor has recently done with religious services and sporting events.
“I’m hoping in the next week or so we’re gonna hear another increase, up to 50%,” Halvorsen said. “I think we’ll have a healthy rebound. Unfortunately, those that have gone out of business permanently are gone forever.”
The losses are significant. There’s no way around that and it will take the state years to fully bounce back.
New Jersey set a tourism record in 2019 with 116 million visitors and the state was on pace to attract 150 million tourists by 2025, Vasser said.
“They’re not projecting us to get back to back to 2019 (levels) until 2023,” Vasser said. The state’s tourism division doesn’t have official tourist numbers from 2020 yet, but they’re estimated to be down at least 25% from 2019.
But reason for optimism remains. While we likely won’t see the dancing-in-the-street revelry suggested recently by The Atlantic, this summer will be another step in the direction of normal. Restaurants are expected to be fuller, as are casinos and other indoor attractions, and the Shore is projected to have another strong year.
Morey’s Piers plans to have all three piers and both waterparks open, Beckson said, including attractions like the Runaway Tram ride that was expected to have its first full season in 2020.
Just expect to wear your mask.
“We want to make sure people don’t go back to their old ways yet,” Vasser said. “We still need to remind people to be safe and not be careless. You’re going to be on the boardwalk and the beach and you might forget to get your mask.
“Before they get back to that real summer experience, it’s going to be another year.”
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Payton Guion may be reached at [email protected].
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