It’s human nature to wonder when the current pandemic will run its course. It’s just too early to tell, but it’s natural for dates to be considered. In our area, the seasonal economy is dependent on tourism. For at least the month of April, there will be no tourism, bringing the local economy to a standstill. It’s a devastating situation for many businesses. There is the obvious well-documented health crisis from COVID-19, but it will be months before it’s known exactly how crippling this pandemic will be from an economic standpoint.
At this point, it’s safe to say this dual-headed crisis – public health and financial – could not have come at a worse time for Ocean City. It has all but shut down the hot real estate market, which has a layered trickle down to all other aspects of the economy. The early spring is also the time of year many businesses in the service industry begin seeing the light. If they stayed open through the winter, many businesses have utilized reserves to get through the off-season. Many operators were busy in early March investing remaining funds in their restaurants, hotels, bars and retail stores before getting back onto the positive side of the ledger. The government-ordered shutdown, though the right course of action, comes at a crippling time for businesses.
Governments across the country are also finding the timing to be problematic as it’s budget time. During budget discussions this week, Ocean City Manager Doug Miller again broached the subject of when Ocean City can expect to get rolling again. Miller cautioned everyone to remember health officials are not going to simply allow businesses to one day open without any restrictions. There will clearly be phases associated with how restaurants and bars, for example, will be allowed to return to business. Normal operations could be months away. One restaurant operator I talked to this week expects his dining room will not be allowed to be at capacity all summer. He expects to be required to sit parties away from each other all summer. He expects occupancy restrictions to apply until the fall. Though a scary proposition for many, he is probably right on the expectations front. Miller discussed something similar this week.
“When we do go into recovery mode, it will likely be phased,” the city manager said. “It won’t go from where we are now to suddenly the lights come back on and we’re fully open with no restrictions. If we’re lucky enough to begin recovery in early May, it will be phased in over time. The reality is we’re likely to have restrictions to some degree as we head into mid-May toward Memorial Day.”
On the subject of the timeline for this health crisis, there is an interesting website I have been tracking over the last few weeks. It’s projections for when hospitals will become overloaded have turned out to be accurate thus far in many areas, such as New York City. The website is worth a look at www.covidactnow.org. You can enter in the state and county and take a look at the forecasted curve. Though projections are just that, I have found this website to be accurate to date.
For Worcester County, the website predicts peak hospitalizations will occur around April 22, due to the stay at home actions in place. General advice for states and counties where major limitations have been placed on people movements is it will take two months for the virus to work through the curve from start to finish. If that’s to be believe, we are looking at mid-May before we see the numbers fall out of the concerning level. Of course, the question will then be how much is too much to prevent a reoccurrence. It’s an impossible situation.
The Town of Ocean City and all local governments have not had a hard decision to make yet when it comes to COVID-19.
Springfest’s cancelation was a no-brainer. It’s a month away and society will not be ready or even be allowed to converge in crowds by then. Closing the beaches and Boardwalk were easy calls because people were bound to engage once warm weather stays around. Shutting down hotels and rentals to non-essential types was also an easy call after reports were heard of groups of young people converging in rooms around the state. Equally facile was the call to tell people to stay away from Ocean City who do not live here permanently. One day later, Worcester County predictably came through with its own declaration restricting short-term accommodations and encouraging people to refrain from coming here for now.
“We’ve seen some impact with regards to people heeding the directives to just stay away for now and there is evidence of fewer cars on the road and fewer cars in parking lots,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “Still, there are many that aren’t heeding the warnings. Again, we are asking people to please not come to Ocean City at this time. We can’t emphasize that enough. If we all work together and not lose all of the ground we’ve gained, hopefully we can get our season up and going sooner rather than later. … This is incredibly difficult time for everyone, but the only way we can stop the spread of this virus is to work together.”
These are uncomfortable decisions to make because we are a tourism area, but they are simple choices and should not be represented as anything but common sense.