OCEAN CITY — When Ocean City should start planning to reopen to some degree and just what that might look like was the subject of lively debate during an impromptu Mayor and Council meeting on Thursday.
The Mayor and Council met on Thursday to continue discussions on the town’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The brief agenda included continuing to meet the needs of the town’s at-risk residents in terms of food and medicine and healthcare, the continued “stay at home” messaging and new messaging for welcoming back visitors when the time is right and ultimately certain benchmarks for relaxing some of the restrictions in terms of the beach and Boardwalk closure, lodging rental restrictions and a gradual plan to reopen the resort incrementally. It didn’t take long for the conversation to move toward the latter.
In his weekly update on Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan sent mixed messages including a report on the two deadliest days for Maryland thus far during the COVID-19 pandemic and a new order mandating face masks in publicly accessible businesses such as grocery stores and convenience stores, for example. Hogan’s midweek update also mixed in signs of hope, including tentative plans to begin relaxing some of the restrictions in the near future and reopening the state’s economy to some degree.
Those hopeful messages set the tone for Thursday’s impromptu Mayor and Council special meeting and set the stage for a lively debate. All involved appeared to agree it was time to start planning on reopening Ocean City to some degree and start returning to some semblance of a new normal, whatever that might look like.
However, the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s meeting is it doesn’t appear any of the directives put in place weeks ago are going away any time soon. For now, the consensus appears to be continuing with the consistent message to follow state and local stay-at-home and social distancing directives.
At the same time, there appears to be a consensus to prepare a secondary marketing campaign advising visitors something to the effect of “the time isn’t right yet, but when it is, Ocean City will be ready to welcome you with open arms.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said as much in his opening remarks at Thursday’s meeting.
“We need to continue to work together and be consistent with our messaging right now,” he said. “It has been tough for everybody, but what we’re doing is working and if we continue to follow the guidelines and observe the directives, we can start transitioning to reopening.”
Councilman Matt James echoed those sentiments and said similar discussions about messaging had been taken place during the Tourism Commission meeting earlier this week.
“In terms of our governmental messaging, I think there have been some concerns about how it’s being received,” he said. “We’re working on a friendlier message from the mayor. While now is not the time to travel, we will welcome you with open arms when the time is right.”
However, Councilman John Gehrig quickly launched into the broader message about beginning to prepare the town for reopening as soon as the time is right. Gehrig said it’s not as if the coronavirus was suddenly going to go away and everything was going to return to normal, but the town needs to start getting back to business in the new normal.
“There is a financial incentive for the media to keep the bad news coming,” he said. “When you look at the numbers, it’s starting to be more encouraging. Our residents need to hear the truth and our businesses need to prepare. That’s the message. We need to be honest and say we’re going to live life with coronavirus in it. We need to continue to look after and take care of those at high risk and provide services to them, but the world can’t stay shut down until there is a vaccine.”
There has been some discussion of reopening the town’s hospitality industry incrementally and on a limited basis including limitations on capacity, for example. Gehrig scoffed at the notion most businesses could survive with their capacities decreased greatly.
“When the time comes when we can reopen to some degree, we can’t tell restaurants to take out 50% of their tables,” he said. “That’s like putting a bullet to their head. Most of them work on 15% margins, 50% of the costs don’t go away by taking 50% of the capacity away.”
Gehrig used another analogy to illustrate his point.
“If you have a peanut allergy, don’t eat a PBJ,” he said. “But don’t tell the rest of the world you can’t make peanut butter. At some point, we have to get ready to reopen.”
For his part, Martin agreed it was time to start planning for reopening for the summer season, but said those parameters would likely be dictated by the state.
“I don’t disagree,” he said. “At some point, we have to get reopened eventually. We have to follow the state’s lead and we have to have a plan. People are biting the bullet to get back to work. We all are, but I think our residents understand and our businesses know that we have to follow the state’s lead. I believe the town is ready already, but right now is not the time to turn it all back on.”
Councilman Matt James said there were numerous questions circulating in the community about reopening and relaxing some of the restrictions.
“Will the lodging restrictions be extended?” he said. “Will all of these restrictions expire and just go away? Will the beach and Boardwalk reopen with proper social distancing? We’re all looking for definitive answers and these are the questions we’re all asking.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said the town’s emergency operations plan continues to evolve and at this point, reopening and relaxing some of the restrictions are further down the priority list.
“We haven’t formulated what that will look like,” he said. “This meeting is probably premature. If you listened to Gov. Hogan yesterday, we’re far away from expanded testing and we’re probably two weeks away from the peak.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the town should stick with the “we miss you but stay at home” message, but start preparing for when that message might change.
“In the interim, we should continue to let everyone know we’re thinking about them and Ocean City will be ready when the time is right,” he said. “Those messages give people hope we’ll be back to normal at some point. Those messages let people know we will be here when the tide turns and that resonates with our visitors.”
However, Meehan agreed there was little certainty in terms of when some of the declarations he put in place can be relaxed and when the town can start considering reopening to some degree.
“The questions about when are valid,” he said. “Right now, the declarations are in place until April 30, but I didn’t hear any dates from the governor yesterday. For what it’s worth, the court system remains closed until June 5, so maybe that’s an indicator. April 30 was a solid date at the time, but it’s a moving target. We don’t want to extend that date until we can gauge where we are in a couple of weeks.”
Meehan said Ocean City and the surrounding area have been fairly progressive with some of its virus-related initiatives, but now was not the time to suddenly invite thousands of visitors into the equation.
“We can manage our population, but those numbers can change dramatically if we open up and suddenly add another 25,000 or 50,000 people to the mix,” he said. “There will be a gradual rollout for recovery, but we don’t want to do that too quickly. We don’t want to lose all of the ground we’ve gained. The worst possible thing is to relax a lot of these things and fall back into an even worse situation.”
In short, Meehan said it was fine to plan for reopening and a return to normalcy, but the town must resist the temptation to put those plans into effect too early.
“We’ve been proactive and been out in front of some of the things even the state is doing,” he said. “Let’s plan to be open, but let’s plan to open safely. This is going to be with us for a while, but hopefully we can get up and rolling incrementally at some point soon.”
Gehrig re-emphasized his earlier points, suggesting it might be okay to plan to reopen at some point with the understanding there will be limitations and some might choose to stay away regardless of what the rules are.
“I’m not saying let’s open today or tomorrow, but let’s have a plan,” he said. “We have to have a plan for success, but success doesn’t mean the coronavirus is suddenly gone. It’s going to be here. We need to prepare to live with it. Everybody needs to make personal decisions. If you’re at high risk or if you’re afraid, stay home and quarantine. For others, we’re here for you.”
In a letter to the editor this week, Hospitality Partners President/COO and Carousel Group Managing Partner Michael James echoed some sentiments expressed during the virtual meeting, adding in his own thoughts on the broad issues associated with the extended societal shutdown.
“We should obviously evaluate the actual risks of the virus based on the facts, not the worse-case scenario or motivations of ambitious politicians. Other factors should also be considered when determining what actions will be taken. We need to consider what governmental actions are appropriate and most effective, and what actions are counterproductive to the overall public health,” James wrote. “I feel strongly that we need to be concerned about the assault on civil liberties when citizens are threatened by police or public officials to not congregate. We should be realistic about the actual damage to families and marriage that will occur when jobs are lost and understand that high unemployment will fuel more substance abuse and suicide. We should weigh the effects of social isolation, which will most likely lead to an increase in mental illness and more depression at a time we have a shortage of mental health professionals. We need to accept the fact that businesses are failing and will continue to fail. We now need to determine how we can reduce the number that will fail.”