UPDATED: OC Mayor Confirms Beach, Boardwalk Opening A First Step Toward Recovery

UPDATED: OC Mayor Confirms Beach, Boardwalk Opening A First Step Toward Recovery
The Boardwalk is pictured Monday in downtown Ocean City. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — The beach and Boardwalk will reopen on Saturday with the same social distancing and crowd size restrictions in place after Mayor Rick Meehan on Monday amended some of the declarations in place for weeks in response to the COVID-19 virus.

Since Gov. Larry Hogan announced his phased statewide recovery plan for Maryland April 24, many have been waiting for the implementation of the first stage including relaxing the stay-at-home order and opening some outdoor areas and activities and other baby steps. On Monday, Meehan somewhat circumvented the governor’s stage-one plan with the announcement Ocean City’s beach and Boardwalk along with the Inlet parking lot would reopen this Saturday.

It’s important to note, and Meehan made it clear in a press conference on Tuesday, all of Hogan’s emergency orders including stay-at-home and social distancing requirements remain in place. When Ocean City first closed its beaches and Boardwalk, there were some exceptions in place for local residents. There is not, nor was there ever, an enforceable travel ban prohibiting people from moving about in Maryland including Ocean City although it was strongly discouraged and that message remains consistent despite Monday’s amended declaration reopening the beach and Boardwalk.

“I want to make it clear this does not supersede any of the governor’s stay-at-home orders,” he said. “None of that has changed. This just gives individuals more opportunity to get outside and enjoy some fresh air while maintaining social distancing and the other directives in place. The non-essential businesses on the Boardwalk are not yet opening, other than a handful of restaurants that are offering carry-out service and have been since the original declarations were put in place.”

In response to a question about concerns of crowds suddenly flocking to Ocean City’s reopened beach and Boardwalk, Meehan said during a press conference Tuesday most will make decisions based on their comfort level, but that he does expect an influx of visitors with the relaxed restrictions. However, there will not be a directed law enforcement effort to restrict visitors.

“There will be no police officers patrolling for license plates,” he said. “We will have officers out on foot and on bikes and even horseback encouraging the social distancing requirements still in place. We do expect people to come from surrounding areas. Frankly, that’s happening already.”

Meehan said Monday’s amended emergency declaration merely opens the beaches and Boardwalk to the general public as a means to transition to the next phase of the governor’s three-stage recovery plan. However, it is important to note all other social distancing and crowd size limitations remain in place.

“Is there a perfect answer to anything we do in these unprecedented times? Probably not,” he said. “Voluntary compliance is what we’re looking for and most have been doing that already. We can’t control everything and we can’t be everywhere. We believe this is the right path to take at this time. We have to rely on people to make their own decisions and do the right thing and we believe most are doing that now and will continue to do so.”

Should visitors come to Ocean City’s reopened beaches and Boardwalk starting Saturday, most will have to be day-trippers or non-resident property owners. The town’s prohibition on hotel, motel and most other short-term rentals is in effect until May 22, although that could be amended. In effect, the May 22 expiration date on that declaration allows the hospitality industry to begin taking reservations to transition into the next phase of the overall recovery plan.

At the close of Monday’s regular Mayor and Council meeting, Meehan announced he was amending the emergency declarations he had put in place in March regarding the closure of the beach and Boardwalk with certain exceptions for local residents. As a result, the beach, Boardwalk and Inlet lot will reopen on Saturday with the same social distancing and crowd size limitations in place.

With certain key indicators in the daily COVID-19 statistics appearing to trend in the right direction, the governor could implement stage one of his recovery plan at any time. However, Meehan said on Monday Ocean City was ready to move forward with the first step in opening the beach and Boardwalk after consulting with Hogan last week. Meehan said his amended declarations do not supersede Hogan’s executive orders still in place, but the time was right for Ocean City to take a necessary first step on its own road to recovery.

“I did have the opportunity to speak with Gov. Hogan last Friday,” Meehan said on Monday. “I spoke with the governor for about 35 minutes, and that’s a long time considering everything he’s involved with, not only at the state level but at the federal level. We talked about a number of different things. He did tell that he was looking to try and coordinate the opening of Maryland with the openings in Delaware and Virginia. I related to him I was on a Zoom meeting with all the mayors of the Delaware beaches as well. Their determination is they are not going to be opening up their beaches until after Memorial Day or the June 1 date.”

While neighboring beach resorts in Delaware were preparing for a June 1 first phase or reopening, Meehan said Ocean City was hoping to be a little more aggressive than that, which precipitated the amendment of the beach and Boardwalk closure emergency declarations.

“I spoke with the governor and said that doesn’t really work for us,” he said. “We really do need to have a phased approach to opening. I’d like to very much coincide that with the governor’s plan. I think there’s certain components of his plan and our plan that we can coordinate, but I think we need a phased-in opening in Ocean City and we need to do it sooner rather than later. I explained that to him.”

Again, it’s important to note the same social distancing and crowd-size guidelines will remain in place through the first phase of the recovery plan and likely through much of the summer. Meehan said despite a few exceptions, most local residents and visitors have grown accustomed to the guidelines in the roughly two months since the limitations have been in place, making the time right to relax some of the restrictions in Ocean City.

“I have watched the people in Ocean City and those who have been here and how things have changed over the last 60 days,” he said. “Sixty days ago, nobody even knew what social distancing was or they never talked about it. Now it’s referred to as physical distancing, It’s the same thing. People never considered wearing masks in public or it being a requirement in retail stores or public transportation. People never thought about keeping the size of groups that congregate under 10 people, but what I’ve seen happen is people adhere to these sorts of things that we never thought about before.”

As of Tuesday, Hogan had not implemented stage one of the state’s recovery plan although that could change at any moment. In the meantime, at least officially, the governor appears to have given Ocean City’s opening of the beach and Boardwalk his blessing.

“This is a way to give nearby residents more opportunities to get outside and enjoy fresh air while still adhering to social distancing guidelines and gathering limits,” he said in a statement late Monday. “The governor’s stay-at-home order remains in effect.”

Meehan reiterated he is confident local residents and visitors will continue to adhere to the guidelines still in place through stage one and into the next stages of the recovery plan.

“If you go to the grocery store, people are wearing masks,” he said. “If you go to the Boardwalk, and I’m up there every weekend, what you see is people social distancing. You see them doing it. They’re cognizant of it. They walk the other way or move a little bit away. Some of them are wearing masks because it’s their choice and they think that’s the right thing to do. I really think we’ve come a long way.”

From the beginning, Ocean City has emphasized the importance of visitors, including the roughly 26,000 non-resident property owners, to simply adhere to the guidelines and stay away from Ocean City until it was deemed safe to return and most have complied voluntarily for the most part with some exceptions Meehan said on Monday.

“Our non-resident property owners for the majority have adhered to our request,” he said. “They have not come to Ocean City. Sure, there are some who have started to come. That will continue. This is their second home, but most have listened and tried to be a part of the solution.”

Meehan said putting the restrictions in place and getting out in front of the situation early has put Ocean City in position to jumpstart its recovery plan.

“I think what we have done in Ocean City, with your help and support, is we have put on a full court press,” he said. “We did that to support the governor, to support his initiatives, to flatten the curve of the virus, to get people educated so they are in a better place today than they were 60 days ago on how to address this virus.”

While the beach, Boardwalk and Inlet lot will reopen on Saturday, the same social distancing guidelines and other restrictions will be critical. Of course, it goes without saying individuals should make their own decisions with the level of interaction and activity with which they are comfortable.

“A lot of us are going to have to make personal decisions and that was referred to by some of the council members,” he said. “Moving forward, we are going to have to see who is at high risk and who isn’t and what decisions personally each and every one of us need to make. We have to look at what’s best for us and what’s best for our families. If restaurants open tomorrow, not everyone is going to go to a restaurant, but that’s an individual decision.”

As of Tuesday, Hogan had not moved Maryland to stage one of his three-stage recovery plan. However, with that next step now imminent, Meehan said Ocean City was ready to reopen its beaches and Boardwalk.

“As I went on with the conversation with the governor, we talked about his phase one to recovery,” he said. “Of course, he had certain benchmarks we had to meet before he could move to that stage. One of the things involved in stage one is lifting the stay-at-home order. I asked him if he would consider doing that sooner rather than later. I really think that’s the trigger for us in a lot of ways. It really takes us to that next step.”

As of Tuesday, it remained to be seen when Hogan would move Maryland into stage one of his recovery plan, but it appears that could happen at any time.

“We did talk about some of the things I hope he’s going to talk about this week,” Meehan said on Monday. “I don’t want to speak for the governor. They reference some of the things you all have talked about this evening, like opening golf courses, allowing more outdoor activities, looking at small shops and businesses and see what he can do in that regard. I really think you are going to see him, I hope, take some of those steps this week.”

Meehan acknowledged reopening the beaches and Boardwalk will create some challenges with a very small percentage of the visiting population and told Hogan as much during their lengthy conversation last week.

“The governor asked me ‘do you think you will have any problems?’ and I said ‘yes’ because with anything that you do there will be some challenges,” he said. “I believe most people will adhere to social distancing and go out of their way to separate. Will there be that 2% like you have in any scenario that probably don’t? Probably, but you know what we are all going to have to work around them a bit if we have to. This is what is best for the majority. It’s best for all of us and our residents and everybody to allow this transition to begin to take place, so we can see if there’s any problems we need to address before we go to that next phase in totally reopening Ocean City. We need to take those steps now.”

As for lifting lodging restrictions, Meehan said now is not the time, but it’s weeks not months away.

“ … this declaration takes place this weekend. The next declaration is the removing of the restrictions on lodging that is set by declaration to be removed May 22. Let’s see where the governor knows in regard to his stay at home order, but that is still in place to be repealed on May 22 at this time,” Meehan said.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.