Ocean City Lifts Ban On Lodging, Seeks Clarity On More Reopening Opportunities

Ocean City Lifts Ban On Lodging, Seeks Clarity On More Reopening Opportunities
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — During a special meeting on Thursday, Mayor Rick Meehan repealed the prohibition on hotel, motel and other short-term rentals in the resort, inching Ocean City closer recovery in preparation for the summer season.

Several weeks ago, Meehan issued an emergency declaration prohibiting rentals at hotels, motels, condominiums and other short-term accommodations until May 22. The declaration prohibited rentals to anyone except those deemed essential lodgers.

On Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Maryland was entering stage one of his Maryland Strong: Roadmap to recovery which included reopening certain retail businesses, personal service businesses and religious gatherings as long as the same strict social distancing, masking and other capacity guidelines were adhered to.

Thursday’s special meeting was scheduled to begin to flesh out what exactly the governor’s new directives announced on Wednesday meant for Ocean City’s own recovery plan. At the outset of the meeting, Meehan announced he was repealing his own emergency declaration prohibiting short-term rentals, a prohibition that was scheduled to be in place until at least May 22.

While Hogan’s order announcing stage one of the state’s recovery plan goes into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday, Meehan said he was repealing the short-rental ban effective immediately in order to allow for a smoother transition heading into the weekend.

“The governor lifted the stay-at-home order effective 5 p.m. on Friday,” he said. “I went ahead and made the repeal of our prohibition on rentals and short-term lodging effective at 5 p.m. on Thursday. I have tried to be consistent with the state directives. I just think it would be contrary to social distancing to have people lined up and hotel check-ins and rental offices, so this allows some transition time and some flexibility for the operators.”

It’s important to note the same strict guidelines on social distancing and other restrictions remain in place. For example, Meehan said the same rules for gatherings of 10 or more individuals remain in place. Meehan said personal responsibility is the key to the success of stage one and an eventual move to stage two of the governor’s recovery plan.

“The town is currently working with the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association and the Chamber of Commerce to ensure we follow stage one of the Maryland Strong Roadmap to Recovery and Back to Business Pledge,” Meehan said. “We encourage residents and visitors to follow health and safety guidelines including physical distancing and gathering limits. Personal responsibility and individual comfort levels are incredibly important to exercise during each phase of recovery. Each and every one of us has an obligation to exercise personal responsibility to protect our families, our friends, our co-workers and neighbors so as a community, we keep Ocean City moving forward.”

Meehan said Ocean City is adhering to Hogan’s roadmap to recovery and its various stages. On Wednesday, Hogan said some counties and jurisdictions where the health crisis was more acute had the autonomy to make their own decisions on reopening, but Meehan said Ocean City was not one of them.

“We are following the Maryland Strong recovery guidelines,” he said. “Some of the counties are not following the guidelines for stage one laid out by the governor on Wednesday. Places like Prince George’s and Montgomery are taking a stricter approach. We are not taking a stricter approach.”

When Hogan first announced the state’s recovery plan weeks ago, he said stage two could be reached as quickly as 14 days after stage one if there was no spike in cases and the numbers remained stable. Councilman Tony DeLuca asked if that was still the case.

“Is the plan still getting to stage two within 14 days of reaching stage one?” he said. “If things continue to plateau, we could get to stage two when the bars and restaurants can start.”

City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said Hogan’s new directives announced on Wednesday did not include any firm dates

“In his oral announcement, that was the governor’s timeline,” she said. “He has not included those timelines in his official orders. The governor has reserved the right to alter the timeline in any way he sees fit.”

The repeal of the short-term rental prohibition was the cornerstone of the special Mayor and Council meeting on Thursday, but was only one part of a much larger discussion about reopening restaurants with outside dining options, some restaurants and bars going rogue and opening anyway despite the continued state directives and the capacity at Atlantic General Hospital to handle a potential spike with the sudden influx of out-of-town visitors among others. The following are some of the highlights of those discussions.

Outdoor Dining, Rogue Restaurant, Bar Openings

One thing many resort area restaurants and bars were hoping was in stage one of Hogan’s recovery plan was an allowance for some outside seating at restaurants with strict adherence to distancing, capacity and sanitation, but it didn’t happen. On Thursday, DeLuca asked if the Mayor and Council could continue to push for the outdoor seating allowance even before stage two is reached.

“Can we send a letter to the governor from the Mayor and Council requesting restaurants with outdoor seating to open as quickly as possible?” he said. “When I view stage two, I’m reading 50% capacity for restaurants with indoor seating. I think there might be an opportunity for outdoor seating with capacity and spacing limitations earlier than that.”

Meehan said he would send a letter to the governor requesting a relaxing of the rules somewhat for outdoor dining in stage one. Meehan said he had spoken to Worcester County officials on the same issue.

“I spoke with County Commission President Joe Mitrecic and the county is also going to push for outdoor seating. Everybody is working hard on this particular issue.”

Worcester County Health Officer Becky Jones said the health department, which will likely hold sway over opening plans and distancing for outdoor dining, supports the concept as long as the distancing guidelines are adhered to.

“We want to be supportive of that, but we certainly don’t want to compromise public health and safety,” she said. “Whenever we get to the point where some outdoor seating is allowed, there will be guidelines for spacing and social distancing.”

City Manager Doug Miller said plans are underway to facilitate the opening of establishments with outdoor seating options and even some that currently don’t. Earlier on Thursday, Miller said there could be some arrangements possible for bars and restaurants to offer seating on sidewalks or tented areas in parking lots.

“We’re preparing for the next stage we’re hoping to continue to keep getting some of these green lights,” he said. “The zoning department and the Fire Marshal’s office is working on an express permit system that will allow our restaurants and bars to get open quickly when the time is right.”

Confusing the issue is the fact Worcester County Environmental Health Director Ed Potetz said in a communication to food service facility operators, “This email is to clarify the Governor’s latest executive order regarding restaurants and bars. This order does not permit restaurants and bars to open for indoor or outdoor seating at this time. Only carry-out and delivery are permitted.”

As all parties await clarification from the state on whether carryout falls under the local control the governor said he would respect this week, Miller also pointed out there was already some indication of certain bars and restaurants going rogue and reopening under the guise of being “retail” establishments covered in the governor’s stage one order released on Wednesday.

“On the downside, we have heard some bars claiming their business is retail and they are going to open,” he said. “The Ocean City Police Department is not necessarily going to enforce that. It’s not a law enforcement issue. However, the Board of License Commissioners is appointed by the governor and strictly follows the governor’s orders. If a bar establishment opens as retail, the BLC will prosecute them.”

Stansbury agreed the BLC would be keeping a close eye on businesses claiming to be retail or otherwise flaunting the state restrictions.

“There are very specific definitions of retail in the state and Worcester County codes,” she said. “I would encourage everyone listening not to open as retail. The BLC will take the enforcement of that very seriously.”

What About Pools?

Thursday’s meeting also included a debate about indoor and outdoor pools and pool areas and how they fit into the definitions in the governor’s staged recovery plan. The short answer is there is no real answer yet. Jones said she is working with the state on better defining the guidelines for pools.

“We’re working on the guidelines for phasing in smaller indoor pools and hotel pools,” she said. “The larger outdoor pools are further down the line. We hope to have those guidelines out very soon. I would encourage the pool owners and operators to reach out to our environmental health program to make sure they are in compliance before opening.”

Councilman Mark Paddack pointed out the science suggests the chlorine in pools is an effective deterrent to COVID-19 and questioned if it was more of a capacity issue.

“What is the difference between indoor and outdoor pools?” he said. “There is specific data that suggests the chlorine in pools would destroy the COVID virus. Are pools going to be limited to just 10 people?”

Jones said the county health department is working with the state on firm guidelines for pools and they should be available shortly, but said on the surface it could be more of a social gathering and capacity issue.

“Gatherings of 10 or more are prohibited,” she said. “That would run afoul of the governor’s current order.”

Councilman John Gehrig said small clusters of families in people in a confined pool area should be allowed as long as safe distancing measures were in place.

“If I have my family of four and 15 feet away is another family of four and 15 feet away from them is another family, that’s three groups of four and not one group of 12 right?” he said. “There might be more than one group in the same general pool area, but as long they are following the distancing guidelines they should be okay.”

Jones said there was validity to that argument, but that she wanted to clarify the state directives regarding pools before giving anyone locally the green light to open them.

“I’m not in disagreement with that statement, I just don’t want to set up anyone locally for failure because they didn’t follow the guidelines,” she said. “I know the pools want to get open just like the restaurants and bars. Again, we want to be supportive of that, but not at the risk of compromising public health and safety.”

Atlantic General Hospital Prepared

Over the last several weeks, many in the community have voiced concern with a possible surge in COVID cases locally with the sudden influx of out-of-town visitors and Atlantic General Hospital’s capacity to handle that. AGH President Michael Franklin was on hand during Thursday’s virtual meeting and attempted to allay those fears with an update on the hospital’s current status.

“We have established an adequate supply of capacity should we see a surge in cases,” he said. “We currently have 37 people in the hospital overall and we have the capacity for 83 beds. We currently have three COVID-positive cases on ventilators and we have the capacity for 25 ICU rooms. We are in a good position.”

Councilman Mark Paddack questioned Franklin on the possibility of the out-of-town visitors showing symptoms on COVID-19 and whether they would be sent back to their own jurisdictions for treatment. Franklin said the AGH health system continues to conduct tests and there was no real reason for concern at this point.

“We’re maintaining operations at 10th Street,” he said. “If somebody comes into town and is symptomatic, we encourage them to call the health department and make arrangements for testing. We had 19 tested just yesterday and 14 were from Worcester County. One was from Montgomery County.”

Franklin also said AGH had more supply and less demand for capacity in its emergency room areas.

“We are seeing an average of 50 patients per day in the ER right now,” he said. “We used to seeing 200 or more per day on a busy July 4 weekend. We’ve added 50% of capacity to our ER, so we could potentially handle as many as 400 patients in the ER.”

Inlet Parking Woes

Last weekend was the first in many weeks that the Inlet lot was open to the public and there were some obvious glitches with the system. Over the winter, the town changed the rate structure and dates for paid parking in Ocean City and those changes were in place last weekend.

However, there was clearly some confusion about the new rates or whether or not paid parking was in effect with the other uncertainties surrounding the pandemic. As a result, some who utilized the Inlet lot either didn’t pay at all or overstayed the amount of time they paid for.

“We had an issue at the Inlet parking lot,” said Miller. “We rolled out a new rate structure and the lot just reopened and there were no parking ambassadors out there. It created a lot of confusion. The recommendation is to waive the $25 administrative penalty fee until the end of the month.”

Every vehicle that enters the Inlet lot has its license plate scanned and recorded.

Under the current rules, those who don’t pay at all or overstay the amount of time they paid for are sent a bill through the mail for the amount they owe plus a $25 administration fee. City Manager Terry McGean on Thursday asked the council for a waiver of the $25 fee until the end of the month to allow visitors and residents to get acclimated to the new system.

“I’d like to do it now if possible,” he said. “At the Inlet lot, if you overstay your time or don’t pay, we send you an invoice with amount owed plus a $25 administration fee. Last weekend, we had 2,000 vehicles enter the lot and only 900 actually paid. The rest are going to get an invoice.”

The council voted unanimously to waive the $25 administration fee through the end of May with the grace period ending June 1.

Boardwalk Bench Debate

When the town reopened the Boardwalk to the public last weekend, temporary barriers including boards and yellow caution tape were installed on many of the benches to enforce and encourage social distancing. The barriers were intended to be short-term solution, but Meehan clearly took exception to the hastily installed boards and yellow tape.

“With the benches on the Boardwalk, the 2×6 boards with the yellow caution tape is unacceptable,” he said. “This needs to be addressed immediately.”

Some things will be different on the Boardwalk this summer with social distancing and other restrictions still in place. Already there has been talk of eliminating or greatly reducing the Boardwalk tram service, for example. Meehan pointed out that might create opportunities to move the benches around to create distancing and suggested that could have been done already.

“That should have been done weeks ago,” he said. “If there is no tram service, some of the benches could be moved to the opposite side of the tram lane. We should be setting an example of how it can be done. We’re on center stage right now. All eyes are on us.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight agreed moving the benches around to create appropriate spacing was a possibility.

“I don’t want to lose any benches because I think they are important for our visitors and for our businesses that are trying to get by with carryout,” she said. “I think we can move some around so we can socially distance. We need to show we’re doing the right thing.”

Councilman Dennis Dare agreed a more aesthetically-pleasing solution was needed with the benches because the restrictions are going to remain in place.

“When we closed the Boardwalk, they put yellow caution tape across the entrances,” he said. “That was a temporary solution. Social distancing is going to be with us all summer and we need a more permanent solution with the benches.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

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.