OCEAN CITY — As Ocean City prepares to transition to July and the traditional next phase of the summer season, the resort is still dealing with significant issues including a severe staff shortage for many businesses, public perception after particularly violent couple weeks in June and the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
With COVID-19 essentially eating up most of the spring season and the traditional ramp-up to the summer season, Ocean City entered Memorial Day weekend still under many of the restrictions still in place. As the town quietly came back to life, many resort businesses transitioned from a carryout-only operation to an outdoor seating model to a limited indoor seating model.
Throughout the progression through the state’s directives, resort businesses began feeling a crisis of a different sort. COVID-19 created uncertainties around the J-1 summer work and travel visa program, which supplies thousands of student workers for the town’s seasonal workforce. This week, President Trump announced the suspension of several visa and immigration programs until at least the end of the year, confirming the foreign student workers will not be coming this season, although employers had basically given up on them at this point in the season.
On top of that, many among the local workforce were and still are receiving lucrative enhanced unemployment benefits that pay them considerably more to stay home through July than return to jobs paying them less and potentially exposing them to the virus.
Then June arrived and brought with it a challenging three-week period fraught with violent crime and serious incidents. June typically sees a spike in crime associated with energetic recent graduates many of whom are on their own and unsupervised for the first time, but this year’s group was remarkably different.
Due to the high-profile nature of the incidents, Ocean City was, and still is to some degree, battling a public perception problem that threatens to impact the rest of the summer. The perception, along with the significant staff shortages that are causing many businesses to limit their open hours or even close for a day or two during the week, along with the lingering COVID-19 restrictions, has Ocean City entering the heart of the summer season with more questions than answers.
Staff Shortages A Major Issue
Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones addressed the Mayor and Council during the public comment period on Tuesday and raised concerns about the issues facing the town as it reaches a pivotal turning point in the summer season. With Maryland and neighboring states reopening little by little, Ocean City is seeing typical summer crowds through June, but a variety of issues are making the handling of the influx of visitors challenging.
“I wanted to give you a little perspective from the business community,” she said. “We have seen an uptick in travelers and that pent-up demand is really there, so we have a lot of people in town.”
Jones pointed out Trump’s announcement to further suspend the J-1 summer work and travel program on Monday was only exacerbating what was already a challenging staffing issue for many businesses.
“We have members who are closing early because they don’t have enough staff,” she said. “That is largely because the J-1 program has just been killed last night with the president’s announcement. Many of our members are really having a crisis with staff.”
Jones said the combination of the elimination of the J-1 program and the challenge of getting some workers to return for other reasons has created a staffing crisis for some.
“The reliance on unemployment stimulus had already been creating a staffing issue and now with the president putting a hold on visas through the end of the year, there will be no influx of J-1 summer work travel students,” she said. “Staffing is a real problem. The lack of staff is causing restaurants to be open only certain hours, or, in some cases, the reduction of an entire shift.”
Jones said staffing issues are not limited to the town’s vast restaurant and bar industry. Even the hotels and motels are struggling to get open and stay open at or near capacity because of staffing issues.
“Some of the hotels are operating at full capacity and then leaving their rooms shut down for three days so they can catch up with cleaning all of the rooms,” she said. “Other hotels are only selling 60% of their rooms because they don’t have enough staff. All in all, it’s been a really stressful time, not only for the residents and visitors, but also for the businesses.”
In a seasonal resort town that, for the most part, has “100 days” to crank out business and fill their coffers for the rest of the year, the fact many are being forced to close one or two days a week or significantly cut back hours of operation explains the acuity of the staff shortage problem.
Further worrying the resort long-term is President Trump’s Executive Order extending the immigrant work visa ban through Dec. 31 could also have an impact on the summer of 2021. The foreign workers will not be able to apply at their home country embassies this entire year unless a change is made when reviewed again in 60 days. A change under the Trump administration is considered unlikely with the presidential election looming in November. New visas through the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program are generally issued in September and October. Trump has repeatedly said suspending these international work programs will allow U.S. citizens more opportunities for jobs.
However, the Herman Legal Group, an Ohio-based immigration law firm, says the economic consequences for businesses will be real this year across the country.
“This Proclamation will hinder economic recovery because it will make it much harder for employers to fill critical positions, it will encourage U.S. employers to move abroad, and it will turn away some of the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial minds,” said Herman Legal Group founder Richard Herman. “This stunning display of ignorance and xenophobia by Donald Trump may play well to his political base, but it will do serious damage to the U.S. economy as we attempt to rebuild from the damage done due to his reckless response to COVID-19.”
In a press release announcing the continuation of the foreign worker program suspension, Trump said, “In the administration of our Nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor. Historically, when recovering from economic shocks that cause significant contractions in productivity, recoveries in employment lag behind improvements in economic activity. This predictive outcome demonstrates that, assuming the conclusion of the economic contraction, the United States economy will likely require several months to return to pre-contraction economic output, and additional months to restore stable labor demand. … I have determined that the entry, through December 31, 2020, of certain aliens as immigrants and nonimmigrants would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
Perception Issues Still Prevalent
A resort already struggling with COVID-19 restrictions and limitations was hit in June with a significant spike in serious crime including stabbings, major assaults. a shooting last Thursday and a daylight carjacking last Sunday. The almost-daily violence played out on social media platforms including the Ocean City Police Department reporting the incidents in the interest of public safety and transparency. As a result, the town took numerous public relations hits during the turbulent time from which it is still trying to recover, according to Jones.
“A lot of what has happened is the social media perception that has played out with the turn of events we’ve had,” Jones said. “We feel that perception has really driven a lot of people away from liking Ocean City. With the enormous influx of people, we all know the issues that have been going on and the social media narrative has driven the perception that we are not a nice or safe place to visit.”
Jones said the big concern now is that perception, fair or otherwise, is starting to threaten the rest of the season and has the OCHMRA and the town seeking damage control.
“We are very fearful as a community of business owners that relies on tourism for our livelihoods,” she said. “We are concerned the July and August cancellations we’re seeing are really going to damage long-term visitation into Ocean City. Cancellations for July and August are of grave concern to our members. These are the very customers we want.”
Jones said her association’s board met last week with a public relations firm that specializes in social media damage control. The hope is the OCHMRA and the town can reverse the current public perception and put a positive spin on the remainder of the summer.
“Because of all of the cancellations, our board felt that a social media crisis management plan was desperately needed as we need to drive the narrative,” she said. “The firm we spoke with had suggested a few of the things that are being put into place, and we are thankful for that and hope we can be included in future planning.”
Jones stressed the OCHMRA wanted and needed to continue to work with the Mayor and Council and the town’s staff to make sure some of the perception issues turn around.
“We’re here to work with you and we want to be partners,” she said. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to protect Ocean City’s reputation. If that means changes in the way we do business, we understand that.”
COVID Issues Linger
While staff shortages and the perception issues remain in the forefront, the underlying theme thus far this summer are the continued limitations and directives in place regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Resort businesses are practicing social distancing, limiting capacity, having staff wear masks while working and ramping up their sanitation practices. However, Jones said many visitors, some of whom have only recently been released from stay-at-home orders, are less enthusiastic about following the directives and it is creating issues for some businesses. Anecdotally, there have been numerous incidents reported of employees clashing with guests who refuse to wear masks, for example. A lack of respect and rude treatment led to the Alaska Stand on 9th Street closing early on a Sunday in June and kept others from opening at all.
“The pent-up demand is really causing a strain on relations,” she said. “Businesses are seeing a public totally over COVID and not wanting to follow any of the rules. There are business employees who starting to feel their own safety is at stake, so there’s a little bit of that going on.”
Mayor Rick Meehan addressed some of the OCHMRA concerns at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. He agreed there appeared to be an unwillingness among some visitors to follow the CDC and state guidelines still in place for COVID-19.
“We’re hearing a lot of our visitors are over COVID.,” he said. “They’re just happy to be out and about and I realize sometimes that puts pressure on our businesses, our restaurants and bars and other establishments, that are working very hard to adhere to the guidelines. I know that’s very difficult. Sometimes, it’s the customers you have issues with.”
Meehan said most resort businesses are working hard to adhere to the COVID-19 directives and urged visitors to do their part.
“Those things are in place for a specific reason,” he said. “I’ve been out and about like everybody else and most are doing a very good job. They are getting very creative with the ways they are able to distance people and making sure their employees are following the guidelines.”
Meehan pointed out there are some businesses in the resort that have somewhat relaxed their adherence to the directives.
“There are those that aren’t doing it as well as they should be,” he said. “It’s easy to forget all of the work that was done to get everybody open and get everybody back out and enjoying all of the amenities we have. Everybody has to be conscious of that. Everybody has to make sure they are following the guidelines.”
In terms of COVID-19 and the town’s perception problems in the wake of the violent stretch in June, Meehan said the town must find a way to overcome those challenges heading into the heart of the summer season.
“Let’s lead by example,” he said. “Let’s set the tone and let’s make sure we make good on all of the promises that we made in order to get this community back open. I know it’s difficult. I know there are challenges, but we all have to really do everything we can, sometimes even in spite of what some of our customers want us to do.”